Play 'Mystic' for me
Fifteen years after his last turn as Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood comes full circle on theme of violence.
CANNES, FRANCE, AND NEW YORK
He became a movie star playing The Man With No Name; today, his name is known to millions around the globe. But despite decades as an American icon, there's noSkip to next paragraph
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way to slot Clint Eastwood into a Hollywood pigeonhole.
While his persona as the tac
iturn loner remains intact
on-screen, the mature Eastwood - a man comfortable with both ambiguity and complexity - is most evident in his directing projects, notably his newest effort, "Mystic River," which opened this week.
Playing opposite Francis the talking mule doesn't sound like the most auspicious start for an icon. And Eastwood stirred up noisy opposition for his five movies as Harry Callahan, a rogue cop who doesn't hesitate to take the law into his own hands. A key to understanding his career is to see how he's matured and mellowed since those bygone years.
"At the time when 'Dirty Harry' was made, it was thought of as a right-wing, reactionary [film that said] the ends justify the means," says Oscar-winner Brian Helgeland, who penned the screenplay for "Mystic River." " 'Mystic River' is the complete opposite. He's come full circle on that theme.... 'Dirty Harry' ends when [Harry] throws his badge in the water, and I think that would be the middle of the film now.... I don't think [Eastwood's] philosophy has changed so much, but it's the aftermath [of events] that he's interested in now."
That certainly goes for "Mystic River," which deals with disturbing issues like child abuse and vengefulness and has notes of ambiguity that early viewers both cheered and criticized. "As a director he likes to disappear," Mr. Helgeland says. "I admire that, because often 'style' is just manipulation, and ... he doesn't want to tell you what to think."
Talking with Eastwood after the film opened the New York Film Festival last week, I told him how much I enjoyed it. "Thank you very much," he laconically replied. Then he added, after a pause, "I'm not sure 'enjoy' is the right word. We wanted to say some [important] things in this movie. They're not on the surface, but they're there."
How many other Hollywood titans would question the "enjoyment" value of their work? Precious few, and that's another measure of how willing Eastwood is to defy conventional wisdom.
This said, Eastwood has worked in a wide range of Hollywood arenas. He's glided through action, drama, and comedy, inhabiting every kind of character from hard-bitten cowboys and hard-boiled cops to jokers. Not to mention age-defying romantic heroes.
Eastwood's success hasn't stemmed from some indefinable "gift" based on mere instinct. He thinks hard about his projects, and while his characters may be taciturn, that doesn't mean he is.
"As a guy," says Richard Schickel, an Eastwood biographer and film critic for Time magazine, "he's almost a motormouth! He's very shrewd, very funny.... He studied with real Method-type teachers in California, and if you get him on the subject of acting, he's very voluble and has well-defined tastes."
So why doesn't Eastwood appear in "Mystic River"? "There was no role for [someone] my age in the story," he said at the Cannes film festival in May. "It was much more pleasant for me to watch younger players at work."
There may be a deeper reason for his absence. The character he's played most often - a hard, emotionally armored man who eliminates his enemies by any means necessary - doesn't figure in the plot.
Eastwood's fondness for that sort of role has caused skeptical viewers to scoff at his rigidity. Influential critic Pauline Kael famously described him as "a tall, cold cod." But rather than seeing this negatively, others consider Eastwood's screen persona to be a solid artistic creation in itself. "He's gotten a bad rap as an actor," says Mr. Schickel, "because he likes to play taciturn parts. People say he can't or won't do more spacious roles, and he's just playing himself. But he isn't. He's a very serious actor."
Along these lines, critic Amy Taubin interprets the 1993 drama "In the Line of Fire" as a kind of acting duel between Eastwood, as a Secret Service agent, and John Malkovich, as an assassin who's a master of disguise. This format allowed Eastwood skillfully to contrast his deliberately stiff, unyielding performance with Mr. Malkovich's ability to all but vanish into the part he's playing.