Here are a couple of things about Clint Eastwood that might surprise most people:
1. He’s not particularly enamored of guns.
2. One of his best friends is a major film critic.
Now, considering that he rode to fame on a horse, blowing away five bad guys at a time with a single-action Colt .45, and then drove on to superstardom in an unmarked police car, single-handedly offing whole gangs of robbers with a .44 magnum (“the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off”), bringing an avalanche of criticism down on his sandy-haired head in the early days of his career, with accusations of fascist politics and being possessed of no creative ambition beyond making lucrative, violent action flicks, you have to ask yourself: Do I know how he became one of the most respected filmmakers in the world in his later years?
Well, do ya, punk?
Film critic Richard Schickel knows. He’s followed Eastwood’s career not only as a journalist but as a close friend of 34 years.
chronicles Eastwood’s journey, from the actor’s first bit part in “Revenge of the Creature” (1955) through his latest directorial effort, the Nelson Mandela biopic “Invictus,” in a sumptuously illustrated, 288-page book, “Clint: A Retrospective,” published in March by Sterling Publishing ($35).
A 24-page excerpt from the book can be found in a new DVD box set, “Clint Eastwood: 35 Films, 35 Years at Warner Bros.,” which was released in February. Containing 34 of Eastwood’s Warner films, from “Where Eagles Dare” (1968) through “Gran Torino” (2008), plus a 22-minute, Schickel-directed documentary, “The Eastwood Factor,” it is the largest box set ever dedicated to a single artist. Suggested retail price: $179.98.
Schickel met him in 1976, the year Eastwood directed and starred in the now-classic Western “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”
“It just sort of grew like friendships do,” Schickel said in a recent phone interview from his Los Angeles home. “We hang out a certain amount of time; we talk a lot on the phone because I’m in L.A., and he’s largely in Carmel when he’s not doing postproduction or whatever. So, when he’s in town, we often have dinner or something like that.”
When asked what Eastwood is like offscreen, Schickel‘s instant response is, “Well, he’s not Dirty Harry, I’ll tell you that.
“Clint has a good, low-key sense of humor. He’s a very ironic sort of a guy. He’s always open to the oddnesses that we all encounter in life and takes a sort of amused interest in them. You know he is a hard-working man, there’s no question about that. On the other hand, it seems to me that he paces himself very well through life. He gets a lot of work out, but I would never call him a workaholic.”
Schickel said Eastwood sets aside plenty of time to be with his wife of 14 years, Dina, and his younger children, and loves to “goof around playing golf or traveling.”
As a friend, Schickel describes him as “dutiful” and “loyal.”
“He’s the kind of man who, if he makes a commitment, whether to make a personal appearance or have dinner, he will be there. I mean there’s never any last-minute feeble excuses.”
On Eastwood the artist, Schickel speaks from 43 years of experience as a film critic for Time and Life magazines and as an award-winning documentary filmmaker, expressing the utmost admiration and appreciation for most of Eastwood’s work (with the exceptions of “Firefox” (1982), “The Rookie” (1990) and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” (1997), which he considers to be directorial missteps).
He especially holds 1971′s “Dirty Harry”— directed by Eastwood mentor Don Siegel — in high regard, despite criticism from many quarters that it was an excessively violent, “fascist” statement.
“I think he’s had an honorable career,” Schickel said. “Even ‘Dirty Harry’ is in a certain sense an el primo genre movie. I mean, it’s about a tough cop. There’s a lot of movies about tough cops, (but) there’s a lot of soulfulness in ‘Dirty Harry.’ He’s a lonely guy. He has trouble relating with women.”
Schickel also thinks “Dirty Harry,” like many of Eastwood’s films, demonstrates the horrific consequences of violence rather than glorifying it.
“Like most Americans, if you believe the polls, he’s not a gun freak,” Schickel said. “It kind of comes up in ‘White Hunter, Black Heart.’ The character he’s playing in that wants to shoot this elephant. He says, ‘I don’t really understand that. I never shoot guns except pretend guns in movies. I don’t hunt animals.’
“And I think that’s a mainstream American view. He’s come out on subjects like abortion rights, and that’s a mainstream American view. He’s fiscally conservative, he’s for balanced budgets and so forth, but socially he’s kind of liberal-minded, which I kind of think America is, actually. There’s a lot of stir and kerfuffle about tea parties and stuff like that, but most Americans aren’t that way. Those are distinctly minority views.”
And Schickel thinks Eastwood’s mainstream philosophies shine through in his characters and his films, partially accounting for his tremendous and long-lasting popularity with the moviegoing public.
“I think that appeals to people. I think he’s low-key and sensible and not an ideologue, and all that appeals.”
But Eastwood also applies his low-key approach to acting, which apparently doesn’t appeal to Oscar voters, who have awarded his directorial talents (“Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby”) but continually passed him over for a best actor trophy.
“Everybody won Oscars for that (‘Million Dollar Baby’). Hilary Swank did. Morgan (Freeman) did. (Eastwood’s) was a terrific performance. I don’t quite understand that prejudice, because the thing about Clint is that he loves actors and acting and being around actors. … They don’t quite want to acknowledge his expertise as an actor.”
Schickel said Eastwood’s acting style is understated and subtle — maybe too subtle for Academy voters’ tastes.
“He’s not a guy who rips and tears and snorts a lot.”
And that’s another trait that makes Eastwood such good company, onscreen and off, according to the critic.
“He manages all this stuff with considerable grace and good humor,” Schickel said. “He’s a very good friend, I think. I mean, he’s very loyal. … Amongst my circle of friends, I really count him as a major friend.”