John Wayne became a screen legend as the man of action; Jimmy Stewart became one as the man of conscience too paralyzed to act; Clint Eastwood did it as the man of action pricked by conscience. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) made him an international star. Thematically, the good, the bad and the difference made him a movie icon.
Having spent 60 years as an actor and 40 as a director, on Memorial Day Mr. Eastwood celebrates his 80th birthday. Over a career where his co-stars have included Ginger Rogers, Tyne Daly, Meryl Streep and Hilary Swank (oh yeah, and Eli Wallach, Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, too!) the guy Life magazine called "Squint" Eastwood quietly disproved the conventional wisdom that there are no second acts in American lives.
By Flickgrrl's count, thus far professionally Mr. E -- Flickgrrl cannot call him Clint, although he has asked her to -- has enjoyed four unusually rich acts.
Act I: As the situational ethicist of spaghetti Westerns such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) where The Man With No Name (whose name was actually Joe) blazed a radically middle path between two warring clans.
Act II: The Man in the Moral Shadowlands, in films such as Dirty Harry (1972), with one hand battling bureaucrats in the corruption-plagued roundhouse and with the other fighting criminals on the mean streets.
Act III: As Atoning Sinners like the alcoholic singer in Honkytonk Man (1982) and the sexually twisted cop in Tightrope (1984), men trying to summon the courage to fight their weaknesses.
Act IV: The Unforgiven. In what may be his last act, an inordinate number of the characters Mr. E has played or directed -- from Forest Whitaker's Charlie Parker in Bird (1988) to his Will Munny in Unforgiven (1992) to Sean Penn's Jimmy Markum in Mystic River (2003) to his own Frankie Dunn in Million Dollar Baby (2005) and Walt Kowalksi in Gran Torino (2008) are sinners who know in their marrow that absolution is not forthcoming.
Politically, Mr. E is not unlike the guys he plays, catching flak from liberals as well as conservatives. Pilloried by the left who during the Nixon and Reagan years saw him as the face of the Silent Majority and Moral Majority, the actor was likewise pilloried by the right who observed during the Clinton era that Mr. E had become squishily politically-correct. One of his more perceptive critics, Flickgrrl can't remember whether it was Dave Kehr or Richard Schickel, observed that Mr. E has devoted the second part of his career dismantling the persona he created during the first half.
Flickgrrl would tweak that argument by suggesting that the actor who achieved immortality as the guy who shot furst and thought about it later devoted the second half of his career to exploring the consequences of that gunplay. Mr. E, who has directed himself in 22 of his 65 features, typically frames and half-lights himself as the shadow-haunted guy struggling to see the light.
So Happy Birthday, Mr. E. And for those who want to celebrate with him, Flickgrrl recommends this fistful of Eastwood: Play Misty For Me, Dirty Harry, Tightrope, In the Line of Fire and Million Dollar Baby.