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Getting to Know: Clint Eastwood

All mentioned films in article
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Clint Eastwood turned 90 on 31 May and Cinema Paradiso marks this momentous occasion with an appreciation of an actor-director who became an American icon while questioning the very values that his fans and foes thought he was celebrating. It's been said that Eastwood has spent the second half of his career atoning for the toxic machismo of the first. But such an assessment overlooks the deceptive moral complexity of films that aren't as easy to pigeonhole as the early conservative and later liberal ones.

In 1963, an invitation from Italy transformed the fortunes of a 33 year-old actor who had toiled for a decade in mediocre movies before landing a supporting role in a TV Western series. Clint Eastwood was doubly fortunate in being cast as Joe in Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964), as he has continued to play variations on the character of 'the Man With No Name' ever since, while Leone had a profound influence on a directorial style that also owes much to Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, John Huston and Don Siegel.

A still from A Fistful of Dollars (1964) With Clint Eastwood
A still from A Fistful of Dollars (1964) With Clint Eastwood

Following John Ford's example of making one film for the money men and one for himself, Eastwood has largely carried his audience with him through the hits and misses of a six-decade career that has seen him appear in 65 features and rack up 38 credits behind the camera. With the passing of Kirk Douglas, he is now the last superstar link to the old studio system. But, by setting up his own Malpaso production company, Eastwood has essentially been able to operate as an outsider, who has made precisely the kind of pictures he has wanted to make in a languorously classical style that has set his work apart throughout the blockbuster era, as shot lengths have shortened along with attention spans.

As an actor, Eastwood has an emblematic significance that makes him an untouchable icon. But his directorial achievement is less easily determinable, as it shifts between celebrating and castigating the American Way, between championing individualism and community, and between entertaining and provoking. As he hits 90, Eastwood seems intent on building on a legacy that is pretty much unique in the annals of Hollywood history.

The Kid From Nowhere?

Nicknamed 'Samson' by the nurses at the Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco when he weighed in at 11lbs 6oz on 31 May 1930, Clint Eastwood was very much a child of the Great Depression. By his recollection, the family moved around frequently, as parents Clinton and Ruth looked for work. But the Eastwoods seem to have spent a prolonged period of relative affluence in Piedmont, California, where Clinton worked for the pulp and paper company, Georgia-Pacific, and Ruth had a clerical post at IBM. The young Clint had a chequered academic career, with ill-discipline contributing to some poor results. The teachers at Oakland Technical High School tried to persuade him to channel his energies into drama, but he preferred jazz and became an accomplished pianist.

When his father landed a job in Seattle in 1949, Clint followed only after enjoying a taste of independence in Oakland. He worked alongside his father in an Oregon pulp mill, but it was his training as a lifeguard that led to him becoming a swimming instructor when he was drafted into the US Army during the Korean War. Based at Fort Ord in Northern California, Eastwood didn't see action. But he narrowly escaped death after he swam two miles to shore after the Douglas AD bomber in which he had been travelling ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean near Point Reyes.

On being demobbed in 1952, Eastwood drifted to Los Angeles, where he pumped gas and managed an apartment building while figuring out what to do with his life. Having married secretary Margaret Johnson after meeting on a blind date, he took whatever jobs he could find and continued to dig swimming pools even after army pal Chuck Hill had introduced him to cameraman Irving Glassberg at Universal Studios. Director Arthur Lubin took an instant shine to Eastwood, but had to admit after his first audition that 'He was quite amateurish. He didn't know which way to turn or which way to go or do anything.' But Lubin recognised that the camera admired Eastwood's chiselled good looks and he urged him to take acting lessons to give himself a better chance of being discovered.

Under Contract

In April 1954, Clint Eastwood signed a contract at Universal that paid him $100 a week. Despite some coaching, he continued to struggle to project on camera and missed out on roles before he finally made his uncredited screen debut as Jennings the lab technician in Jack Arnold's Revenge of the Creature (1955), a sequel to the same director's B hit, Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), which had been filmed in 3D.

