Almost exactly ten years ago, I published an article on Clint Eastwood in COMMENTARY entitled “The World’s Favorite Movie Star.” Eastwood’s huge success, I noted there, was based on a role he had played throughout his entire career: the enforcer of law and justice. In movie after movie, whether as a cowboy or as a police detective, whether acting within the law or as a vigilante, the Eastwood character used force with no compunction in order to ensure that the innocent were saved and the guilty punished. He did this in Italian-made “spaghetti Westerns,” in innumerable later Westerns, and in the celebrated Dirty Harry series (“Make my day”). In other movies Eastwood played a commando lieutenant (Where Eagles Dare), an Air Force pilot flying over the Soviet Union (Firefox), and a Marine Corps sergeant (Heartbreak Ridge), still using deadly force, now for his country.
In that article I also said that Eastwood, “to judge by his films, has never had the slightest doubt as to the legitimacy of the use of force in the service of justice, even rudimentary justice.” And I added, “Perhaps Eastwood’s determination to see predators punished is so deeply ingrained that he doesn’t even think of it as political.”
At the time I wrote this passage, film critics (as I also noted) despised Eastwood’s work with a rare intensity. They made no mention of the fact that they disagreed with his social and political ideas, merely stating on artistic grounds that he was an appalling actor and that his films were even more appalling. So great was the institutional hostility to him that Eastwood had had to become the world’s most famous and most highly paid movie star before Hollywood would even touch him.
But now all has changed. Today Eastwood is the darling of the critics (as also of President Clinton). Once again, of course, the judgments are offered on purely artistic grounds, only now those judgments are rapturous. Clint Eastwood, for years declared so talentless, a national embarrassment, has been discovered to have absolutely remarkable artistic gifts as both an actor and a director.
Thus, the critic for the New York Times hailed Eastwood’s most recent movie, A Perfect World, directed by Eastwood and co-starring him and Kevin Costner, as “majestic” and “profoundly moving.” Other major critics called it “a triumph,” “brilliant,” “revelatory,” “masterful,” “original,” “thrilling,” “stunning,” and “extraordinary.” In New York magazine, Eastwood as a director was praised as “a reflective and moving artist, a classical master.”
What is going on? The fact is that Clint Eastwood has been on a spiritual voyage, and is now reaping its rewards. The voyage began in 1988 with Bird, a film directed by Eastwood and based on the life of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. Eastwood had always loved jazz, and the film was a tribute of sorts. But it was also deeply out of character, at least remote from the kind of subject matter he had regularly chosen for his movies. It was a commercial failure.
Two years later Eastwood both directed and starred in another out-of-character film, White Hunter, Black Heart. This movie was based on a 1953 novel by Peter Viertel, itself inspired by the personality of the legendary film director John Huston and by Huston’s experiences in Africa shooting The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Eastwood played Huston as a heavy-drinking, macho, far-from-agreeable character—but also as a character of some complexity. White Hunter, Black Heart was also a commercial failure.
And then in 1992 came Unforgiven. Produced and directed by Eastwood, and with Eastwood in the leading role, Unforgiven garnered rave reviews, was nominated for no fewer than nine Academy Awards, and won four, including Best Picture (given to producer Eastwood) and Best Director (given to director Eastwood). Eastwood himself was also nominated for Best Actor. For a man who in his whole life had never won a single award anywhere for anything, and who the cultivated public had been led to believe did not have a grain of talent, this was an interesting turn of events.
Eastwood, in fact, had gone to Canossa. If Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart were straws in the wind, Unforgiven was a full-scale, systematic act of contrition, a repudiation and dismantling of the whole legendary, masculine character type of which, for this generation, Eastwood himself had become the leading icon.
In the film’s opening frames, we learn that the character played by Eastwood, a famous ex-gunslinger, had been “saved” by the love of a good woman, now passed on. The ex-gunslinger is now pretty much down on his luck, wrestling ingloriously with hogs on his miserable little farm. A young cowboy appears, very admiring of this hero for his daring feats of yesteryear, but the gunslinger, whose manner is strangely fearful, explains that in those days he was far from brave, only drunk, and that he is now deeply ashamed of his former thuggish behavior. The main plot is set in motion when, in a nearby brothel, a prostitute’s face is cut by a drunken rancher, and the other prostitutes pool their savings and offer a bounty for killing the rancher who did it. The Eastwood character, quivering with fear, is induced to go after the bounty because he needs the money.
Eastwood’s principal adversary in the film is the sheriff, played by Gene Hackman, a man absolutely fearless and thoroughly evil. Curiously, when it comes to Unforgiven‘s men, cowardice seems rather a virtue. Fear is not only understood and tolerated in this movie, but timorousness in the face of danger seems to have a positive moral quality. Although the plot is tricked out so that—defensively—Eastwood wins the final gunfight, the audience is left with an emphatic message: the gunslingers of the old West like Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday, and Wyatt Earp—in real life roughnecks at best, but admired by generations of Americans for their reckless bravery—were very, very bad men.
Between Unforgiven and his newest movie, A Perfect World, Eastwood made one more film, In the Line of Fire. There, it is true, he again took up his role as a masculine enforcer. But in today’s Hollywood, men intent on punishing evildoers (rather than seeking the “root causes” for their antisocial behavior) are not really respectable. Good policemen are out. Good FBI men are out. Good military men are out. The CIA is obviously out, as are the DEA, ATF, and even the NSA. (Somewhat implausibly, Robert Redford had cast members of the National Security Agency as covert-action villains in his vaguely comic Sneakers.) That left the Secret Service.
