Trevor Hogg profiles the career of Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood in the third of a five-part feature (read parts one and two)...
“You’ve got to keep stretching out and trying other stuff,” observed actor and director Clint Eastwood. “I could have chosen a lot of scripts that were different than Bronco Billy , that were less of a challenge but it was worth trying.” The native of San Francisco, California explains, “It’s about the American Dream, and Billy’s dream that he fought so hard for. It’s all the context of this outdated Wild West show that has absolutely no chance of being a hit. But it’s sweet. It’s pure.” The subject matter resembles the work of two legendary Hollywood filmmakers. “My first thought was that Frank Capra [It’s a Wonderful Life] or Preston Sturges [Sullivan’s Travels] might have done it in their heyday. It has some values that were interesting to explore in contrast to the 1960s, Vietnam and Watergate.” Doubts were raised about the project. “There were suggestions that we needed more action and some sex, but I stuck to the writer’s intent. I didn’t have to prove my commercial value at that point in my career.” Revisions were made to the screenplay for the sake of character development. “I added a number of scenes myself, for example, the one of the holdup at the bank. I attended a match with Muhammad Ali and after his victory the reporters were bombarding him with questions like, ‘How did you place that lightning left hook in the last round?’ All he would answer was, “I just want to say hello to my pals.’ That gave me the idea of the sequence where Billy is asked about the holdup, but his only thought is to promote his show. I also wanted to show that this anti-hero was still capable of accomplishing a brilliant action.”
Accompanying Clint Eastwood in the Western are Sondra Locke (Willard), Geoffrey Lewis (The Devil’s Rejects), Scatman Crothers (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Bill McKinney (The Green Mile), Sam Bottoms (The Last Picture Show), Dan Vadis (The Seven Magnificent Gladiators), Sierra Pecheur (What Women Want), Walter Barnes (Pete’s Dragon), Woodrow Parfrey (Papillon), Doug McGrath (Cold Front), and William Prince (The Paper). An often talked about scene is the one in which the sheriff humiliates Billy when he is trying to bail his friend out of jail. “The audience is really rooting for Billy to blow the sheriff away,” stated the filmmaker. “It’s important that he doesn’t because he’s more interested in his friend than in his own pride at that point.” Not everyone agreed with the decision. “It was suggested that Billy come back at the end and punch this guy out; that would have ruined the picture, the whole theme of loyalty. Billy doesn’t approve of this kid being a deserter, and he doesn’t know enough to intellectualize what his friend’s feelings were about the war in Vietnam. He just knows he doesn’t approve but he’s going to stick by his friend.”
A tricky cinematic moment occurs when Bronco Billy attempts to rob a diesel train single-handedly. “It can be very dangerous in a scene like that because if it isn’t done correctly, you can blow the whole momentum of the picture.” Eastwood found his solution accidentally. “I was on the train with the extras and I saw this extroverted little kid and his mother. He was asking her a lot of questions and I started thinking that I should get a point of view from the train. I said, ‘You look out there when I come riding up, and say, ‘Cowboys and Indians.’ I got him real excited about it and then had the mother take the opposite tack. She’s hardly paying him any attention. It gave the ultimate irony to the whole thing because his imagination is going wild just like Billy’s; they’re both intrigued by this thing with the Old West because, after all, Billy is like a kid himself.”
“I chose Boise [Idaho] as the central location because it gave us a lot of variation within a few miles,” revealed Clint Eastwood. “It could have been anywhere in middle America, the plains of Kansas or Illinois or Oklahoma.” The movie grossed $24 million domestically and Sondra Locke received a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Actress. “Bronco wasn’t hard or expensive to make in this day of overblown budgets and jaded regard for the financiers. I always think, what would Jack Warner say in this situation? You can say what you will, those guys watched the store, and they pulled the plug when it ought to be pulled. I’m told that the production costs get out of hand because some of the executives know other things but not filmmaking. What I ask is, if they don’t know filmmaking, what is their function?”