Sharing the screen with John Agar and some white rats, Eastwood completed his scene on 30 July 1954. The offers didn't exactly come flooding in, however, and he relied on handouts from Lubin in Lady Godiva (1955), The First Travelling Saleslady (1956) and Escapade in Japan (1957). Indeed, it says much for the quality of the 10 pictures that Eastwood made over the next four years that only three of them are available on disc from Cinema Paradiso. Arnold rehired him for the bit part of a squadron leader in another creature feature, Tarantula (1955), while he followed a walk-on as a medic in Joseph Peveney's Away All Boats by uttering a single line of dialogue as another white-coated boffin in Jerry Hopper's Never Say Goodbye (1956).

Having had his contract cancelled on 2 July 1955, Eastwood spent more time labouring than acting. However, he did get to share a scene with Steve McQueen as a reporter in 'Human Interest Story', which featured in Series Four of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1959). And it was television that prevented Eastwood from quitting showbiz altogether when an audition speech from William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) helped him land a pivotal role in the CBS Western series, Rawhide (1959-65).

Eastwood hadn't particularly enjoyed his first outings to the frontier in Charles F. Haas's Star in the Dust (1956) and Jodie Copelan's Ambush At Cimarron Pass (1958), which he reckoned was 'probably the lousiest Western ever made'. But cattle droving in the 1860s as ramrod Rowdy Yates was more to his liking and he teamed with Eric Fleming's Gil Favor in 217 episodes, which saw his salary rise from $750 per show to $119,000. Moreover, the long stints on location in Arizona allowed Eastwood to study direction at close quarters and he was entrusted with supervising a few trailers, although plans for him to direct an episode where shelved. Such was his commitment to the show that Eastwood didn't make a movie for six years. But he returned to features when an Italian made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

The Man With No Name

Several people have tried to take credit for resetting Akira Kurosawa's samurai classic, Yojimbo (1961), in the Wild West. But Sergio Leone seized the directorial reins and tried to get Henry Fonda to play his scheming lead. Charles Bronson, Henry Silva, Rory Calhoun, Steve Reeves, Ty Hardin and James Coburn were also considered before the script for A Fistful of Dollars (1964) reached Eric Fleming. When he also rejected the role of Joe, Richard Harrison suggested Eastwood and, because he was beginning to grow tired of playing 'the conventional white hat', he agreed to a $15,000 fee to spend the 11-week summer break from Rawhide in Almeria in Spain playing a cigarillo-chomping avenger for a director who communicated with him solely through stuntman, Benito Stefanelli.

Eastwood's dialogue was dubbed in the Italian version by Enrico Maria Salerno, who placed a more menacing emphasis on the lines than the American did in the English edit. But this had barely been seen by the time that Eastwood returned to Europe to play Marico in For a Few Dollars More (1965) and Blondie in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), which finally broke the 'Spaghetti Western' in the United States. As the Hollywood horse opera had largely become a small-screen preserve as the genre's conventions had started to seem outdated, audiences were enthralled by the Spaghetti blend of stylised visuals and cartoonish violence. They were even more intrigued by the so-called 'Man With No Name', who was consciously played as laconically as possible, because, as Eastwood had realised, 'the less he said, the stronger he became and the more he grew in the imagination of the audience'.

A still from For a Few Dollars More (1965)
A still from For a Few Dollars More (1965)

He guyed his new image as a husband who poses as a gunslinger in a bid to revive his marriage to Silvana Mangano in Vittorio De Sica's segment, 'An Evening Like the Others', in the 1967 portmanteau, The Witches . But Eastwood didn't want to become a runaway star and, with Rawhide having been cancelled, he returned home to try out his new persona in Ted Post's Hang 'Em High (1968). The American press had been far from impressed with his performances in the 'Dollars trilogy', but his haunting display as Jed Cooper seeking revenge on the lynch mob that had left him for dead earned Eastwood 25% of the net box office on top of his $400,000 fee. The 38 year-old had become an overnight star after 14 years of trying and he wisely invested his new wealth in his own production company, Malpaso.

