Ever since he decided to head ‘em up and move ‘em out," taking his Rowdy Yates in "Rawhide" to Italy to star in Sergio Leone's "spaghetti western" trilogy, Clint Eastwood has been on the top-ten list of favorite American actors. That's over fifty years. For over forty of those years, he's also been one of the most invisible directors in the business.
A diligent student of Leone and particularly of Don Siegel, who directed him in "Dirty Harry," "Escape from Alcatraz," "Coogan's Bluff" and "Two Mules for Sister Sara," Eastwood is well-prepared and usually brings his shoots in early and way under budget. Director Eastwood is content to let actor Eastwood have all the glory; he doesn't leave his fingerprints on the celluloid.
That business plan has worked well for both Eastwoods, too, as they trade star-driven sure-fire money-makers for the studio in exchange for independent, personal projects for themselves. Indeed, the legendary Universal mogul Lew Wasserman let Clint direct his first, "Play Misty for Me," in 1971 if he gave up his actors salary.
It's fitting that his directorial debut is a song title, as Eastwood is also a Golden Globe-nominated composer and musician, and has scored much of his films for more than twenty years. Besides the early effort with Honkytonk Man," his first Golden Globe win was for the Charlie Bird Parker biopic Bird," with Forest Whitaker.
For a guy who was once a moderate Democrat, Eastwood made more than his share of "revenge" Westerns, which can easily be interpolated into conservative manifestos. If that was ever the case, it ended with "Unforgiven" in 1992, one of only two or three Westerns to ever win Best Picture. Dedicated to Siegel, the film, if not the awards, prove the student surpassed the teacher.
In the ten years after "Unforgiven," Eastwood directed seven films in a startling variety of genres, from the sappy "Bridges of Madison County" to the happy "Space Cowboys."
Starting off his fourth decade of directing with the Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated "Mystic River," Eastwood really hit his stride with another Best Picture, "Million Dollar Baby," directing both Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman to Oscar-winning performances. Actor Eastwood had to settle for an Oscar nomination, while director Eastwood and producer Eastwood each took home the prize.
Though they were only Oscar and Golden Globe nominees, respectively, his next two films, "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Flags of Our Fathers" are historic in more ways than one. Shooting both sides of a famous World War II battle somehow doubles the anti-war ethos of a war movie. Given that Eastwood was schooled in a black and white, good guy-bad guy (ugly guy) mentality, this undertaking reveals much about his progress as an artist, depicting the enemy in an honorable, sympathetic and humanly revealing way.
His films since "Iwo Jima" are as remarkable in their variety as in anything else. What is driving the old guy is his ability to work on projects that interest him. Though "Invictus," his marvelous true story about Nelson Mandela, was epic indeed, the smaller-focused "Gran Torino" seems to be his most critically acclaimed picture, and it can't be because it's the only one he's starred in, too. Though "J. Edgar" was interesting, it was almost too epic: Hoover doesn't wear well.
Eastwood compares his approach to film, and his success, to golf. He says you just have to play your own game and not worry about how the other guy is doing. In his case, he probably has to ignore the fact that it is his directing that gets the critical acclaim while his acting gets all the fans. However he works these two swings into his game, there is no question that he has more than his share of holes in one.
— Nate Lee