Magnum Farce

Maybe Clint Eastwood’s not such an ironist after all.

Clint Eastwood: A Biography

By Richard Schickel

Knopf; 557 pages; $27.50

For the past week, I’ve been driving people nuts with my Clint Eastwood impression. I don’t do an especially good one, but then, Eastwood is not especially difficult to do. You lower your voice, pull it back into your throat so that it’s breathy, verging on a rasp and yet smooth, almost plangent, then expel the line from The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) addressed to the bounty hunter who insists that he’s only trying to make a living, “Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy.” It’s a bedroom voice, menacing but seductive, with over-deliberate diction that implies, “I’m so powerful, so coiled, so masculine that I have to modulate my tone–or else.” Eastwood’s most famous Dirty Harryisms–“Ask yourself, ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” and “Go ahead, make my day”–are purring come-ons: The bad guy is practically compelled to submit to this tall, handsome killer with his long Magnum pistol. Submit, in many cases, by going for his gun and getting blown into orgasmic nonexistence.

Eastwood has one of the great movie voices of our era, but it’s also kind of ridiculous. Probably no star could get away with it if he weren’t such an image of cool, as beautiful and remote and self-contained as Garbo or Chet Baker. What has enraptured so many critics, among them Richard Schickel in Clint Eastwood: A Biography, is that the actor-director has learned to play with his own inexpressiveness–to make a joke of his frigid machismo without (and here’s where the supreme balancing act comes in) travestying it. Eastwood, in this view, contains within himself both the myth and the anti-myth. I think that he’s a fine, lightweight comic presence at times (his scowl is a psychotic version of a comedian’s classic slow burn), but Schickel goes further. He calls Eastwood “one of the great ironists of the age” and a “postmodern” hero: “Clint’s gift,” he writes, forever on a first-name basis with his subject, “is to let us see the dark comedy in the American male’s contorting, distorting attempts to achieve his masteries of the moment while at the same time not entirely discrediting the tradition that makes him bid that effort.”

Whew: That’s some gift. Schickel is alternately sycophantic (toward Eastwood) and pugilistic (toward any critic who has ever had unkind words for the actor–particularly Pauline Kael, who did seem to have a mission to make the tall man’s Magnum shrivel). The book has the breathless indulgence of a campaign biography (“Clint’s lack of selfishness, his predilection for throwing scenes to other actors–partly out of generosity, partly out of a serene confidence in the force of his own presence … “). In the end, Schickel seems happiest simply basking in the star’s aura, preferring the company of Eastwood “in the fading light of certain wintry afternoons” to trudging around and interviewing anyone with a different version of events or a contrasting point of view.

That doesn’t surprise me, since contrasting points of view don’t make it into Eastwood’s movies, either, which is why I have some trouble accepting this notion of the actor-director as an “ironist.” In the Dirty Harry movies or the rabidly right-wing 1986 HeartbreakRidge (which ends with a potency-reclaiming invasion of Grenada), there’s little irony in Eastwood’s superiority to the succession of louts, prisses, and psychopaths whom his character inevitably clobbers or blows away, or in the fact that he is of greater stature than the actors with whom he surrounds himself. Eastwood might acknowledge the faint absurdity of these heroes, but none is ever ultimately proved wrong. Even the hell-bound William Munny in the compelling Unforgiven (1992)–who does, admittedly, shoot a rather nice young cowboy in the gut, but instantly regrets it–ends up killing the sort of people who, when all is said and done, need killing.

W hen Schickel stops duking it out with Eastwood’s antagonists, his analyses can be trenchant. He’s especially evocative on the three “spaghetti Westerns” that Eastwood made with Sergio Leone, for whom the actor forged his amusingly taciturn on-screen persona. Leone, Schickel writes, developed a style that alternated cunningly between extreme wide shots and extreme close-ups partly in an effort to monumentalize Eastwood’s face; the director’s mise en scène became “a landscape of masks.” But then it’s back to the issue of “irony,” and Schickel’s evasions can make your jaw drop. The rousing Dirty Harry (1971) is inarguably a template for the modern, right-wing vigilante picture, replete with digs at Miranda rights, due process, and the burgeoning civil-liberties movement. Yet here is Schickel, quoting Eastwood’s insistence that the film has no larger political agenda: “It’s just the story of one particular police officer in a frustrating situation on one particular case.” (And Willie Horton is just some guy.) The author concludes, “It is as a rule absurd, and utterly unrealistic, to see ideological motives, let alone ideological malevolence” in action pictures; he is conveniently omitting any reference here to Eastwood’s pal John Milius, the gleeful liberal-basher who scripted many of the banner lines in Dirty Harry and Magnum Force (1973). Of The Enforcer (1976), Schickel notes, “Certainly today, attitudes having radically changed, Clint would retract [the movie’s] casual contempt for homosexuals, admittedly a feature of his early action films.” That would be mighty white of him! And for this biographer, “one of the most tasteful campaigns in the history of modern American politics”–Eastwood’s run, as a property-rights Republican, for mayor of Carmel, Calif.–was one in which the star likened a civic ordinance that would ban second kitchens to “Adolf Hitler knocking on your door.”