Allying with director Don Siegel on Coogan's Bluff , Eastwood demonstrated that his new brand of cowboy could also work in an urban setting, as Arizona deputy sheriff Walt Coogan heads to New York to apprehend a psychopathic fugitive. In teaming with Richard Burton as Lieutenant Murray Schaffer in order to rescue a brass hat from a mountaintop German stronghold in Brian G. Hutton's adaptation of Alistair MacLean's bestseller, Where Eagles Dare (both 1968), he also proved that the mean and moody man of few words and decisive deeds could also translate to a Second World War setting. Indeed, he further tested the theory in the title role of Hutton's Kelly's Heroes (1970), as a band of maverick soldiers that includes Donald Sutherland and Telly Savalas attempts to rob a bank containing a small fortune in confiscated Nazi bullion.

A still from The Beguiled (1971) With Clint Eastwood And Geraldine Page
A still from The Beguiled (1971) With Clint Eastwood And Geraldine Page

He pushed his luck a touch too far in singing on the range, as Pardner alongside Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg in Joshua Logan's frontier musical, Paint Your Wagon (1969). But this ambitious and often rousing anti-Western has been much maligned since it was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy. The critical consensus has hardly been unanimous, either, on Don Siegel's Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970), which pitted the mercenary Hogan against Sara (Shirley MacLaine), a prostitute posing as a nun in the Mexico of the French puppet ruler, Maximilian. But this screwball Western still makes for a compelling double bill with Siegel's The Beguiled (1971), in which wounded Union trooper John McBurney discovers that the principal and students of the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies in Civil War Mississippi are anything but selfless angels of mercy.

The Multihyphenate

The bartender who lends the protagonist a sympathetic ear is a familiar film figure. But Eastwood had a dual purpose in casting Don Siegel as Murphy in Play Misty For Me (1971), as he needed his mentor close at hand while he made his directorial debut. In addition to calling the shots, Eastwood also starred as Monterey radio DJ Dave Garver, who comes to regret his fling with a besotted listener, Evelyn Draper. Jessica Walter earned a Golden Globe nomination for her stalking histrionics, while Eastwood hit upon the less is more approach that has continued to serve him well over the ensuing five decades.

Despite the acclaim for Eastwood's direction, 1971 would be remembered, however, for the most memorable speech of his entire career. It was delivered in the guise of San Francisco police inspector Harry Callahan and was hissed at a wounded bank robber (Albert Popwell): 'I know what you're thinking: "Did he fire six shots or only five?" Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I've kinda lost track myself. But being this is a.44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do you, punk?'

Given that Dirty Harry (1971) would be followed by Ted Post's Magnum Force (1973), James Fargo's The Enforcer (1976), Eastwood's Sudden Impact (1983) and Buddy Van Horn's The Dead Pool (1988), it's difficult to think of anyone else playing Callahan. But he was far from the first choice of a Warner Bros front office that had hoped Frank Sinatra would accept the role. When he dropped out, John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, George C. Scott, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman were all mentioned in dispatches. But the latter recommended Eastwood and the rest really is history.

Playing a flawed hero for a damaged nation reeling from the effects of the Vietnam War and (within the next couple of years) the Watergate Scandal, Eastwood became a sacrosanct icon. An outsider with a badge, several critics bridled at the explosive violence and the recklessness of a loose cannon cop who takes the law into his own hands. But Eastwood was merely transferring his Western persona to the concrete jungle and he did so far more effectively than John Wayne had ever done.

