Play 'Mystic' for me

Fifteen years after his last turn as Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood comes full circle on theme of violence.

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 no

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.

As a director, Eastwood lets actors follow their own ideas of how to create their characterizations - a habit his colleagues enjoy as much as he does. "Most of us would read the phonebook for Clint," said "Mystic" actress Laura Linney at Cannes.

Kevin Bacon, who plays a policeman in "Mystic River," says he was struck by Eastwood's decision to give the last scene an open-ended quality that called for an unusual acting approach.

"I asked the boss what I was supposed to be playing there," Bacon said over lunch at Cannes, "and he didn't give me an answer. He said, 'I think it's up to the audience.' ... I can't think of another director in the studio system who challenges those kinds of rules."

Eastwood's wish to cultivate an actively thinking audience - rather than a passively consuming one - dates back at least as far as "Bird," his 1988 movie about Charlie Parker, the legendary alto-sax player. "You don't necessarily say what's right or wrong," he said in a Monitor interview when "Bird" was released. "You just give several points of view. I love the audience to work with you. Rather than be condescending or just give 'em a story with an ending, I love 'em to think about it."

Another of Eastwood's habits is to film only a few "takes" of each scene, unlike most directors, who want multiple versions to choose from for the final cut. "There's zero rehearsal," Mr. Bacon says, "and maybe two or three takes. When people hear that, [they think] it implies a hurried, rushed kind of atmosphere. But the truth is that it's very, very relaxed - the most relaxed I've ever been in, because it's so well prepared."

Tim Robbins, who plays a deeply troubled man in "Mystic River," agrees.

His character, Robbins said at Cannes, was "a dark place to go to." But, he continued, "the good news is that the way Clint works is so confident and efficient.... It became easier to go there than it would have been had I thought I was going to do 20 takes. You have to [hold some emotions back] when you're going to do it that often. When you know you're doing it once or twice, it's all out there every time."

Eastwood's career hasn't always thrived on going against the grain. He started as an actor in low-budget 1950s quickies like "Tarantula," about a giant sci-fi spider, and "Francis in the Navy," starring a talking mule.

His breakthrough came as the aptly named Rowdy Yates in "Rawhide," the TV series where he honed his knowledge of the western genre. His career skyrocketed in the '60s with a series of Italian movies - derisively called "spaghetti westerns" when they were released - culminating in his third portrayal of The Man With No Name in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

Schickel sees a distinctively American mind set in Eastwood's philosophy.

Pointing to "Mystic River" and the Oscar-winning western "Unforgiven" as two of his best and most characteristic films, Schickel says Eastwood is "drawn to themes that have to do with how the past impinges on the present. We [Americans] have a short history, and we worry a lot about it. Clint does that as well."

Nothing is more American than jazz, and that's another central influence on Eastwood's life and work. His practice of filming most scenes in a handful of takes reveals a wish to capture the spontaneous, mercurial moods of first-rate jazz. "He's very serious about it," agrees Schickel, "and he might rather have been a jazz [musician] than an actor. He's a wonderful pianist - at least it sounds good to me!"

Jazz inflects Eastwood's themes as well as his directorial style. "To some degree he still thinks of himself as kind of an outsider," Schickel says, "and jazz guys are outsiders.... Clint identifies with that."

Not every Eastwood film is a major event, as even his supporters acknowledge. Still, the consistency of his success speaks for itself, and the current acclaim for "Mystic River" suggests that people are responding favorably to the increasing thoughtfulness of his work.

"It's only lately that people are forgiving him for the spaghetti westerns," says Schickel, "and for the allegedly fascist filmmaking in 'Dirty Harry.' I think the spaghettis are among his best work as an actor, though - they're far better than most of the American films that were [being made] then. As far as I'm concerned, he has nothing to beg forgiveness for."

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