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Writing the book on Clint Eastwood

In 2008, Clint Eastwood directed and starred in "Gran Torino."

LOS ANGELES -- Someday someone is going to write a scholarly book about the films of Clint Eastwood, and go plumbing about down there in the depths of his psyche, looking for clues. There may be some interesting discoveries. It's a tricky business, analyzing the obsessions and longings of most movie stars, because they don't generate their own movies; examine their careers and what you'll really discover is what their directors thought about them. The late Cary Grant, for example, remains an enigma despite all of the words written about him; he buried his original self so deep inside that he was even able to joke about how he became the characters that he played.

With Clint Eastwood, you're going to be working a lot closer to the bone. Here is one of the few stars in Hollywood history so powerful that he can commission his own scripts, choose his own films, and then produce and direct them himself. Every single shot in an Eastwood film reflects his thinking, his taste, his decisions. And if you walk out of "Heartbreak Ridge," his latest film (now playing in Chicago), thinking that old Clint looked pretty beat up, like he had a lot of miles on him, then that's what Eastwood wanted you to think."I'm not afraid to look bad on the screen," he said the other afternoon, sitting in his office at the Burbank Studios. "Why not take the chance? What have I worked for? Nobody looks like they did when they were 20, so why not take advantage of the fact that you're changing, emotionally as well as physically?"

The legendary Hollywood moguls were famous for giving stars advice on their careers; guys like Louie Mayer and Sam Goldwyn thought they knew what was best for the actors they had under contract. But what star has had better management than Clint Eastwood - and mostly thanks to himself? Here is a man who plays a fairly narrow range of roles, who is not classically handsome, who is not known for his convincing love scenes, who works mostly in routine genres, and he is the No. 1 box-office attraction in the world today. He may not do a lot of things, but what he does, he does well.

One of the things he does is make action pictures. But even then, he doesn't repeat himself. "When I retire," he said, "I want to be able to think in terms of a broad spectrum of roles. I'd hate to be the guy who made 35 Westerns and 15 cop pictures. I'd want to know what they were about. How interesting were the characters? Even with Dirty Harry, we tried to stretch the character. When I made 'Tightrope,' I didn't play a fantasy cop, a superman - but more or less just a good detective who was haunted by his inner self."

In "Heartbreak Ridge," he plays another action hero, one who is more complicated than we might expect. The character's name is Tom Highway, and he is a man who experienced the high point of his life more than 30 years ago, when he won the Medal of Honor in Korea. It's been downhill since then. He has thoroughly destroyed his marriage, alienated or lost track of most of his friends, and put together a reputation for boozing and brawling. Vietnam was a respite from the frustrations of civil ian life; when we meet him, he's in a drunk tank.

It's interesting how Eastwood photographs himself, as this character. The Eastwood face is one of the modern icons of the movies, but this time it looks more weathered, the skin pulled tight over his bones. He wears his hair very short and iron gray. There are crevices in his face, and the light sometimes gives him bony eye sockets. "I wanted him to be scarred up, not just with physical scars but with emotional ones," Eastwood said. "I probably lit myself a lot more harshly than another director would have dared."

Another interesting thing about Highway is that he's surrounded by a lot of other people in the movie. At a time when the other top action stars - Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Norris - are playing solo supermen who save the world singlehandedly, Eastwood supplies himself in this film with an ex-wife, an old buddy, two contrary senior officers and a barracks full of wiseacre recruits.

"Maybe I'm just sort of a contrarian," he said. "It just seemed like the most interesting thing about this story was the personal relationships. This is a guy who has been in the military since he was very young, and all of a sudden he's facing retirement, and that's it, and where does he go? I've made those Rambo-style pictures where one guy goes out and wins the war, and they're fun, but they don't have much to say. The thing about the Ramboesque pictures is, you got to figure if there were 10 guys like that, how'd we lose the war in the first place?

"Another thing. As a director, I'm more interested in the whole story - in other people's characters. If I were only acting, maybe I'd want to be the only guy in the movie. Who can say?"

After 13 pictures as a director (12 of them starring himself), Eastwood is one of the most successful actors in town, and one of the top-grossing directors, too. He hinted that one of the reasons he first got into directing was an impatient nature: "I didn't like to sit around between takes, waiting for them to light the set, while I was reading books, taking naps or playing Pitch. I like to move. As the director, there's always something to interest me. One of these days, I may just go int o directing full time and forget about the acting."