Here was the perfect role for the new Clint Eastwood. He could carry a gun, be strong and brave, but demonstrate his valor in a purely defensive role, protecting the life of the President of the United States. Yet even here there was a feminist twist. In the movie, Eastwood saves the President’s life, but a female Secret Service officer, played by Rene Russo, saves Eastwood’s life.
In the Line of Fire owes much to a spectacular performance by John Malkovich as the assassin determined to kill the President. Malkovich has been “taught to kill” by his former employer, the CIA (needless to say), and in the course of the plot Eastwood has a violent run-in with the CIA. He insults the CIA men gratuitously, sneering, “What are you up to now? Running coke for the contrast Running arms for Iran?”
A Perfect World begins in Texas with a prison breakout. Butch (Kevin Costner), doing 40 years for armed robbery, escapes and with another escaping convict takes prisoner a seven-year-old boy to hold as hostage. Now this might be thought a dastardly thing to do, but as we learn in the movie, Butch’s mother was a prostitute in the New Orleans French Quarter, and he himself had a dreadful childhood, which turns out to explain everything. Butch and his partner kill a prison guard during their escape, and when the partner behaves in an odious way, Butch has to kill him, too. But Butch is still an amiable, even lovable person, and his tendency to kill people is obviously the result of the psychic wounds received in childhood.
Butch is particularly affectionate with children, and very protective of them, and he builds an emotional relationship of such depth with little Philip, his hostage, that soon Philip loves Butch more than he loves his mother. Butch gives Philip the opportunity to run off, but Philip will not do it. He cannot bear to leave Butch.
But then Philip, the boy, also comes from an abominable family. Philip’s mother is a fundamentalist, a very strict Jehovah’s Witness. The story begins on Halloween, and she will not even allow Philip to go trick-or-treating. She also does not allow him to eat cotton candy, ride on roller coasters, or do anything else that makes life worth living. In contrast, Butch, our escaped convict, strongly supports trick-or-treating on Halloween, roller coasters, and cotton candy.
Out to capture Butch are a team of law-enforcement officers, some of whom play an important pedagogical role. There is, for example, a cold, murderous FBI man. The movie is set in Texas in 1963—for atmosphere, two weeks before John F. Kennedy’s assassination—so our FBI man’s vicious character is plainly to be laid at the door of J. Edgar Hoover. Also on the law-enforcement team is Laura Dern, who plays a psychological consultant to the Texas Rangers, and is sexually harassed by the FBI man. (She harasses him back, and later knees him in the groin.) Clint Eastwood himself plays the head of the Texas Rangers. Like the FBI man, he, too, is a male chauvinist pig, and very insulting to Laura Dern—at least in the beginning. But it seems he has a learner’s permit in political correctness; the audience is supposed to identify with Eastwood and, as he grows and changes, to grow and change along with him.
And so the film, with its multiple lessons to teach, unfolds at an excruciatingly slow pace, with lame dialogue and little action. At the end Butch is run to ground, shot dead (in contravention of Eastwood’s orders) by the malignant FBI man, and a grief-stricken Philip is returned to his mother.
This is the movie that has sent the critics into ecstasies. But audiences are a different story. The American people, as it happens, have been giving A Perfect World the death of a thousand cuts. It opened coast-to-coast in 2,000 movie houses, and in its first week took in over $13 million. But in the weeks immediately following, despite delirious reviews everywhere and massive advertising, the total box office fell rapidly to $7 million, then $4 million, then to somewhere between $2 million and $1 million. For a big-budget movie with two of Hollywood’s top stars to lose some 90 percent of its audience in a mere three weeks is an achievement.
“Just about everyone in Hollywood was convinced that the film A Perfect World would emerge a winner. How could it miss?” So opened a news story in the New York Times chronicling the fiasco at the box office. After the fact, of course, just about everyone in Hollywood had a perfectly clear explanation of why A Perfect World was bound to miss. Audiences were expecting an “action” movie. Child abduction is a delicate subject. The stars were not available for promotion. The movie marketplace is too competitive. And, my own favorite, A Perfect World mixes discordant genres, being a cross between a “think” movie and a “nobrainer.”
I have yet to encounter an explanation of this movie’s failure which suggests there was something about the story that audiences actively disliked, or which takes note of the transformation that has occurred in Clint Eastwood.
In a recent op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal, the British historian Paul Johnson wrote that democracy is skidding in the United States (and Britain) because the government is failing to maintain internal order. The American people, he wrote, do not want to “understand” criminals. They are not even much interested in reforming them. They want to see them punished as severely and cheaply as possible, and they want habitual and violent criminals to be taken out of society altogether, preferably for good.
But this conviction runs up against the much more liberal attitudes of people in the judiciary and certain other branches of government, attitudes that are also strong in the media elite. Although, wrote Johnson, liberal solutions to crime have been tested to a fare-thee-well and have “failed everywhere, overwhelmingly and manifestly,” in these circles they are still adhered to as “a religion, an article of faith, born of conviction and not susceptible to proof or disproof.”
It would be hard to name a big-budget Hollywood movie which illustrates the shrinking back from punishment more clearly than A Perfect World, or a more startling example than Clint Eastwood of a public figure suddenly abandoning the moral values of the populace for those of the liberal elite.
My impression is that the American public could probably forgive Eastwood his feminism—an increasingly prominent part of his work—and might even forgive his desultory attacks on the CIA, the FBI, and fundamentalist religion. But going soft on the punishment of evildoers robs him of his very identity.
If not the sword of the Lord, the old Clint Eastwood was the Lord’s six-shooter. As in the New Testament parable of the prodigal son, Clint Eastwood’s new friends—the critics and the Hollywood elite—are rejoicing for this sinner that doth repent. They have killed the fatted calf for him, and they do eat and make merry. But who will see his pictures?
April 1984; reprinted in my Capturing the Culture: Film, Art, and Politics.