Clint Eastwood Biography

Part 6 of 6

Behind the Camera

Directing for most movie stars is a sometimes thing, and more often than not is a form of self-indulgence. For Clint Eastwood, directing was something he was determined to do from his earliest days as an actor, and something he now perhaps needs to do more urgently than he needs to act. Woody Allen aside, no star has directed more often than he has--20 films--or with greater professionalism of the old-fashioned kind, which specifically rejects pride of auteurship. He is always on budget and usually ahead of schedule. Actors love working with him because, being an actor himself, he allows them to find their own way with just the occasional, supportive suggestion.

Clint learned to direct mainly by watching. Directors would come and go on Rawhide, the old pros and the young hotshots, the hacks and the caring craftsmen-and he studied them all. "The things that impress you, you remember and use yourself," he has said, "and the things that don't impress you, you discard." Clint completed his education with Sergio Leone, whose talent for panorama admired, and with Don Siegel, the veteran American action director with whom he made five films. Unforgiven, the picture for which Clint won his directorial Oscar, is appropriately dedicated "To Sergio and Don."

Of the two directors, the latter proved to be the more important influence. Clint, who is an impatient man, easily bored on a set, particularly loved Siegel's quickness. "He knew exactly what he wanted to shoot, and he would do no more. His influence on me was being decisive in what you want to do and what your program is for the film. He was terrific that way." Siegel, like most of the great American directors of the classic age, was a vernacularist, a man who worked in the humblest genres--westerns, crime stories, science fiction. He cook strength from their sturdy conventions, while imparting to them freshness, energy, and conviction, through his efficient staging, his brisk cutting, his inherent belief in the viability of the action tradition.

Most of Clint's work has developed along these same lines. He started small with Play Misty for Me, a solid, scary story of obsessional love that he shot near his home in Carmel with a tiny cast (for luck, and in case he needed guidance he had Siegel play a small role in it). Next came Breezy, a sweet little May-September romance that starred William Holden and Kay Lent. He directed two other slightly more expansive films (High Plains Drifter and The Eiger Sanction) before tackling his first epic, The Outlaw Josey Wales, which is both a wonderfully confident film and the film that established beyond any doubt his credentials as a major director.


In the years since, Clint has directed just about every kind of movie--westerns, comedies, cop dramas, even a biopic--and it would be easy to categorize him simply as a genre director. But neither Pale Rider nor Unforgiven is a conventional western; Bronco Billy is unlike most contemporary comedies in both tone and topic; The Gauntlet, with its befuddled, loser hero, unlike most cop pictures; Bird, much darker, less celebratory and sentimental than most movie biographies of artists. Maybe Honkytonk Man is a road picture, maybe at heart Heartbreak Ridge is a service comedy, White Hunter, Black Heart, a safari adventure, The Bridges of Madison County, an old-fashioned romance. But none fits neatly into a broad genre category.

Bird and Unforgiven are the most profoundly surprising and the most personal of his films. The former, a biography of Charlie Parker, the self-taught, self-destructive musician making his way up out of rural poverty to play his revolutionary music in the jazz clubs during the '40s and '50s, is Clint's weightiest movie. At once compassionate and objective, the film provides a meditation on the life and work of an artist that the director, himself a self-taught musician and a passionate devotee of modern jazz, admired from the first moment he heard him in concert in 1946. It pays full tribute to the man's genius and the sweetness of his spirit, yet offers no easy excuses or sentimental explanations for his suicidal behavior. Bird is ultimately as Clint sees it, a tragedy about a man refusing to take responsibility for himself and his gifts--a quality that often elicits Clint's puzzled reflections, precisely because it is the opposite of his own way.

Unforgiven can be read as a movie in which Clint acknowledges responsibility for certain aspects of his own life. In essence, it is a story about the ways that men drift into violence--through misunderstanding, through careless machismo, through misplaced pride and moral rigidity--and the costs, unacknowledged in most movies, including (as he said when he was making it) some of Clint's own, of that behavior. It represents not an act of atonement, but rather a statement of self-awareness-brooding, ambiguous and, in the history of the western, quite singular in its immensity of emotion.

All of the films Clint has directed have in common a certain style and attitude-more of the latter than the former. In general, they possess a sort of unforced naturalism of manner that is glad to bend, even break, with strict realism as well as with strict generic conventions. Clint, the jazz aficionado, likes to riff, comedically or melodramatically, on a theme. He likes to do it straight-faced, effortlessly, without giving the audience a lot of warning or a lot of explanation when he does. Many times people miss the humor in what he does or the serious note he will sometimes strike without making too much of it. At heart, he is a subversive--an elusive director who does not care to be understood too quickly, who actually prefers not to let his hand show at all. That, too, follows in the old, pre-auteur tradition of American movie craftsmanship.