When he said that, I had the feeling he meant it. Eastwood doesn't seem to have any particular stake in the ego side of being a movie star. One of the most revealing things I've ever seen him do is sit for several hours in the Hog's Breath, a restaurant he owns in Carmel, Calif., and sign autographs for everyone who came to his table. Most actors would have sought privacy; Eastwood almost seemed to be trying to drum up business for his hamburger menu. It's no wonder you got elected mayor of Carmel, I said: You've given an autograph to everyone in town.

"That election was almost as wild as the Cannes Film Festival," he said. "The last day, I couldn't believe the press thing. I thought maybe one little AP release would do it. At that point, I didn't need the publicity."

What has the first year in office been like?

"Well, it's a challenge to work within the system. I'm accustomed to working here with my own small company, doing my own thing, hiring my own people, and so the structure of a city council is new to me. It's also a challenge in the other direction, by the way, trying to get private enterprise efficiency out of a government bureaucracy."

The obvious question comes up whenever Eastwood talks about public office: Does he have his eye on a higher office? The U.S. Senate, for example?

"Not if it would mean giving up my career in the movies. I don't think it's possible to do both, and why should I alienate half of the people who might come to see my pictures? This is my career. I ran for office in Carmel only after trying and failing to get other people to run; I got my dander up."

Another problem with running for the U.S. Senate, I reflected, was that Eastwood's film image has not always been as wholesome as say, Ronald Reagan's or George Murphy's. In "Tightrope," he had a kinky sex life and liked to be handcuffed to beds. In "Heartbreak Ridge," he uses language so inventively obscene that it might make a Marine drill sergeant blush - and, indeed, after the Marine brass viewed the picture, they canceled plans to use it at benefits for their Toys for Tots program. I asked him where the language came from.

"A lot of it came from the writers. In addition to James Carabatsos, who came up with the original idea, I worked with Joe Stinson, who wrote 'Sudden Impact,' and Dennis Hackin, who wrote 'Bronco Billy.' One of my favorite scenes is the one where I talk down the bully in the bar, accusing him of hiding his homosexuality. That one comes straight from life. I was in a bar once and there was a drunk doing a pseudo-macho thing, and a friend of mine, who is gay, called him on it and totally discombobulated him. That sort of street psychiatry can sometimes catch people completely off guard. The guy didn't know what had hit him until we were out of the bar."

Tom Highway has some doubts about his macho orientation in "Heartbreak Ridge," and in some of the movie's most poignant scenes, he studies articles in popular women's magazines, trying to learn how to better communicate with women, how to be more sensitive, more caring.

"It's important to him," Eastwood said. "He has sort of sacrificed his life doing the military stuff, until it became his whole existence. He loses his wife, and now he's getting out of the service, and he comes back to see her, and she says, quite rightly, 'The only reason you're coming back to me is that you're losing the Corps.' Maybe also he's old enough now to realize some of the things he missed out on as a kid. Maybe he even feels some guilt: Here she is working in a bar near a military post, and he's thinking that at her age and with her background, she should be in an office somewhere."

The former wife is played by Marsha Mason, and she gets several strong scenes in the movie, but then that should not be surprising from a director who was recently praised in the Los Angeles Times for being Hollywood's foremost feminist filmmaker - no kidding.

"The stronger the participation of the female characters, the better the movie," Eastwood said. "They knew that in the old days, when women stars were equally as important as men. Hepburn, Davis, Colbert. They had great faces and great voices. By the 1950s, somehow all the female roles became sort of glorified gals in blue jeans at the next-door barbecue. They'd lost their strength. Now they get a few lines, a little sex scene, and that's the end of it. I'm a lot more interested in women than that."

Looking back over the films you've made, I said, it's easy to make some generalizations. The action pictures made money, and the slapstick pictures like "Every Which Way but Loose" made money, but the more thoughtful and offbeat films, like "Bronco Billy" and "Honkytonk Man," were not so successful. Do you feel kind of inhibited about making those movies that go against your box-office image?

"I knew going in that I was making films that might have limited appeal. I knew that 'Bronco Billy' wasn't going to do the same kind of business as 'Every Which Way,' and I knew 'Honky Tonk' was very risky, with me playing a dying drunk hillbilly singer, but I liked the book, and I knew a lot of people who had been self-destructive like that, and I wanted to make it."

He paused to think.

"I've died in two pictures now," he said, "and neither one was successful. 'Honkytonk Man' and 'Beguiled.' "

Have you died for the last time on the screen?

"One has to be practical."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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