“I liked the story and the script,” said Clint Eastwood when discussing Firefox (1982), an action thriller in which he plays an American pilot sent to steal a Soviet military aircraft. “It started out like a classic spy film but then there were some pertinent reflections on the arms race and the imbalance of strengths caused by a new technological advance. What worried me was the special effects. Luckily, they only came up in the last part of the film. The problem, in particular, was that these special effects played out against a background of the atmosphere of our planet, and not some faraway galaxy in the future. I must confess I’m not crazy about special effects. I’d prefer a thousand times over to have to deal with human beings and their problems.” The filmmaker remarked, “I don’t believe we manipulated the public’s paranoia. We only noted that the Cold War was there. Even if it hadn’t been there, you need an antagonist or a certain kind of conflict. As for conflicts, if it isn’t the one that opposes the United States and the USSR, there are enough of them everywhere on the planet.” As for the political leanings of the main character, Eastwood stated, “He’s a professional and he doesn’t have any idea before he goes over there of what his mission implies for the dissidents. He doesn’t know anything about the behind-the-scenes political machinations. Over there, he doesn’t have a single moment when he’s at ease except when he takes command of the prototype because there, at last he’s in his element.”
Politics prevented the principle photography from taking place in the Soviet Union. “We had to find a substitute for the Soviet city,” revealed Clint Eastwood. “Vienna as it turned out. The Russian base was set up in the Austrian Alps. The London scenes were shot here. When I head toward a hangar, the shot was filmed in Austria, but the reverse angle was shot here because we weren’t about to transport the contraption from one continent to the other.” The director had to use storyboards because of the complexity of the production. “The last fifteen minutes required some special effects and I made a set of sketches which I gave to a professional designer for retouching.” Eastwood is not a big fan of the technique. “I hate to be the prisoner of a diagram. The best ideas come to me when the camera is in place, read to shoot. That’s when I’m reinvigorated. Of course, I have a general idea of the sequence but I try to remain as flexible as possible. I’ll always leave the actor latitude to modify one of his movements if he has a good reason. If I’m doing exterior shots, I always take into account the light and the way it evolves during the day, at the risk of having to change a camera position.” Earning $47 million domestically the picture stars Clint Eastwood, Freddie Jones (The Elephant Man), David Huffman (The Onion Field), Warren Clarke (A Clockwork Orange), Ronald Lacey (Red Sonja), Kenneth Colley (Life of Brian), Klaus Löwitsch (Cross of Iron), and Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George). “Firefox was more traditional. It wasn’t about bad guys with pink eyes, but ordinary characters faced with an impossible mission.”
“I knew Honkytonk Man  was going to be very risky,” admitted Clint Eastwood of the cinematic adaptation about a country musician during the 1930s. “Red Stovall is based a bit on some self-destructive people I’ve know. He’s funny but has been a coward in his time. He won’t face up to his ambitions. He’s not a great singer but writes some interesting things. When he gets his moment, he’s already destroyed himself…He’s a collage. A mixture of Hank Williams, Red Foley, Bob Wills, all those country singers who drank their whiskey neat, burned up their life on the road and ended up self-destructing.” The filmmaker is a fan of country music. “I discovered it at the age of 19 when I was working as a lumberjack in Oregon. At that time, I only liked jazz, particularly West Coast jazz, Dave Brubeck, and Gerry Mulligan. I was looking for girls and I landed in the town’s only nightclub. Bob Wills and his band were playing there. Since I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t know how to dance to this music, I spent hours listening to the band, after which I started listening regularly to the small local country radio stations.” Eastwood added, “I certainly meet characters like Red Stovall. That probably helped me to recreate the atmosphere. But it was for me love at first sight for the book by Clancy Carlile and, although we pruned it a little, we remained very faithful to it.”