Declining the opportunity to replace the retiring Sean Connery as James Bond, Eastwood signed up for the title role on John Sturges's Joe Kidd (1972), which sees a washed-up bounty hunter accept the offer of landowner Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) to capture Mexican activist Luis Charna (John Saxon). As was to become the case with the majority of Eastwood's Westerns, the moral core of the story proved ambiguous, as it did in High Plains Drifter (1973), which marked the first time in which Eastwood directed himself out West and added a hint of the supernatural to the allegorical scenario. With its conflicted morality, it easy to see why John Wayne had turned down the role of The Stranger, who rides out of the haze into the town of Lago and makes himself as objectionable as possible before being hired to defend the guilt-ridden townsfolk from a trio of desperados.

While remaining behind the camera, Eastwood contented himself with a cameo as a man on a pier in Breezy (1973), which charts the offbeat relationship between divorced estate agent Frank Harmon (William Holden) and Breezy (Kay Lenz), a footloose hitch-hiker young enough to be his daughter. Very much the forgotten picture in the Eastwood canon, this reveals the softer side to his creative nature, which would emerge more fully after he began to focus more on directing than acting.

A still from The Eiger Sanction (1975)
A still from The Eiger Sanction (1975)

Having weathered some weary reviews for the nevertheless commercially successful Magnum Force, Eastwood sought to demonstrate his comic gifts in Michael Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), a heist romp that sees career criminal John 'Thunderbolt' Doherty take naive car thief Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) under his wing for a tilt at the Montana Armored Depository. Bridges scooped a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for his genial performance and Eastwood went into adaptation of Trevanian's bestseller, The Eiger Sanction (1975), with something of a chip on his shoulder, as he felt that his own acting was being under-appreciated. Taking over the role of government assassin-turned-art expert Jonathan Hemlock that had been earmarked for Paul Newman, Eastwood insisted on doing his own stunts, as he pursues a treacherous agent around the Swiss Alps.

The theme of being left alone to make a fresh start recurs in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), a postbellum Western based on Asa Carter's novel, Gone to Texas , which shows how a Missouri farmer who had become a Confederate guerilla in order to avenge the murder of his family by Union-supporting militiamen attempts to protect the surrogate family of waifs and strays that has attached itself to him in an abandoned ranch. Eastwood incurred the wrath of the Directors Guild of America after he took up the megaphone after having Philip Kaufman fired. But, when he repeated the trick by replacing Richard Tuggle on Tightrope (1984), the DGA instituted the 'Eastwood Law' that prevents an actor from assuming control of a picture after engineering the removal of the original director.

Centring on Wes Block, a New Orleans cop and father with some kinky sexual hang-ups, the latter was Eastwood's first film after breaking up with Sondra Locke, who had made the first of her six appearances in his pictures in Josey Wales. With its exploration of sado-masochism, Tightrope remains one of Eastwood's darkest outings. But it never garnered the kind of praise that had been showered on the 1976 picture, which Orson Welles claimed 'belongs with the great Westerns. You know, the great Westerns of Ford and Hawks and people like that.'

Having reprised the role of Harry Callahan in The Enforcer, Eastwood turned down the parts of Asa Barker in Ted Post's Go Tell the Spartans (1978) and Willard in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). Instead, he made The Gauntlet (1977), in which he plays Phoenix cop Ben Shockley, who isn't allowed to sulk for long after being sent to Las Vegas to escort prostitute Augustina Mally (Locke) to court so that she can testify against the Mob. But, rather than taking on another weighty topic, Eastwood pulled a surprise by playing brawling trucker Philo Beddoe in James Fargo's Every Which Way But Loose (1978), in which he co-starred with Locke and Geoffrey Lewis as singer Lynn Halsey-Taylor and sidekick Orville Boggs. However, they were all upstaged by Manis, the scene-stealing orangutan better known as Clyde, whose popularity was such that this critically derided, but commercially successful romp was followed up by Buddy Van Horn's Any Which Way You Can (1980). Poor old Manis was deemed to be past it, however, and he was replaced by the younger duo of CJ and Buddha.

