NEW YORK — “Hereafter,” Clint Eastwood’s 31st feature film as a director in 40 years, drew enthusiastic applause at Lincoln Center, where it closed the New York Film Festival last Sunday night.
The next morning found the actor/director, the planet’s most unassuming movie star, lounging on a banquette outside the Warner Brothers screening room as members of the National Board of Review, an awards group, previewed his new film inside.
The movie stars Matt Damon as a moody psychic and Cecile De France as a broadcaster shaken by a near-death experience. Despite its title and subject, it is not a meditation on what happens after death but, like so many Eastwood movies in the last decade, a life-affirming movie about love.
Clad in a steel-gray jacket and azure polo shirt that match his hair and eyes, the lean figure unfolds extension-ladder legs. He stands to greet you, relaxed and robust. This is what 80 looks like. At least, Eastwood at 80 — the lion not yet in winter.
At a time when many of his generation are resigned to the easy chair, Eastwood continues to command the director’s chair. “I never consider retirement,” says the hero to both the Modern Maturity and Maxim generations. “I’m always learning.”
There is no other Hollywood career like his. He is America’s favorite actor, according to the 2010 Harris Poll (even though he insists “Gran Torino” was his last performance). And he is one of the nation’s best-loved directors, too. “He’s the gold standard,” says industry analyst Paul Dergarabedian. Eastwood’s “Space Cowboys,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Gran Torino” all hit the box-office bull’s-eye of $100 million-plus. (“Mystic River” made $90 million.)
“Clint stands alone. He produces, directs, composes and acts,” says Jeanine Basinger, film historian and National Board of Review member. “He’s on top of cutting-edge special effects and old-fashioned storytelling. He’s had an amazing career — and it’s not over yet.”
Eastwood has one rule about choosing a script.
“I always ask myself, ‘Would I like to see this?’”
When Steven Spielberg called and said, “I’ve got this interesting screenplay,” Eastwood, who hears this about as often as “hello,” agreed to take a look. A few pages into Peter Morgan’s script about the reluctant psychic and the survivor of a tsunami, Eastwood found himself “rooting for these characters.”
Given his film’s subject matter, you have to ask: Does he believe in life after death?
“I don’t know,” he says in a whisper less gravelly in life than on screen. “I guess I’m agnostic on the subject.
“But even if I don’t believe in a hereafter, I believed during the course of making the film,” he muses. The undogmatic Protestant who played angels of death in “Pale Rider” and “Unforgiven” says, “I don’t see God as a sadist who wants to punish us for doing wrong,” he says. “If I have any strong spiritual feelings, it’s that you are meant to do your best with your life while you’re here.”
Although “Hereafter” is of a piece with Eastwood’s recent intimations-of-mortality films “Million Dollar Baby” and “Gran Torino,” don’t go thinking that he chose to make it because of his age. “Yes, I’ve lived a fairly long life,” he says matter-of-factly. “But I would have made this picture when I was 40. I would have appreciated its story value.”
And no, he’s never personally had a paranormal experience, save for the occasional premonition: “You know, when you go to the telephone to call someone and they’re on the line already.”
It is tempting to read Eastwood’s filmography as his veiled autobiography, an exercise he does not indulge, even though he has said that he can’t play a role unless he can find in it something that mirrors feelings he has experienced.
One way to tell the story of his films is that he made the early ‘70s movies “Play Misty for Me” and “Breezy,” about men in their middle years enjoying the spoils of the sexual revolution when he himself was a man in his middle years enjoying the spoils of the sexual revolution. That he made “Bird,” about jazzman Charlie Parker, and “White Hunter, Black Heart,” about filmmaker John Huston, both self-destructive creative types, as he was finding his own way as an artist. That he made “Space Cowboys” and “Gran Torino,” about older men who seize the chance to prove themselves, during the last decade when he was an older professional seizing the chance to prove himself. And that masculinity, whether emboldened or embattled, has been a consistent theme throughout his career.
The way he tells it is as a story of lifelong learning. “You get a job on a TV series (that would be “Rawhide”), and you work with different directors. You learn about how to put together a film from different points of view.
“Then you work with an Italian director (that would be Sergio Leone, of spaghetti Western fame) and you learn the European perspective on the American Western.
“And you work with other people, and finally you get the chance to do it the way you want. And then you learn it’s not about the point of view but about storytelling and enthusiasm. And eventually you hit a stride.”
The supremely pragmatic Eastwood didn’t want to become a director because he resented the authority of the filmmakers he worked with or because he wanted to make message movies. He contemplated becoming a director in his late 30s as a way of supporting his family when the public got tired of him, which hasn’t happened yet.
For his first 20 years behind the camera, he made modestly budgeted art movies without artistic pretensions. He alternated between small personal films he made for himself and popular films for the mainstream audience. Over time, he’s been able to bring the mainstream over to his shadow-ridden studies of violence and vengeance like “Unforgiven” (1992) and quiet meditations on morality and mortality like “Million Dollar Baby” (2004).
And over time, he became a painter of light, using illumination for metaphoric effect.
“It’s symbolic,” says the man who himself prefers the shadow to “the moth side,” as he calls bright light. “My characters are always going toward the light, trying to see the light, living lives half in and out of shadow.” He adds, “There’s a lot of going towards the light in ‘Hereafter’; people with near-death experiences always talk about gravitating toward the light.”
By five different mothers he has seven children, ranging in age from 13 to 46. What’s it like being the father of a teenage girl at 80? “We know the nameless terrors of which we dare not speak,” he says with a laugh, referencing the intro to the old radio show “The Whistler.” Fatherhood is easier for him now than it was in his 50s, he says, because he’s no longer trying to grab the brass ring.
You ask him, the guy who grew up in a world where real men didn’t talk about manhood but who has made movies in which real men did just that, how the definition of American masculinity has changed since he came up. As if on cue, he is suddenly surrounded, here on the banquette, by effusive moviegoers emerging from the screening room. They want to shake his hand, tell him how the movie grabbed them. For a nanosecond he is torn between greeting them and answering the question. He makes his choice.
His model of manhood is Rocky Marciano, the heavyweight champion during the ‘50s. “He was the epitome of gentleness. He shook my hand like this,” says Eastwood, enfolding your hand in his with a butterfly-like flutter.
“Real masculinity,” says Eastwood, who has defined it for more than one generation, “is the confidence to not have to prove your manhood.”
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