To authentically recreate the era, Clint Eastwood turned to his own experiences. “I browsed through piles of books on the 1930s and the Depression. I was also inspired by the photo albums of my family.” Not everything is downcast, as the first half of the period drama displays a sense of wit. “That’s the way it was designed: a humorous story that becomes a tragedy.” Cast along with Clint Eastwood are his son Kyle Eastwood (Summer Hours), John McIntire (The Asphalt Jungle), Alexa Kenin (Pretty in Pink), Verna Bloom (The Last Temptation of Christ), Matt Clark (Return to Oz), Barry Corbin (WarGames), Jerry Hardin (Missing), Linda Hopkins (Disorderlies), and Marty Robins (Lucky You). “Honkeytonk Man was a painful experience, and the chief blame for the failure lies with me,” readily admitted Eastwood when analyzing why the movie grossed $4 million domestically. “I simply misgauged the reaction of the public at the time.” The moviemaker has concluded that cinemagoers do not like him in self-destructive roles, as was also the case with The Beguiled (1971). “I thought they were enjoyable films to do and have no regrets about doing them.”
In the fourth installment of the Dirty Harry franchise titled Sudden Impact (1983), a rape victim extracts revenge against her attackers. “Inspector Callahan was always on top of the situation and he was in permanent conflict with the bureaucratic system,” observed the Californian when discussing his signature character who administers vigilante justice. “He had so many hours to solve the case and as far as he was concerned, he was more interested in the victim than the law.” Clint Eastwood recognizes how he is perceived. “I get accused of being old-fashioned, of dreaming of an era where things were simpler, more obvious and honest. The power of bureaucracy is increasing in the proportion that the planet is shrinking and the problems of society are getting more complicated. I’m afraid that individual independence is becoming an outmoded dream.” Besides the cast which features Eastwood, Sondra Locke, Pat Hingle (Shaft), Bradford Dillman (The Way We Were), Paul Drake (Beverly Hills Cop), Audrie Neenan (The Departed), Jack Thibeau (The Hitcher), Michael Currie (The Philadelphia Experiment), and Albert Popwell (The Buddy Holly Story) the crime thriller features a famous line of dialogue. “I knew that, ‘Make my day” would have a certain amount of impact in the film, but I didn’t realize it would become a sort of ‘Play it again, Sam.’” Eastwood was quick to point out, “There are a lot of comic elements in all the Dirty Harry series, if only because Inspector Callahan’s cynicism calls for a cynical kind of humour.” Sudden Impact earned $68 million domestically making it the most profitable of the five-part series. “I do my best and I can only hope the audience will like the movie and the critics will be more sensitive to its positive aspects than to its negative aspects.”
“Richard Tuggle was anxious to direct it,” explains Clint Eastwood of his decision to not helm Tightrope (1984). “He had written the script, which was excellent. Why not let him direct it?” A 1996 biography on the filmmaker by Richard Schicknel, claims this was not entirely true. “A compromise was worked out,” states Schicknel. “The writer would stay on, contribute what he could in a collaborative way and receive directorial credit while [Eastwood], literally, called most of the shots.” The craft of writing is something Eastwood admires. “I have an enormous respect for anyone who can write a book or a script because that’s where the real work of creation is; the rest is interpretation or illustration.” A series of murders involving prostitutes calls into question the innocence of the homicide detective leading the investigation. “What attracted me to the script was that there’s this cop who’s been abandoned by his wife, he’s got custody of the children, he’s intrigued by Geneviève Bujold [Anne of the Thousand Days] but doesn’t want to get involved with her because he’s got enough problems in his life…he seems determined to destroy himself and to drag his family with him.” The crime thriller stars Clint Eastwood, Geneviève Bujold, Dan Hedaya (The Usual Suspects), Alison Eastwood (Poolhall Junkies), Jenny Beck (Troll), Regina Richardson (Nine Deaths of the Ninja), Randi Brooks (The Man with Two Brains), Jamie Rose (Lady Blue), Margaret Howell (Girls Just Want to Have Fun), and Janet MacLachlan (The Thirteenth Floor). “He wants to do his job well, but as crime follows crime and the crimes get closer and closer to him, you begin to wonder, ‘Could it be him?’” Contemplating how things turn out after the movie, which grossed $48 million domestically, concludes, Eastwood stated, “I assume he continues his relationship with this girl [Geneviève Bujold]. She’s the first woman for whom he has felt something more than just a passing, sexual night kind of thing like he comes across so many times.” For her acting efforts, Alison Eastwood (the filmmaker’s daughter) was nominated for Best Young Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical, Comedy, Adventure or Drama at the Young Artist Awards.
