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Clint Eastwood's triumphs.

The celebration of Clint Eastwood and his film "Unforgiven" at the 1993 Academy Awards ceremony at one level seems merely about the Hollywood industry finally paying homage to one of its tried-and-true moneymakers, just as Al Pacino's long-overdue Best Actor award (for a performance certainly not his best) seems about Hollywood's guilty conscience. At the same time, however, there are those moments when these belated tributes and the recognition of an original happily coincide. The Eastwood Oscars represent one such instance.

When Sergio Leone was looking for his "Man with No Name," the brutal, enigmatic central figure of most of his legendary "spaghetti westerns," he recounted the tale of Michelangelo creating his statue of David. Leone said, "Michelangelo saw a block of marble and said, |That's my David!'; I saw Clint and said, |That's my block of marble!'" Thus began the rise to superstardom of one who some argue to be the last genuine screen icon, the last movie star.

Eastwood was around before Leone's epiphany, co-starring in the TV western "Rawhide" and appearing in grade-B sci-fi pictures such as "Tarantula" and "Revenge of the Creature." By the early 1960s, his luck was running out. Along with a number of second-string players (including Lex Barker, one of the later Tarzans), Eastwood hightailed it to Rome, where the Cinecitta studios seemed to have an appetite for American beefcake and kitsch. Nevertheless, it was Leone who discovered something in Eastwood and allowed the man to re,invent himself.

The Man with No Name persona created for Eastwood (who in person is still an affable, shy, midwestern boy even in his 60s) with the squinting eyes, laconic style, occasional werewolf snarl, and consummate skill with a revolver, really was a caricature of the American male created by Hollywood genre films. Similarly, Leone's "Dollar" trilogy was a deconstruction of the western and its assumptions about the American frontier experience. That Eastwood could make this persona transcend caricature, and carry it into most of his major roles after his work in Italy, is a comment on both his genuis and the susceptibilities of the public.

The final credit to "Unforgiven" is a dedication to "Sergio and Don." The latter refers to Don Siegel, the man responsible in large part for Eastwood's image after his return to the U.S., primarily in "Coogan's Bluff" and, most importantly, "Dirty Harry." That picture launched a series as responsible for Eastwood's box office longevity as the James Bond films were to Sean Connery. In the Dirty Harry pictures, Eastwood reworked the Man with No Name character to make it respond to a changing political and social climate in the America of the 1970s and 1980s.

Siegel's original "Dirty Harry" is a latter-day "High Noon," debunking elected authority in favor of a strong man armed (particularly underscored in Harry's massive .44 Magnum revolver). At the end of "Dirty Harry," the hero throws his badge into a polluted lake, offering a rightist rejection of democratic government during the height of the Vietnam/Watergate epoch in favor of a new vigilantism and social reaction that eventually propelled Reaganism.

While Harry's tone softened a bit in subsequent films of the series, the characterization went a long way toward establishing Eastwood as a dangerous (even in his implausibility) image of a frightened, out-of-control male ego at a time of massive social, economic, and technological transition. That said, it is remarkable how a great deal of Eastwood's cinema has been about the artist deliberately undoing himself.

Of course, not all of Eastwood's work has been about self-evaluation and genre deconstruction. He also has turned out a boatload of execrable product, such as the redneck entertainments "Every Which Way But Loose" and "Pink Cadillac." For those ideological critics who were convinced that many of Eastwood's efforts offered "sites of struggle" demonstrating the contradictions of neoconservatism, Eastwood would offer an unabashed nag-waver such as "Heartbreak Ridge," wherein a Marine D.I's instruction of his rambunctious squad culminates in their professionalism during the invasion of Grenada and the liberation of a handful of medical students. While the sands of Iwo Jima have run out, not so Clint's readiness to flourish his true political colors. Yet, exactly what are those colors?

The Academy Award hoopla obscures the fact that Eastwood and the western genre itself have been making this film for over 20 years, to a point that "Unforgiven," with its mannered, low-key, anti-epic tone seems anti-climatic. While debunking the archetypal narrative of the frontier gunfighter, "Unforgiven" nevertheless ends with a face-off. The essential revisionist idea of the film - that the West of the last century was a brutal place to live - was undertaken in the first major Eastwood vehicle, "A Fistful of Dollars," in 1964. Sam Peckinpahs "The Wild Bunch," Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," and Arthur Penn's "Little Big Man" accomplish much of what Eastwood is concerned with in "Unforgiven."

Clint Eastwood's career always has been about the trials of a movie star at a time when the status of such figures - along with writers, directors, and others associated with the cinematic creative process - become fairly marginalized with the industry's total commodification. He may appear the softy, oddball, proto-feminist, and champion of the outsider, as well as the standard tough guy as he tries both to define and break free of an imprisoning image that has destroyed a host of his predecessors. it is his attempt to reclaim a self amid this process that has made him both enigmatic and endearing.
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Author:Sharrett, Christopher
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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