A still from Escape
A still from Escape

In between these undemanding escapades, Eastwood reunited with Don Siegel for Escape From Alcatraz (1979), which harked back to the early 1960s to recreate the audacious exploits of bank robber Frank Lee Morris and fellow inmates John Anglin (Fred Ward) and Charley Butts (Larry Hankin), who became the only three men ever to break out of the Rock. Patrick McGoohan excels as the tyrannical warden, but the shoot caused a rift between Siegel and Eastwood and they never worked together again.

An Actor Who Directs

It's a shame that Bronco Billy (1980) isn't currently available to rent on disc, as it's perhaps Eastwood's most autobiographical and optimistic film. Indeed, he has even gone on record to compare it to the feel-good fare of Frank Capra who won the Oscar for Best Director a record three times. Playing Wild West show sharpshooter Billy McCoy also reinforced the impression that Eastwood was moving away from bullet-headed characters, with even Harry Callahan showing a softer side by falling for gang-rape victim Jennifer Spencer in Sudden Impact, in which he delivers the immortal line, 'Go ahead, make my day.'

Eastwood put a more markedly revisionist spin on the traditional heroic persona as reclusive Vietnam veteran Mitchell Gant, who is required to assume a variety of disguises in sneaking behind the Iron Curtain to steal a supersonic plane that's undetectable by radar in an underrated adaptation of Craig Thomas's bestseller, Firefox. Despite employing more special effects than any previous Eastwood picture, this failed to impress fans weaned on George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) and confirmed Eastwood's shift to a parallel mainstream that owed little to spaceships and comic-books. Indeed, he made no attempt whatsoever to connect with the fanboy fraternity with Honkytonk Man (both 1982), which drew on a Clancy Carlile novel for its Depression-era story about Red Stovall, a tubercular singer who travels to Nashville with his nephew, Whit (son Kyle Eastwood), in the hope of performing at the Grand Ole Opry.

It was more a case of good ol' boy when Eastwood hooked up with Burt Reynolds for Richard Benjamin's City Heat (1984), which remained in the Prohibition era for its wisecracking tale of a Kansas City cop named Speer trying to keep shamus Mike Murphy out of the clutches of the gangs run by Primo Pitt (Rip Torn) and Leon Coll (Tony Lo Bianco). The following year saw Eastwood do something he had never done before and would never do again, as he directed the 'Vanessa in the Garden' episode of Steven Spielberg's TV series, Amazing Stories (1985), which starred Harvey Keitel as an artist seeking ways to immortalise his dead wife (Sondra Locke).

A ghost from Eastwood's own past hove into view in Pale Rider (1985), as he returned to the frontier for the first time in nine years to play Preacher, a mysterious drifter who comes to the aid of the gold prospectors being terrorised by California mine boss, Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart). Revealing the benefits of working so frequently with cinematographer Bruce Surtees and editor Joel Cox, this variation on the George Stevens classic, Shane (1953), became the highest-grossing Western of the decade and prompted respected critic Gene Siskel to declare that the time had come to start acclaiming Eastwood as 'an artist'.

A still from Heartbreak Ridge (1986)
A still from Heartbreak Ridge (1986)

Notions of morality and justice resurfaced in Heartbreak Ridge (1986), as Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway is detailed to train a motley Marine crew by a commander who believes his record in Korea and Vietnam counts for nothing in the modern world. However, as Highway strives to atone for past failings to his ex-wife, Aggie (Marsha Mason), his unit is ordered to participate in the US invasion of Grenada. Underestimated on its release, this intriguing study of the military mind and Eastwood's evolving understanding of masculinity presaged his final outing as Harry Callahan in The Dead Pool, which almost parodied the concept of the Western avenger becoming a rogue cop.

