How Clint Eastwood went from being the Man With No Name to the eponymous subject of a giant retro at Lincoln Center is a tale as elementally macho as a spaghetti western’s. Already a heat-packing enforcer by ’71, the year Dirty Harry cleaned up Frisco, he figured he’d like to shoot with a camera as well. As the living legend tells Richard Schickel in The Eastwood Factor, a biographical doc that screens on opening night of “The Complete Clint Eastwood”: “The great American fantasy is [that of] the guy who’s self-reliant . . . He has to handle everything on his own.” In other words, Eastwood wanted to do it all, not least to direct.
He started with Play Misty for Me, the first of 30 features to come (all in the “Complete” retro). What’s amazing about his directorial debut isn’t that its lurid tale of the Woman Who’ll Not Be Ignored predates Fatal Attraction by 16 years, but that the movie makes a prescient allegory of its creator’s artistic compulsions over the next 40 years and counting.
Play Misty takes its title from a bat-shit-crazy fan’s request of Eastwood’s mellow Carmel DJ, who’d much rather march to his own tune than play what “they” want to hear. (Paint Your Wagon, anyone?) Seems the price of stardom is, well, a bitch. Even before his one-night stand (Jessica Walter) turns psycho-stalker, the platter-spinning artiste appears assaulted by fame, giving the trademark Eastwood squint to the fawning portraits his girlfriend (Donna Mills) has painted of him. Co-written by Jo Heims, a woman Eastwood has characterized as a “legal secretary,” Play Misty grows a little tired of itself, but evocatively so, diverting its third act to the Monterey Jazz Festival for an inordinate amount of concert-doc scenestering. Here again, the star plays what he damn well wants and only eventually gets around to the meta-narrative business at hand—ridding himself of his biggest fan, thus establishing his privileged position as both icon and iconoclast.
Jazz is not only Eastwood’s passion behind the scenes but also the model for his most personal and least marketable films made in the crucial period leading up to Bird, the 1988 Charlie Parker biopic that made him an auteur in Cannes, a label granted soon enough at home. (Walker Art Center in Minneapolis gave him a retro in 1990; Unforgiven won the Oscar in ’93.) “I like jazz players,” he tells Schickel in The Eastwood Factor, “because they were doing something that wasn’t obviously commercial. [They] were playing for themselves. And if you wanted to listen, fine—and if you didn’t, that’s fine, too.”
Therefore it was fine indeed that hardly anyone attended to Honkytonk Man (1982), a Depression-era dry run for Bird, with the notable distinction that Eastwood’s broke, drunken, tubercular Okie warbler is only marginally talented at best, a man who can’t even get away with stealing chickens. That Eastwood would choose the early Reagan years to emphasize failure over success and frailty over virility is the best proof of this avowed conservative’s stubborn refusal to get with the program; never mind that the Gipper borrowed Dirty Harry’s “Go ahead, make my day” taunt for his own vigilante campaign. In Honkytonk Man, the star’s singing is off-key and his filmmaking is low-key, neither very much in keeping with the times.
Another perverse portrait of the artist as flailing huckster, Bronco Billy (1980) celebrates modest “Let’s put on a show” classicism and gently insists on calling it American. Known to the director as “my Capra movie,” with then-flame Sondra Locke as his zany Jean Arthur, Billy makes a two-bit hero of Eastwood’s New Jersey shoe-salesman-turned-“cowboy,” whose old-school Wild West Show lights up the carnival circuit from Montana all the way to Idaho.
Pathetic or not, Billy handles everything, just like a man: wrangling his woolly stock company of “ingrates,” flinging knives at Locke’s Antoinette Lily as she spins helpless on a roulette wheel, urging the tiny crowd’s “little pardners” to go to school, and cashing a $3 check for two singles and four quarters—or, on second thought, maybe he’d rather have 10 dimes. A stranded New Yorker (i.e., one of the cultural elite), Miss Lily naturally wonders of her ringleader, “Are you for real?” Billy’s answer is Eastwood’s precise definition of the actualized artist: “I’m who I want to be.”
Suffice it to say that audiences of the time, along with most critics, didn’t much care to ride along with Billy. But, writing in the Voice, critic Tom Allen was beyond effusive: “You have to go back to the silent clowns like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd for filmmaker-stars who had anything near Eastwood’s savvy at preserving his image while constantly reconstructing it.”
Alas, alt-weekly praise wasn’t enough to keep Eastwood from identifying closely with the cruelly underappreciated subject of Bird. America’s failure to recognize and respect a national treasure is the haunting refrain of this 160-minute musical, which, for better or worse, finds him stretching for grand themes—the better to appear a national treasure himself. Bird opens with the Warners logo in black-and-white and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “no second acts” epigram; its central image is that of a cymbal (or symbol?) poetically sailing in slo-mo.
Tipping its hat to a genius as opposed to a DJ, Bird marks the point that the filmmaker adds pretension to his repertoire, where Eastwood becomes an Indisputably Great Artist as opposed to a lovably scrappy one. Give or take Unforgiven, and with the arguable exception of Gran Torino, A Perfect World, and The Bridges of Madison County (transcendent melodramas all), the films that follow Bird don’t have nearly the same loose, shaggy charm as, say, Bronco Billy—which, like Play Misty and Honkytonk Man, momentarily halts the main event to lay back and take in a gig. (Let’s hear it for Merle Haggard, ladies and gentlemen!)
In his Billy review, Allen boldly issued a call that was answered eight years later when Bird graced the New York Film Festival. “Now, it’s time to take [Eastwood] seriously not just as a popularist phenomenon, but as one of the most honest, influential personal filmmakers in the world today.” That he is. But might he have been even more valuable before we city slickers went ahead and made his day?
In ’71, while acting in Don Siegel’s The Beguiled, Eastwood—as a warm-up for Misty—filmed “The Storyteller,” a 12-minute documentary in which he attributes to his mentor the humble qualities that he himself would soon embody, at least until the big Bird carried him overseas. “No matter how well a story is written,” he declares in voiceover, “it’s still up to the director to bring it to life, to tell it with his own kind of magic in his own kind of medium—film.”
Though the “artist” that Eastwood is hard at work sketching now is no less a heavy than J. Edgar Hoover, “The Complete Clint Eastwood” reminds us that the DIY patriot cowboy was never stronger than when saluting the little guys—the carnies, pale riders, and honkytonk men.