Eastwood Babylon: Clint’s Cinematic Brutalism

The leftist imprint OR Books, which has produced an impressive line of fiction and non-fiction since its founding five years ago, does not typically put out film books. But writer Patrick McGilligan’s biography of Clint Eastwood, Clint: The Life and Legend, is not a typical movie book; McGilligan is right to call it “left wing.” OR has just reprinted the book, originally published in 1999, with a new update to cover Eastwood’s recent life and career.

In the 1990s, McGilligan spent four years compiling material about Eastwood, but after submitting the resulting manuscript had his contract cancelled by unimpressed Norton executives. The book was then published in England in 1999 by HarperCollins. After St. Martin’s Press published the book in the U.S., Eastwood sued to suppress its distribution.

For someone as thin-skinned and prone to cut friends and associates out of his life (and payroll) for minor slights as Eastwood, it’s not surprising that Eastwood took issue with McGilligan’s depiction of him. McGilligan does give Eastwood credit when his acting or directing rises above the level of his more perfunctory work, calling Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) “the real Clint Eastwood masterpiece.” But overall McGilligan sees Eastwood as “a lazy actor and a lazy director,” and cites Sergio Leone, director of the best of the “spaghetti westerns” that catapulted Eastwood to stardom, who said Eastwood “had only two expressions: with or without a hat.”

As a member of the sixties’ New Left generation, McGilligan is more skeptical than most writers about film. McGilligan began his career with a circle of film obsessives who put out a journal called The Velvet Light Trap. He and his fellow leftist cinephiles were inspired by the cultural criticism of the West Indian Marxist C.L.R. James, who is reputed to have said, “Our duty is to see the film in the afternoon, picket it in the evening.”

But though Clint: The Life and Legend is a work of cinematic muckraking, McGilligan explained to the Chicago Tribune that “I don’t feel that I’m tearing down a great person. I’m saying ‘Look at this guy behind the curtain and see that he’s not the way you think
clintlifeleghe is’ … I don’t think we’re talking about monstrous behavior. We’re talking about prototypical petty behavior on a lot of levels.”

McGilligan does an impressively thorough job of backing up the negative assessments he makes with inside information from multiple sources. Although many of the scores of people McGilligan contacted were too scared of retribution from Eastwood to talk on the record or, often, to talk at all, those who did speak out provided plenty of damning insights into the Eastwood modus operandi. Eastwood is shown to be fairly unscrupulous about using people, so much so that several sources repeat a former Eastwood associate’s crack that “If they ever called a meeting of all the people Clint has screwed over, they’d have to hold it in the L.A. Coliseum.”

By all accounts a life-long serial philanderer, Eastwood doesn’t come across as the most sensitive person in his private life. He displays queasy-making proclivities toward bragging about his numerous sexual conquests to a rotating crew of ass-kissing drinking buddies, and, when it suits him, to lying to lovers that he’s had a vasectomy.

McGilligan charts the out of wedlock children and the freezing out of dropped girlfriends with a diligence worthy of Kitty Kelly. The author conducted especially lengthy interviews with former Eastwood lover and co-star Sandra Locke, whose post-breakup foray into independent filmmaking was sabotaged by Eastwood. McGilligan’s forensic research convincingly buttresses the revelation that $975,000 of the $1.5 million settlement paid out to Locke was diverted from the budget of The Unforgiven, thus passing that chunk of his private expenses on to Warner Brothers.

Even more interesting investigative work delves into the inner workings of Eastwood’s incredibly effective PR machine and the millions the star made off real estate and other investments (among other things, Eastwood took product placement to a new level in commercial cinema).

In McGilligan’s view, Eastwood epitomizes much of what’s wrong with Hollywood. Clancy Carlile, the author of the script for the Eastwood vehicle Honkytonk Man (1982), and the veteran of unpleasant dealings with the star, would agree. Carlile described to McGilligan a moment on the Honkytonk Man shoot which nicely captures the rotten underside of Tinsel Town: “I got the image then, and I still have that image in my mind – because it’s reinforced all the time in Hollywood – of Hollywood being like a little trough of money with a bunch of piglets surrounding it. You have to fight your way into that money trough, and they’re going to try to keep you out every which way they can.”

McGilligan writes that Eastwood successfully created a reputation as a star who “rarely gives interviews and hardly ever makes public appearances,” while at the same time cultivating “a solid bandwagon” of U.S. critics, including Jay Cocks of Time (welcomed into Eastwood’s inner circle after writing one of the few positive reviews of Dirty Harry), Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice, and Vincent Canby and Bosley Crowther of the New York Times. The Eastwood charm yielded impressive results from stateside reviewers: the usually discerning Gary Giddins called the lame The Rookie “a knockout,” and Peter Biskind compared Eastwood’s westerns to Elizabethan tragedies. Even Norman Mailer swooned, strangely characterizing the star as “the most important small-town artist in America.” These flattering assessments many have been at least partly sincere, but Eastwood’s systematic schmoozing and interviews, along with studio-financed junkets and museum and other festival events, didn’t exactly sow discord among U.S. critics. Overseas Eastwood cultivated a long term association with well-connected French cineaste Pierre Rissient, who served as a press agent for Eastwood while at the same time writing ostensibly impartial pieces about his employer’s movies. Rissient helped facilitate Eastwood’s visits to the Cannes film festival, cementing his reputation as a serious filmmaker.