A Director Who Acts

As if to emphasise that a chapter in Eastwood's career had been closed, he opted to remain solely behind the camera for Bird , a biopic of jazz legend Charlie Parker that cast Forest Whitaker in the title role. Despite criticism by longtime detractor Spike Lee, Eastwood also served as executive producer on Charlotte Zwerin's documentary, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (both 1988), and he would return to the music he loved in Piano Blues , which formed part of The Blues (2003), a series of documentaries curated by Martin Scorsese. Having earned the Cecil B. DeMille Award, as well as the Golden Globe for Best Director for Bird, Eastwood felt he owed his public a more accessible offering.

However, Pink Cadillac (1989) proved to be one of his rare critical and commercial misfires, despite his gruffly charismatic turn as skip-tracer Tommy Nowack, who heads to Reno, Nevada on the heels of Lou Ann McGuinn (Bernadette Peters), who has stolen some counterfeit cash belonging to her husband's white supremacist group. The film did, however, mark the start of Eastwood's collaboration with cinematographer Jack N. Green, which enabled him to continue his habit of shooting quickly and giving each picture its own visual style. 'I get into the film and then I get the look of it as it comes,' he told one interviewer, 'rather than having a constant style that goes through each film, putting a mark on it.' Or, as he once put it more succinctly, 'That auteur crap is exactly that.'

Increasingly drawn to narratives about guilt and self-destruction, Eastwood started to focus more on flawed individuals who use maverick means to buck the system and prove his worth to both doubters and himself. This new persona is perhaps best epitomised by John Wilson in White Hunter Black Heart (1990), a knowing adaptation of Peter Viertel's roman à clef about director John Huston's obsession with bagging an elephant during the location filming of The African Queen (1951). If this was more a treat for cineastes, The Rookie (1990) was designed to reflect Eastwood's new perspective on the big city cop scenario, as it charted the burgeoning relationship between undercover novice David Ackerman (Charlie Sheen) and gnarled LAPD veteran Nick Pulovski, who is prepared to use any means possible to close down a German crook's chop-shop operation.

After a protracted legal case had kept Eastwood off the screen in 1991, he returned with a vengeance as veteran ex-gunfighter William Munny in Unforgiven (1992), a project that the 61 year-old had been keeping on the back burner since the mid-1970s so that he was suitably aged for the role. Leaving his farm in Hodgeman County, Kansas when he learns that two saddle tramps had disfigured prostitute Delilah Fitzgerald (new off-screen partner, Frances Fisher), Munny rides to Big Whiskey, Wyoming, where he encounters vicious sheriff. Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), who is in the mood for confrontation after beating Munny's old gunslinger pal, English Bob (Richard Harris), to within an inch of his life.

A still from In the Line of Fire (1993)
A still from In the Line of Fire (1993)

Many consider what appears to be Eastwood's Wild West swan song to be his masterpiece. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards and, while he missed out on Best Actor to Al Pacino for Martin Brest's Scent of a Woman (1992), Eastwood did win the Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture. He was unlucky to miss out on another acting nomination for his outstanding performance as Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan in Wolfgang Petersen's In the Line of Fire (1993), which continued to explore the nature of damaged masculinity, as the threat posed to the president of the United States by ex-CIA operative Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) forces Horrigan to re-examine his actions while on duty on the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

In hiring Kevin Costner to play Butch Haynes, the escaped convict who forms an attachment to the young boy he has taken hostage in A Perfect World (1993), Eastwood hinted at his increasing readiness to let acting take a back seat. Nevertheless, he is typically assured as pursuing Texas Ranger Red Garnett and even allowed himself a whimsical interlude in cameoing uncredited in Brad Silberling's Casper (1995), which sees the mirror reflection of Dr James Harvey (Bill Pullman) morph into Eastwood, who hisses the threat, 'I'm gonna kill you, your momma, and all her bridge-playing friends.'

