- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2000

For much of Clint Eastwood's career, critics used the impassive actor as a punching bag when describing his populist appeal.

But the one-time contract player stuck around long enough to allow critical knee-jerkers to give his work a second, more thoughtful look.

The stack of accolades keeps growing for the star who rose to fame as "the man with no name" in a trio of classic spaghetti Westerns.

The 70-year-old actor-director won the Venice Film Festival's lifetime achievement award earlier this year. He was given the Cesar award, the French version of the Oscar, in Paris two years ago for his film direction. The American Film Institute gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. A year earlier, he accepted the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, an honorary Oscar that joined his best director statuette for 1992's "Unforgiven."

Mr. Eastwood's Kennedy Center Honors award this weekend represents more than just another hunk of bric-a-brac for his bulging mantle. It pays homage to a career that has influenced our modern ideals of masculinity as assuredly as it has the motion picture industry.

Richard Schickel, a Los Angeles-based film critic for Time magazine and author of "Clint Eastwood: A Biography," says the honor represents the last major award for Mr. Eastwood to collect.

"That's a remarkable achievement, considering the contempt he was held in at the beginning of his career," Mr. Schickel says.

"He's built a portrait of a handsome, physically capable American assaulted by all sorts of doubts," he says of Mr. Eastwood's career arc. "He's really toyed with all the masculine issues of the last 30 years."

By his own admission, Mr. Eastwood is a simple storyteller who began as a dispensable actor, the kind who would walk into the frame, mumble a forgettable line, then skulk back out of camera range.

"He probably came from farther back in the pack than anybody," Mr. Schickel says. Broadway-seasoned actors like Paul Newman were expected to scale the cinematic heights. Not Mr. Eastwood.

"Clint's relationships with the critics was very dicey, especially in the early going," says Mr. Schickel, Mr. Eastwood's official biographer.

He believes Mr. Eastwood began a "slow accretion" of respect following 1976's "The Outlaw Josey Wales." Others would argue that the critical tide officially turned during the 1993 Academy Awards festivities, with his revisionist Western "Unforgiven" earning four Academy Awards.

Holding a moviegoer's attention for more than 90 minutes proves to be too much for many of today's stars. Mr. Eastwood does it seemingly without blinking his trademark squinted eyelids.

Richard Burton once dubbed his acting style "dynamic lethargy."

Mr. Eastwood's minimalist approach has proved as powerful as the reams of dialogue other, more studied actors might speak.

The San Francisco native came of age in a Depression-tinged childhood that left an indelible stamp on his work ethic, enabling him to commune with the common man more than 30 years after staking a claim to superstar status.

He followed up an unremarkable academic career with a stint in the Army as a swimming instructor. A scout with Universal Studios tapped the lanky lad for parts as a contract player. He earned a living with such outlandish films as "Tarantula" and "Revenge of the Creature."

Regular, more respectable work came later in the guise of Rowdy Yates, the quiet sidekick in television's "Rawhide."

But a Western shot in Spain by an obscure Italian director was what forged Mr. Eastwood's career into its shatterproof state.

His three "spaghetti Westerns" with Sergio Leone, kicked off by "A Fistful of Dollars" in 1964, cemented his laconic persona for the masses.

The actor quickly leveraged his overseas clout to stake a claim to stateside success, creating indelible roles such as "Dirty Harry" in 1971 and, in the same year, tackling his directorial debut, "Play Misty for Me."

Many critics hissed at Mr. Eastwood's wooden acting in his early films, particularly the trigger-happy "Harry" features. Pauline Kael, esteemed film critic for the New Yorker at the time, deemed the movies fascist in tone.

His acting style has matured only slightly from its stilted beginnings — only his most deluded admirer would label him a gifted thespian. But his choices in films has proved he has more range than the most nimble-gloved shortstop.

Few actors could comfortably shift from the buffoonery of 1978's "Every Which Way But Loose" to 1982's "Honkytonk Man," the tale of a dying rodeo star's last roundup.

"Clint has gone into more daring territory than more actors of his stature have tried," Mr. Schickel says, referring partly to the star's 1988 ode to jazz great Charlie Parker, "Bird."

For every clunker like "Pink Cadillac" (1989) or "The Rookie" (1990), Mr. Eastwood apologized with the challenging "White Hunter, Black Heart" (1990) or suspenseful "In the Line of Fire" (1993).

Film purists may have chafed at his starring in not one, but two, orangutan features, the forementioned "Every Which Way" and 1980's "Any Which Way You Can." Mr. Schickel contends those pictures helped chisel away some of Mr. Eastwood's granitelike allure.

"It was important for him to do the two orangutan movies," he says. "You have to humanize the image."

Even Mr. Eastwood's blatantly entertaining features have offered cautionary tales of modern life. "Misty" featured a womanizing disc jockey reeling from the consequences of a botched affair. "Josey Wales" was "meant to be a reconciliatory movie about post-Vietnam America," despite its violent tone, Mr. Schickel says.

Part of Mr. Eastwood's talent lies in selecting projects precisely at the moment audiences are ready for them, Mr. Schickel says. Take Harry Callahan, a cop who dispensed street justice that left the judicial system with more body bags than unresolved cases.

"There was an enormous amount of liberal dither over Miranda rights [at the time]. There was a sense that was interfering with the course of true justice," he says. "Dirty Harry spoke to that. People said, 'I wouldn't mind having Dirty Harry on the beat.'"

The film legend took on another politicized role during a stint as mayor of Carmel, Calif., during the 1980s.

As a director, Mr. Eastwood echoes his acting style — low-key and willing to listen to co-workers.

"He doesn't like confusion on the set, yelling, stuff that distracts an actor," Mr. Schickel says. That said, "there was never any doubt about him getting what he wanted [on the set]."

"He's a very efficient director," he adds. "He prefers a bit of roughness you might get on a first or second take. He thinks it's more real."

It's that rough-hewn sensibility that infuses all Mr. Eastwood's work, from his Westerns to his absurdist comedies. The 6-foot-4 actor is no pretty boy, witness the mole that sits defiantly atop his thin upper lip.

His cinematic portrait has softened with time. But only somewhat.

While filming a poignant scene from 1995's "The Bridges of Madison County," he turned away from the camera when genuine tears began to flow. Co-star Meryl Streep asked why he didn't use the moment for the film. Mr. Eastwood reportedly answered, "People don't want to see me cry."

But audiences don't mind seeing him age gracefully, as the healthy box office receipts for his latest film, "Space Cowboys," can attest.

"At 70, he has to confront what all of masculinity has to confront," says Mr. Schickel of "Cowboys," the actor's 56th film appearance and 22nd turn as director.

Through all his mercurial film projects, no bold pattern emerges in Mr. Eastwood's repertoire. That can be attributed partially to the way he selects each film.

"He only rarely initiates projects. He tends to find his scripts in the open market. 'Unforgiven' was like that," Mr. Schickel says.

"He doesn't want to sit around and fuss with writers. He just picks his projects instinctively."

Although Mr. Eastwood declined an interview request, Mr. Schickel reports that his friend has taken the steady flow of awards in stride. It's what one might expect from a lifelong jazz enthusiast.

"The jazz manner has pretty deeply inflected his public manner," he says, "He tries not to let people see the wheels turning. All of it derives from jazz."

How fitting that a purely American musical form fed an actor who became one of this country's film idols. It's a metaphor even a simple storyteller like Mr. Eastwood would appreciate.

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