OK, so Eastwood’s not a rocket scientist. But Schickel does seem to see him as some sort of Delphic oracle, and his attempts to translate the man’s monosyllabic pronouncements make for hilarity: ” ‘Women,’ Clint says, a sort of sad befuddlement in his tone, ‘always want to know what you’re thinking.’ ” Schickel enlarges: “It is a mystery to him, this desire to penetrate the deepest reserves of his privacy. It is equally a mystery to him why anyone would think that bringing things up out of this murk and discussing them would profit either party. At our cores, he believes, for whatever reason, we are what we are, and there is nothing much to be done about that–beyond simply accepting the hard facts of personality.”

“We are what we are, and there is nothing much to be done about that” doesn’t make for a very interesting aesthetic, and Eastwood’s dry, dodgy movies (Schickel touts “their directness of address, their plainspoken psychological realism”) bear the stamp of this shrunken worldview. A psychiatrist could make the case that the star’s legendary promiscuity, with its attendant insulation and fear of commitment, has artistic consequences. Compare Eastwood with Charlie Parker, for instance, whom Eastwood idolizes and about whom he made the reverent biopic Bird (1988). The English writer Daniel O’Brien, in his modest, more objective new book, Clint Eastwood Film-Maker, suggests that Eastwood wouldn’t actually put up with Parker for a second: The saxophonist’s unruly passion, his commitment to his art, is the antithesis of Eastwood’s manly, frugal, shoot-it-and-move-on way of working. But Schickel is starry-eyed. He compares the films (and Eastwood’s masculine posing) to the modern-jazz manner, “a powerful desire–almost amounting to a morality–not to woo the audience … a profound desire not to make what he does look costly to him, emotionally or intellectually.”

One could argue that Eastwood has merely masked his inadequacies as artistic choices. But I wouldn’t want to go too far. I frequently enjoy his movies, and there’s no arguing with the fact that his stardom has endured for more than three decades. There might be a kind of genius here, but it’s the genius of a seducer, not an artist. Eastwood makes use of the traditional tools–his size, his handsomeness, the aura of mystery he so manifestly cultivates. But the seduction also occurs in unexpected ways. Reading the book, I found myself conscious of, and moved by, the ways in which Schickel has been drawn in by Eastwood, compelled to fill all kinds of sad, moody spaces. The author doesn’t simply idolize his subject, he feels he needs to cover for Eastwood’s failures and rationalizations the way one might for an absent or inadequate father. Above all, he wants us to see the star as misunderstood, under unfair attack from all sides–the women who demand something more than his sexual favors, the liberal media with its shrill feminists and snobby elitists.

In an age when Ronald Reagan has slipped into the haze of Alzheimer’s disease, when Susan Faludi writes movingly of males clinging to stereotypical notions of machismo as they’re laid off their factory jobs and symbolically robbed of potency, it can put a lump in your throat to watch Schickel building–like the hero in Field of Dreams–a shrine to the Dad whom so many elements of the culture have come to undervalue. Eastwood’s decision to play dumb, in films like The Gauntlet (1977) and BroncoBilly (1980), was a shrewd one. It allows Schickel to write lines like, “A rude beast has been perceived slouching toward the Bethlehem of the New Masculinity, waiting to be reborn in more cuddlesome form.”

It also, to be fair, means that Eastwood can go where the Sylvester Stallones and Arnold Schwarzeneggers and Steven Seagals daren’t. His performance as Frank Horrigan, an aging Secret Service agent, in In The Line of Fire (1993), was the most affecting he has ever given–a fallen stereotype, a glimpse of the human caught in the pose. But does the film subvert Eastwood’s on-screen persona, as Schickel argues it does? How? He bests the bureaucratic fools. He outwits the psychotic assassin. He beds the young, beautiful woman. Do Eastwood’s other movies really subvert the whole action genre? Compared with Charles Bronson’s, maybe. Munny’s assertion, in Unforgiven, that “it’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s ever gonna have,” was hailed by some critics as a brave line for Eastwood to utter, given that he has dispatched so many anonymous thugs so offhandedly for so many years. Brave, but hypocritical. Eastwood did more to make killing casual than anyone in mainstream cinema. He paved the way for the Bronsons and Chuck Norrises and Seagals and Jean-Claude Van Dammes and all the other righteous slayers of post-midnight cable-movie-channel programming. Will history judge the hero of Richard Schickel’s Boswellian tome as “ironic” and “postmodern”? Or as an enlightened Neanderthal, profitably pretending to evolve?