Read the profile of Clint Eastwood in acclaimed novelist and back in the day---the day being the 1970s---one of the best new journalists writing Robert Ward’s collection of articles and essays Renegades: My Wild Trip from Professor to New Journalist with Outrageous Visits from Clint Eastwood, Reggie Jackson, Larry Flynt, and other American Icons last night and was surprised by Ward’s approach to the story. Apparently he felt the need to apologize or at least defend himself for liking Eastwood as a person and admiring his work as an actor and he did it by mocking himself for it as he wrote his way into the story. The piece was written for Crawdaddy in 1978 and Ward explains his approach in a postscript:
Clint Eastwood is now such an icon, and so beloved, that hardly anyone remembers the days when he was considered a handsome, stud-muffin with no brains. But as late as 1978 that’s exactly how most of the public and all the movie critics viewed him. Pauline Kael was the main culprit. She considered Dirty Harry a Fascist picture. She thought Eastwood was nothing more than a John Wayne, without talent.
Count me as someone who doesn’t remember those days.
Not saying Ward is wrong. I’m only saying that if it was hip to sneer at Clint, the news never reached me.
Now, I was younger than Ward and ran with a less hip crowd. When Dirty Harry came out my friends and I were still reading comic books and trading baseball cards. The best movie I’d ever seen in a theater was The Love Bug. The first Eastwood movie I saw on a big screen was The Eiger Sanction which I was a little disappointed in because it wasn’t funny. See, I thought of Clint as more of a comic actor.
Eastwood was the star of two of my favorite movies from the stage of my kidhood when I was old enough that my parents would let me stay up late to watch Friday Night at the Movies and I began to appreciate grown-up movies, Kelly’s Heroes and Two Mules for Sister Sarah.
I was similarly underinformed about Paul Newman whom I first got to know in The Secret War of Harry Frigg.
In those days, all I knew of movies that weren’t made by Disney was what I saw on TV.
By 1978 my knowledge and experience going to the movies had both greatly expanded. But I didn’t know to give up my high opinion of the star of two of my favorite movies and although I didn’t see any of his other films besides The Eiger Sanction that was because there was so much to see and catch up on and only so many movies you can go to when you don’t drive and your movie-going depends on your parents’ good will. I’m not sure but I have a feeling the reason I didn’t see a lot of his movies in the 70s is the same reason I didn’t see most of the great movies of the time. My mother decided they were movies I shouldn’t see.
I still don’t know how my father convinced her to let him take me and my kid brother Luke to see M*A*S*H.
If there was a general knock on Clint, I’d have bet that it wasn’t that Eastwood was thought of as a bad actor as that he was thought of as not being as good as the actors whose stars were rising at the same time, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, George Segal, Warren Beatty, Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro, James Caan, Nick Nolte, Richard Dreyfuss, and what’s his name, the guy with the crazy grin? Anjelica Huston’s boyfriend. And that’s just the men. The American men. And when you remember that Paul Newman and Steve McQueen and Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and George C. Scott and Marlon Brando were still in their primes, that’s an amazing amount of talent for Eastwood to have had to compete with.
How did anyone back then have time to do anything except go to the movies?
And what movies!
But Eastwood didn’t make those kind of movies. He made westerns. Even his movies that weren’t westerns were westerns. Dirty Harry was the westernest western that wasn’t a western of them all. So I can see how moviegoers who had gotten used to films like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, An Unmarried Woman, Nashville, Network, Annie Hall, Dog Day Afternoon, Chinatown and every other movie starring Jack Nicholson might have turned up their noses at Thunderbolt and Lightfoot or at any rate decided to give it a pass in favor of half a dozen better choices. And I can see how a dismissal of his movies could turn into a dismissal of Clint himself.
And I sort of recall the fascist label being stuck on Dirty Harry. But I also sort of remember that the reason high-minded liberals were supposed to hate the movie had more to do with its aesthetics than its politics. It glorified violence. I didn’t see it until I was in college and by then the violence seemed pretty tame now that Peckinpah, Coppola, and Scorsese had had their says. As for the supposed fascism, like I said Dirty Harry looked like an updated western to me and the idea of a hero who has to go outside the law to save the day dates back to Robin Hood and was the idea behind Batman, Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and every private eye movie ever made. Dirty Harry just seemed to me to be in the same anti-establishment vein as Chinatown and The Long Goodbye.
All I’m getting at is that I wasn’t aware of what Ward says was the case at the time he went to interview Eastwood. And the key thing to remember when reading his article is that despite the self-mockery, which he dropped fairly quickly, Ward went into it as a true-hearted and longtime Clint Eastwood fan, having been smitten since he and a friend talked themselves into seeing The Good, The Bad and The Ugly for the giggles.
It was very fashionable in those days to put Clint down, to laugh at his movies, his squint, and grimace. I laughed at him myself and made fun of his lack of acting chops with my cool, sophisticated friends.
The only thing wrong with my attitude was I’d never seen any of his pictures.
Finally, while visiting home in Baltimore, I went with a friend, the artist Scott McKenna, to the Towson Theatre to see The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I expected nothing more than a campfest. We’d laugh at the horrible actor, make fun of the rotten Italian western, and go home feeling smug and superior.
Instead, Scott and I sat in our seats without so much as going to get popcorn or even take a piss for nearly three hours.
As we walked out in that special daze great movies put you in, I looked at Scott and said, “I think we’ve just seen one of the best movies of all time.”
Scott nodded, and we spent the rest of the night in a Towson lacrosse bar called The Crease going over the many great parts of the film.
What we both agreed on was that: TGTBATU was one of the great movies, just behind The Wild Bunch in both our estimations. And that Clint Eastwood was a great actor. Pauline Kael didn’t know jackshit about acting or movies. Clint played the piece straight, which made the movie work. Any hint of winking at the audience, or playing it for laughs would have ruined the whole deal.
1978 was fourteen years before Unforgiven but I think it was the 80s that redeemed Eastwood’s reputation, if it needed redeeming. Not only did he continue to direct himself in a slew of good movies, but audiences could see what he’d been up to as actor by comparing what he did in his action-adventure films to what the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger were doing in theirs. Ward would say that that should have been obvious in the 70s to anyone comparing Eastwood’s work to Charles Bronson’s. Still, if there was any lingering contempt among high-brows for Eastwood and his movies, a lot of it must have dissipated by the fall of 1983.
That’s when I was a student sitting in a crowd of students in a theater in a college town getting ready to watch The Big Chill and we were treated to a trailer for Sudden Impact.
Keep in mind that Ronald Reagan hadn’t appropriated the line yet.
When Harry Callahan looked down over the barrel of his Smith & Wesson and squinted essentially into the camera and growled, “Go ahead. Make my day”, the entire crowd broke out into unironic cheers and wild applause.
Photo via Amazon.