By the 1980s, Eastwood’s friendly scribes were presenting him as a sensitive quasi-feminist. But McGilligan writes that “… few American stars would encounter as many prostitutes on the screen. Rape or kinky sex became obligatory in [Eastwood’s] plotlines, and Clint’s characters would take perverse pleasure in punching lesbians in the face.” Further, in the opening of High Plains Drifter, Eastwood’s character “drags a foul-mannered female into a barn and brutally rapes her,” whereupon “she begins to enjoy the experience.”

Graphic screen violence really took off in the 1960s, and Eastwood was quick to cash in on the lucrative possibilities of big-budget bloodbaths. Most famously with Dirty Harry (1971) and its sequels, he helped usher in the era of simplistic good vs. evil vigilante pictures. Dirty Harry Callahan is a no-nonsense tough guy cop with a prominently featured .357 Magnum who leans toward the shoot-first,-ask- questions-later end of the policing spectrum. He’s disgusted with niceties like Miranda warnings, courts, and lawyers (especially hilarious given Eastwood’s real-life litigiousness toward objects of his wrath). Callahan jokes about his equal-opportunity bigotry, casually tossing off racial slurs for dubious laughs. Then there’s the notorious “Feel lucky, punk?” scene where Callahan taunts a black bank robber at gunpoint.

The character of Callahan is classic Eastwood. In McGilligan’s words, an Eastwood hero “always accelerates the violence, but is still portrayed at the end as the hero of the story.” In fact, “He’s always defined as good despite how many people he shoots.” Pauline Kael, one of the critics who never warmed to Eastwood, called him “the reductio ad absurdum of macho today,” and linked him to the spread of violence in films which she called “the Vietnamization of American movies.”

Eastwood has often been coy about his politics, claiming to be a libertarian, but McGilligan tracks the star’s support for Republicans and right-wing causes across more than four decades. Eastwood supported Richard Nixon in 1968, then again in 1972, when he said that Nixon was a “tough man” needed for “where the world is going.”

Eastwood went on to be a Ronald Reagan fan. The star’s 1980s output reflected that orientation: the Cold War thriller Firefox (1982), starred Eastwood as a retired military man pulled into a “mission impossible” covert operation in Moscow. Then there was the over the top jingoism of Heartbreak Ridge (1986), in which Eastwood’s Korean War vet hero leads a ragtag platoon into combat in Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. Eastwood actually also gave thousands of dollars to a loose cannon soldier of fortune named Bo Gritz for an ill-advised attempt to recover U.S. prisoners of war in Laos. When the mission backfired with loss of life and no POWs, McGilligan writes, “Clint knew when to go into his man-of-few-words schtick.”

The conclusion of the book, an update from the original edition, discusses a telling recent example of Eastwood’s politics: the hugely successful American Sniper (2014), which he directed but didn’t appear in.

American Sniper was based on the best-selling autobiography of Chris Kyle, who, in McGilligan’s words, “reveled in his reputation as the deadliest sniper of all time; during his four tours in Iraq he had racked up more than 160 confirmed kills of the foe he scorned as ‘savages.’” The project, which Eastwood signed on to direct after Steven Spielberg dropped out, fit neatly into the trajectory of Eastwood’s film career. As McGilligan observes, “Clint was accustomed to ennobling Dirty Harrys onscreen.”

McGilligan describes most of the central arguments in the heated public debates about American Sniper. Many liberals joined flag wavers in defending the film, saying it didn’t defend the Iraq War but focused attention on what U.S. solidiers went through in carrying out that war. Among American Sniper‘s critics were Alternet staffer Zail Jilani, who noted that the biopic made Kyle seem wracked by conscience when the real Kyle wrote in his memoirs, “I only wish I had killed more” and falsely bragged that he had killed more than thirty people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges weighed in with a typically scorching take, arguing that the film “lionizes the most despicable aspects of U.S. society – the gun culture, the blind adoration of the military, the belief that we have an innate right as a ‘Christian’ nation to exterminate the ‘lesser breeds’ of the earth, a grotesque hypermasculinity that banishes compassion and pity, a denial of inconvenient facts and historical truth, and a belittling of critical thinking and artistic expression.”

The rounds of sparring served to keep the film in the public eye, and ticket sales soared. By the time of the 2015 Academy Awards, American Sniper had grossed more than $300 million in the U.S. The film snagged only one Oscar, for sound editing, but once again Eastwood laughed all the way to the bank.

McGilligan’s voluminous research into the life and work of Clint Eastwood more than made up for his initially limited pool of friendly sources. His success in shining light on many of the less savory aspects of the movie icon’s long career is, to say the least, impressive. Clint is highly appropriate for CounterPunch readers, who should appreciate the response of Eastwood’s officially sanctioned biographer Richard Schickel to the book. Schickel slammed McGilligan, sniffing to an interviewer that “I had access to Clint and he didn’t. It’s a scurrilous book that goes beyond the pale as far as biography.” Hurry up and buy your copy today!

Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com