Fifteen years ago, a 61-year-old Clint Eastwood was feted at the Oscars for what was widely seen as the valedictory achievement of his career. Critics praised “Unforgiven” as a stirring meditation on the nature of violence, all the more profound coming from a man who shot to stardom waving a .44-caliber Magnum at bad guys. What a gripping final act to a varied career. Congratulations.
Then, nearly a decade later, the septuagenarian filmmaker with the leathery skin decided it was time to get down to business.
First came 2003’s “Mystic River,” a lean tragedy that earned Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. The next year brought “Million Dollar Baby,” a classical but nervy boxing drama that took everyone by surprise. The academy rewarded Eastwood’s direction and the performances of Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman. The industry was agog over the late career surge. He can’t have any more masterpieces up his sleeve, can he?
Jump ahead to 2006. The former action star churns out “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” two of the most provocative American war movies ever made, each telling a different side of the Iwo Jima story.
Four years. Four masterful movies. Not bad for a 76-year-old with a plan that doesn’t include riding off into the sunset.
“I’ll keep making movies,” Eastwood says by phone recently from his office in Los Angeles. “The last four movies have been enjoyable for me. For some reason, I don’t know if it’s the age or what, but I’ve been enjoying the process as much now as I ever have in my life.”
It’s been a long trip for Eastwood, who, strange as it now seems, wasn’t always an international movie icon. He began his career as a contract player for Universal in the `50s (first gig: an uncredited role in “Revenge of the Creature”). He was Rowdy Yates on “Rawhide,” the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, and, of course, “Dirty Harry” Callahan, the vigilante San Francisco cop who famously got movie critic doyenne Pauline Kael hurling the f-word (fascism, that is) at the star.
He’s been directing since 1971, when Don Siegel, his director for five movies (including “Dirty Harry”), encouraged him to step behind the camera for the stalker story “Play Misty” for Me. He always wanted to make movies, but he never had a master plan to become an auteur, much less a two-time Oscar winner.
“You kind of go along and all of a sudden you find yourself directing,” he says. “You get one opportunity and you say, `Gee, if I can make this work, maybe I can do this occasionally. And if I ever decide I don’t want to act, I’ll have something else I can do.’ You don’t have to suit up and have your hair groomed or anything. You just fall to existence. It’s very enjoyable.”
“Fall to existence.” The somewhat Zen phrase seems appropriate for a filmmaker known to fly by his instincts and give his actors maximum room to operate. Studying at the hand of Siegel, who encouraged input and accepted suggestions from his cast, Eastwood long ago earned a reputation as an actors’ director. He’s the opposite of Stanley Kubrick, the late taskmaster famous for demanding multiple takes. Eastwood likes to move things along, keep the set humming, going with his gut. He took his approach as an actor—“Let me show you what I can do, and if you don’t like it, say something”—and adapted it to his duties behind the camera.
So on the rare occasion when he does want more than one take, he’s already earned the trust and dedication of his cast.
In an interview this fall, Adam Beach, a likely Oscar nominee for his performance as the shattered Iwo Jima veteran Ira Hayes in “Flags of Our Fathers,” recalled doing three takes for his toughest scene, when Ira breaks down and accepts his dismissal from the war bond drive that’s made him feel like a phony.
Beach did the first take, holding back a little.
“Good, again,” responded Eastwood.
Beach did the second take, with a little more intensity.
Eastwood: “Yes, another one.”
“So I think, he wants the big one here,” says Beach. “That’s a third take. He’s never asked for a third take. You better show him, boy. Next thing you know, everything is out of you. It’s like you’re living above yourself. The spirit is talking to you. After that, it’s done, and everyone is crying around you. And you’re like, what just happened?”
For Swank, whom Eastwood directed to an Oscar in “Million Dollar Baby,” it all boils down to one word: trust.
“He hires the person he feels is right for the job, then he just trusts you,” she says in a recent interview. “And when he believes in you and trusts you, it makes you believe in and trust yourself. That belief is one of the most important things a director can give you. It gives you the freedom and that safety net to play.”
Naturally, the strategy works best when the actors are up to snuff. Some Eastwood movies from the period immediately before his renaissance, including “Blood Work,” are marred by performances that cry out for a little more shape and direction. But the actors who don’t need hand-holding take to Eastwood’s latitude like Dirty Harry to a big gun. Swank, Penn, Freeman, Robbins, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden and Ken Watanabe are among the top-flight performers who found a new gear under Eastwood’s guidance.
As a product of the Hollywood studio system, Eastwood knows a thing or two about efficiency. His movies have a classical sheen about them, a streamlined attention to story that precludes ostentatious gestures of style. Both “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima” are radical in concept: One takes on the expedient processing of prefab heroes, the other recalls an iconic American military engagement from the enemy perspective (no American war movie has attempted this task on such a grand scale).
But if the concepts are bold, the crisp storytelling and sweeping humanism should feel familiar. Eastwood knows his old masters, from John Ford and David Lean to Akira Kurosawa, and in some ways his movies belong to another era. It’s a sign of his hard-earned clout that he can get them made today.
Though he proudly claims to see no common bonds between his four latest films, at least three of them—the new war movies and Mystic River—return to a theme he has addressed throughout his career: the corrosive effects of violence and war. You can see it in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “Unforgiven,” tales of isolated frontiersmen cast aside by the transition to “civilized” behavior, and in “Mystic River,” in which vengeance is a dead end to nowhere.
In the excellent 1997 documentary “Eastwood on Eastwood,” he defends Dirty Harry thusly: “He was strictly a man who was interested in the rights of the victim.” But there’s clearly a difference between the macho one-liners of “Sudden Impact” (“Go ahead. Make my day.) and the torments of combat on display in “Letters From Iwo Jima.”
If the key to war is dehumanizing the enemy in order to kill him, then the key to war movies lies in recognizing and rebuilding a universal sense of humanity. In “Letters From Iwo Jima,” made immediately after “Flags of Our Fathers,” Eastwood shows the same level of respect and empathy for the Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima that he shows to his actors on his sets. The movie couldn’t have been made during World War II; the enemy, after all, is the enemy. But today, it has the unmistakable ring of moral authority.
“In hindsight, 61 years later, there’s no longer the propaganda for or against,” says Eastwood. “You start thinking in terms of mothers losing their sons. And you realize it’s not just American mothers, but Japanese mothers as well. And that’s all war really has to offer.
“Sometimes you have to try to look at the idealistic part of it as well as the realistic part of it,” he continues. “We had to fight World War II. It was the Just War, as everybody likes to call it. But then you see shots of American veterans’ groups who go back to Iwo Jima for ceremonies, and you see one standing with his arm around a Japanese veteran. And you think but for another set of circumstances they could have been friends.”
He doesn’t sound like a gunslinger. Or a renegade cop. He sounds like a wise man who’s enjoying this final act—at least until it’s time for the next one to start.