Having been presented with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award at the 67th Academy Awards, Eastwood proved less threatening as National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid in The Bridges of Madison Country (1995), an adaptation of a much-loved Robert James Waller novel that tested Eastwood's acting mettle in co-starring with Meryl Streep as Iowa-based Italian war bride, Francesca Johnson. Streep would receive an Oscar nomination for her work, while the poignant drama won the César for Best Foreign Film.

While this love story brought Eastwood a new audience, he returned to more familiar territory with Absolute Power (1997) and True Crime (1999). Adapted by William Goldman from a thriller by David Baldacci's, the former starred Eastwood as veteran crook Luther Whitney, who becomes a target of the Secret Service after he witnesses President Alan Richmond (Gene Hackman) murder a billionaire's wife. The latter took its inspiration from an Andrew Klavan's novel and centres on the relationship that develops between Oakland journalist and recovering alcoholic Steve Everett and Death Row murderer Frank Beecham (Isaiah Washington).

In between these less-regarded outings, Eastwood retreated behind the camera once more for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil , which was adapted from a novel by John Berendt and records the impressions of journalist John Kelso (John Cusack) when he arrives in Savannah, Georgia as self-made art collector Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey) goes on trial for murder. With Clint's daughter, Alison Eastwood as torch singer Mandy Nichols, this slice of Southern Gothic also met with a mixed reception and Eastwood decided to play it safe with Space Cowboys (2000), in which he plays veteran test pilot Frank Corvin, who is yanked out of retirement along with Hawk Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), Tank Sullivan (James Garner) and Jerry O'Neill (Donald Sutherland) to blast into orbit to deal with a rogue Soviet communications satellite.

A novel by Michael Connelly provided the source for Blood Work (2002), which cast Eastwood as Terry McCaleb, a retired FBI Special Agent who begins having disturbing dreams following the transplant operation that saw him receive the heart of a woman who has been killed in a bank robbery. Once again opting only to direct, Eastwood similarly considered the plight of victims and their loved ones in Mystic River (2003), an adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel that earned Academy Awards for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins as blue collar Bostonians Jimmy Markum and Dave Boyle, whose lives are turned upside down when they are reunited with childhood pal Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon), who is now the cop who has been assigned to investigate the murder of Markum's 19 year-old daughter. In addition to co-composing his own score for the first time, Eastwood also drew an Oscar nomination for directing this Best Picture nominee, whose discussion of sexual abuse, murder and vigilantism demonstrated a new depth and maturity in his work.

Hollywood's Grand Old Man

A still from Million Dollar Baby (2004)
A still from Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Having steered two of his actors to Oscars, Eastwood completed a hat-trick when Hilary Swank won the Best Actress award for her performance as boxer Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby (2004), which had been scripted by Paul Haggis from a short story by FX Toole. Morgan Freeman would also take the Best Supporting statuette for playing Eddie 'Scrap-Iron' Dupris alongside Eastwood's Los Angeles gym owner, Frankie Dunn. Once again, his own acting was overlooked, with Jamie Foxx pipping him as Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford's biopic, Ray . But ample compensation came in the form of the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, which meant that, at the age of 74, Eastwood became the oldest director to win a second Oscar.

True to form, he followed this tearjerking crowdpleaser with two films about a crucial battle during the Second World War. Yet, while Flags of Our Fathers appealed to the patriotic core by paying tribute to the American soldiers who had raised the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi, there was outrage that Letters From Iwo Jima (both 2006) was made in Japanese and sought to humanise the troops who had sought to defend the island from a network of tunnels. At the Golden Globes, Eastwood secured Best Director nominations for each title, while the latter was named the Best Foreign Language Film. However, it was only the latter that drew nominations for Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards.

