Clint Eastwood Biography

Part 4 of 6

Man of Action

"Action is character," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his notebook when he was trying to master the screenwriter's trade. But that is not always true. Sometimes in the movies, action is just action, and therefore becomes a frustration to players who regard themselves primarily as character actors.

"I've never thought of myself as a leading man," Clint Eastwood once said, somewhat surprisingly, "though I guess at one time I was considered one... being one of the young guys boppin' around town on a television series. But I always tried to be a character actor even then."

Maintaining this identity was hard for Clint-casting directors couldn't see beyond his good looks. Later, when he had established himself with Rawhide and the spaghetti westerns, agents and studio bosses wanted him to play straightforward heroic leads. That's where the money is, after all. For a time, he obliged them--with Where Eagles Dare, Kelly's Heroes, The Eiger Sanction--though he always alternated these big pictures with smaller, anti-heroic ventures like The Beguiled and Play Misty for Me (the first film he directed).

The more expensive, expansive films fulfilled their function of helping to establish Clint's credentials as a star who could carry a big movie. Yet he always seems shy, almost self-effacing in these contexts, an actor more serious about his craft than he sometimes chooses to let on, in search of an author capable of giving him a real character to play. These movies--among which one should probably list Joshua Logan's actionless but pricey musical, Paint Your Wagon--wear poorly precisely because they do not intelligently count the costs of heroism, of machismo, if you will. This is a subject that deeply interests Clint Eastwood, though it is not something he talks about much. But in these pictures, it is just an unexamined premise.

Clint meant to look into this matter more deeply in his own Firefox, but plot and special effects largely overrode his efforts. He did much better a little later with Heartbreak Ridge, which raucously, yet poignantly, asks what a lifelong soldier is supposed to do when he gets too old to fight in wars that are increasingly meaningless anyway. The same is true of White Hunter, Black Heart, in which a macho movie director must reexamine the noisy, careless audacity by which he has lived his life and managed his career. In these movies, the character actor has real characters to play--characters that in some ways subvert, or at least cause us to question, common (and superficial) assumptions about Clint Eastwood's image. In his mind he has never been an action star any more than he has been a leading man, and without talking about it directly, he would like us to understand that.