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02.23.10

Why Clint Eastwood Is Ridiculously Overrated

After re-watching all 35 Eastwood movies in a new DVD set, Allen Barra marvels at their mundane artlessness and decries Clint worship in all its forms.

Twenty-some years ago, when I worked for the Village Voice, while waiting outside the office of the arts editor, I was astonished to overhear a conference call that included the editor, the Voice's lead film critic, and none other than... Clint Eastwood. He had called to not only thank them for a favorable review but to invite them to a film festival where he was appearing. Surely no Republican was ever so sacred in the pages of the country's best-known boho leftist paper.

Really, how many of these films would you ever want to see again? How many of them did you really think were all that good the first time you saw them, if you saw them?

How, I wondered then, did Clint Eastwood do it? I still wonder. Has any American filmmaker of such mundane talents become not only a mainstream Hollywood icon but the darling of so many Eastern seaboard critics? In a 2002 biography by Patrick McGilligan, Eastwood is quoted as saying sometime in the early '90s, "I will never win an Oscar, and do you know why? First of all, because I'm not Jewish. Secondly, I make too much money for all those old farts in the Academy." Now, after winning more Oscars than Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen—it is probably true, as David Thomson wrote in the third edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film, "Clint Eastwood is among the very few Americans admired and respected at home and abroad, without qualification or irony."

Then, there's no reason why Eastwood should be regarded with more irony than can be found in his films. Last week, Clint Eastwood: 35 Films 35 Years at Warner Bros. was released, "highlighting," as the press release tells us, "the breadth and depth of his work." What is actually highlighted in the collection is how amazingly devoid nearly all of them are from any trace of irony, nuance, or anything that is normally associated with art.

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Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Most of the films in the collection—including those Eastwood directed as well as those in which he appeared as an actor—are notable only for being mind-numbing and calculatingly risk-free. I won't waste time discussing Eastwood as an actor, but will simply say that the man who made him a star, Sergio Leone, had it right more than four decades ago when he compared Eastwood to Robert De Niro: "They don't even belong in the same profession. De Niro throws himself into this or that role, putting on a personality the way someone else might put on his coat... while Eastwood throws himself into a suit of armor and lowers the visor with a rusty clang." Eastwood, said Leone, "Had only two expressions: with or without a hat."

Leone was being generous. If you have a huge chunk of time on your hands, try watching the Leone-Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns and the Dirty Harry films and ask yourself whether it really makes a difference to Eastwood's performance if he's wearing a hat. Then watch the comedies in which he costarred with an orangutan and Tightrope (1984), in which he costarred with Genevieve Bujold, and see if you can detect any variation in Eastwood's performances.

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Theatrical trailer for Tightrope (1984)

It might be argued that scarcely anyone but his most fawning admirers has ever taken Eastwood seriously as an actor and that it's as a director that he has made his real statement, but what if it's true, as David Thomson argues, "As a director he matches his own work as an actor?"—which Thomson intends as a compliment. What is one to make of the score of lead-footed clunkers he has directed over the last four decades? To name just a few (most of which are in the Warner Brothers collection), Breezy (1973), The Eiger Sanction (1975), The Gauntlet (1977), Firefox (1982), Sudden Impact (1983), Heartbreak Ridge (1986), The Rookie (1990), White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), The Bridges of Madison County (1995), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), Absolute Power (1997), True Crime (1999), Space Cowboys (2000), Bloodwork (2002), Flags of Our Fathers (2006), and Changeling (2008).

Really, how many of these films would you ever want to see again? How many of them did you really think were all that good the first time you saw them, if you saw them?

Let's allow Eastwood some points for his early competent reworkings of the suspense and Western genres— The Beguiled (1971), Play Misty for Me (1971), High Plains Drifter (1973)—and for the quirky, heartfelt Bronco Billy (1980) and Honkytonk Man (1982). Give him unqualified praise for Mystic River (2003) as a great film, and not just because of the fine performances by Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, and Laura Linney. Grant him his due for a satisfying piece of oddball melodrama, Million Dollar Baby (2004), in which his direction was equal to the powerhouse performance of its star, Hilary Swank (even if he chose to ignore or simply did not catch some of the darker and more peculiar elements of F.X. Toole's story, on which the film was based).

Then take a second look at the "prestige" pictures on which his reputation is based. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) is most certainly not a story, as David Thomson insists, of a "resolute hero in search of vengeance" but the story of a resolute "Fed-rul guv'mint" (as the phrase is spelled out in the novel) seeking vengeance on an honest Confederate. The film, based on the book written by white racist and former George Wallace speechwriter Asa Carter under the pseudonym of Forrest Carter, glosses over the racism but carefully preserves all the right-wing paranoia and revisionist history of post-Civil War pro-Confederate sympathizers.

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Theatrical trailer for The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Unforgiven (1992) is an Eastern film critic's conception of what the Old West was like in which Eastwood's character, a widower, packs off his kids to the neighbors down the road and goes off to earn a little extra money through freelance killing. Eastwood's most honest biographer, McGilligan, noted "Many critics, because they liked Clint in person as well as on the screen, strove to find artistic merit in his films, even though there emerged a basic contradiction between the films they supported and those that audiences loved. The audiences wanted the omnipotent Clint, while the critics preferred the uncharacteristic films, in which Clint found himself powerless or defeated." And so, in Unforgiven, Eastwood was able to reconcile the two Clints, by first allowing himself to be beaten and humiliated in a manner which would have made a Mel Gibson hero wince and still return to do what The Man With No Name did at the beginning of A Fistful of Dollars, namely kill the bad guys and ride off.

Richard Schickel, who has contributed a 24-page booklet to the Warner Brothers Collection extracted from his upcoming retrospective on Eastwood, sounded the trumpet for Clint worshipers in his 1996 biography, Clint Eastwood: "There are strangers who continue to resent and reject his message" —you get the impression that "his" should be spelled with a capital H. But the power of the doubters "is now greatly diminished, but it is [still there], especially in some of the odder corners of academia, and it is not without its murmuring influence."

Many Eastwood critics, few of them academics, have done a great deal more than just murmur. James Wolcott wrote years ago in Vanity Fair, "The truth is not that Eastwood's films have gotten 'hip,' but that the movie critics have gotten so square." But in recent years, it's Eastwood's films that have become "square." In 1971, in a review of Dirty Harry, Pauline Kael famously noted that "The action genre has always had a fascist potential, and it surfaces in this movie." Dirty Harry (directed by Don Siegel with uncredited dialogue by the notorious John Milius) was, she wrote, "A remarkably single-minded attack on liberal values, with each prejudicial detail in place, a kind of hard-hat The Fountainhead."

Almost as if in direct response to Kael's criticism, the master, late in life, seems to have transformed himself. In such recent films as Flags of Our Fathers, Changeling, Gran Torino (2008) and last year's Invictus, he has taken on such big social issues as discrimination against American Indians, child abuse, gang violence, and apartheid—and guess what? He's strongly against all of them.

From the Dirty Harry Callahan that Thomson called "a tortured vision of conservative ideals at a breaking point," Eastwood has morphed into Hollywood's leading purveyor of liberal pieties. He's become the Stanley Kramer of the 21st century with one major difference: When Kramer came out against such evils as segregation, fundamentalist attacks on evolution, and nuclear proliferation, they were at least still controversial. Eastwood's late career pattern has been to come down firmly on the side of issues that have been decided for decades. Eastwood might not have become the cultural institution we now know, but he probably would have been a much better filmmaker if he had followed the advice he offered as Dirty Harry, "A man should know his own limitations."

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Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and The Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.