Having taken advantage during a quieter year to compose the score for James C. Strouse's Grace Is Gone (2007) - which stars John Cusack as a father building up to telling his young daughters that their mother has been killed on active service in Iraq - Eastwood was rewarded with a dual Golden Globe nomination, as he and Carole Bayer Sager were also cited for their title song. A parenting crisis also informs Changeling (2008), which saw Eastwood take over directing duties from a double-booked Ron Howard to tell the fact-based story of how single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) struggled to convince the Los Angeles authorities that the missing boy who was returned to her after an extended search in 1928 is not her nine year-old son.

This harrowing drama, which earned Jolie an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and Eastwood a BAFTA nod, became the first in a string of seven biopics that Eastwood has directed over the last dozen years. Having drawn a Golden Globe nomination after casting Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman as Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela in Invictus (2009) - which charted the progress of the Springbok team during the 1985 Rugby World Cup in South Africa - Eastwood chose Leonardo DiCaprio for the lead in J. Edgar (2011), which profiled the controversial J. Edgar Hoover, who was appointed the head of the FBI's predecessor, the Bureau of Investigation, in 1924.

The New York underworld of the early 1950s provides a menacingly colourful backdrop to Jersey Boys (2014), an adaptation of the Tony-winning jukebox musical about the rise of The Four Seasons that stars John Lloyd Young as singer Frankie Valli. Later the same year, Eastwood took the helm for American Sniper , an adaptation of Chris Kyle's 2012 memoir of the same name, which was subtitled, 'The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in US Military History'. Among the film's six Oscar nominations, were citations for Best Picture and Best Actor for Bradley Cooper, as the Texan who recorded 160 confirmed kills during his four tours of duty in Iraq.

Tom Hanks played a national hero of a very different kind in Sully (2016), which chronicles the events on 15 January 2009 leading up to US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger landing the damaged Flight 1549 on the Hudson River without harming any of the 155 passengers and crew aboard. An express travelling from Amsterdam on 21 August 2015 provides the setting for The 15:17 to Paris (2018), which took the unusual step of casting Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos as themselves in this tense recreation of how the American trio subdued a gunman who had opened fire aboard the Thalys train.

A still from The Mule (2018)
A still from The Mule (2018)

Another terrorist atrocity informed Richard Jewell (2019), which drew on Marie Brenner's 1997 Vanity Fair article, 'American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell', as Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray teamed for an account of how an innocent man (Paul Walter Hauser) was blamed for the infamous park bombing during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. A newspaper article, Sam Dolnick's 2014 New York Times article, 'The Sinaloa Cartel's 90-Year-Old Drug Mule', provided the basis for The Mule (2018), which saw the 88 year-old Eastwood play Earl Stone, who is tracked by DEA Special Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) in an à clef reworking of the actual experiences of 87 year-old trafficker Leo Sharp and government agent Jeff Moore.

This involving drama marked Eastwood's first return before the camera since Robert Lorenz's The Trouble With the Curve (2012) and the first time he had directed himself since Gran Torino (2008). The former centres on Gus Lobel, a talent spotter for the Atlanta Braves baseball team, who goes on a last scouting trip to North Carolina with his daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams). But the latter was the more substantial affair, as it delved into the psyche of Middle America in depicting how widowed Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski develops a relationship with Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang), after the young son of the Hmong family living next door to the old Polish American in Highland Park, Michigan tries to steal his prized motor.

A still from The Trouble with the Curve (2012)
A still from The Trouble with the Curve (2012)

With Kyle penning the score with Jamie Cullum and younger son Scott taking a cameo, this family affair became the highest-grossing picture of Eastwood's career, perhaps because of the race relations controversy it provoked. By contrast, the 80 year-old was more of a director for hire on Hereafter (2010), which screenwriter Peter Morgan brought to Steven Spielberg, who stayed on as executive producer after Eastwood came aboard. The story concerns factory worker George Lonegan (Matt Damon), whose psychic powers bring him into contact with London twins, Jason and Marcus (Frankie and George McLaren), and French TV reporter Marie Lelay (Cécile de France), who is traumatised after surviving the Indian Ocean tsunami.

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