“On Pale Rider , the screenwriter wanted to be involved until the end and he was in charge of the modifications I asked for,” revealed Clint Eastwood. “In Pale Rider the situation is similar [to High Plains Drifter], but this time the hero is really an archangel. He helps a small community of miners to organize themselves like a trust, he inspires them with the courage to resist and defend their rights… Although he doesn’t belong to the community, he gets close to two of its members in spite of himself because they had become attached to him.” The title refers to the line in The Book of Revelation which reads, “And I looked and beheld a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” Eastwood explained, “It’s got numerous biblical references. However, since it’s about miners, I had to read a lot of works about the topic and the Gold Rush era. We filmed it in Idaho, in the region of the Sawtooth Mountains; it’s a magnificent country. As we did for High Plains Drifter, we constructed a whole town, from A to Z.” Performing in the Western are Eastwood, Michael Moriarty (Courage Under Fire), Carrie Snodgress (Wild Things), Chris Penn (Reservoir Dogs), Richard Dysart (The Thing), Sydney Penny (Enchanted), Richard Kiel (Moonraker), Doug McGrath, John Russell (Rio Bravo), S.A. Griffin (Near Dark), and Jack Radosta (The Great Debaters). Pale Rider grossed $41 million domestically, received a Palme d’Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival, and screenwriters Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack were lauded with a Spur Award by the Western Writers of America.
Turning his attention to the small screen, Clint Eastwood helmed an episode of Amazing Stories (NBC, 1985 to 1987) titled Vanessa in the Garden (1985). A grieving husband attempts to bring his dead wife back to life through his art. The story which runs for 25 minutes stars Harvey Keitel (The Piano), Sondra Locke, Beau Bridges (The Descendants), Margaret Howell, Randy Oglesby (The Island), Jamie Rose, and Milton Murrill (Pale Rider).
“What warriors do when they haven’t got a war has always interested me,” responded Clint Eastwood when asked what drew him to Heartbreak Ridge (1986). “I thought, ‘Here’s a character, lets see how he interacts with people, especially with women.’ It was an interesting story, also about a soldier who hasn’t done anything but fight wars; he discovers that he’s reached the end of his career. He has nothing to look back on and all he can concentrate on now.” To portray Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway, Eastwood found inspiration from within his own family. “The voice in Heartbreak Ridge was my uncle’s. He had damaged his vocal chords and always had to talk rather slowly and deeply. He always had an embittered expression…I spoke with this voice for days, and I didn’t notice it at all.” The war film stars Clint Eastwood, Marsha Mason (The Goodbye Girl), Everett McGill (My Fellow Americans), Moses Gunn (Ragtime), Eileen Heckart (The Bad Seed), Bo Svenson (Inglourious Basterds), Boyd Gaines (Fame), Mario Van Peebles (Ali), Arlen Dean Snyder (Marked for Death) and Vincent Irizarry (Marie); it earned $43 million domestically, received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound, won a BMI Film Music Award, and was lauded with an Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (Mario Van Peebles).
From 1986 to 1988, the filmmaker took up a different profession by becoming the mayor of Carmel, California. “I enjoyed the time,” stated Clint Eastwood. “There were some things that had to be done and I put the necessary plans into action; but I’d planned in advance to run only once.”
Stepping behind the camera again, Clint Eastwood chose to do a biopic about a legendary jazz musician. “Charlie Parker was an exceptional human being, his story had never been told…When I was growing up, there was a Dixieland revival in the San Francisco area, and that was when I saw Bird for the first time.” A deal had to be struck by Warner Bros. to secure the project for the filmmaker. “We were having a meeting about another project. Somebody mentioned Revenge , which was a script I knew, and during the discussion, it occurred to me that Columbia had the Parker project. I started to exert some pressure which I had to do because it took two years before the trade was settled.” Columbia had planned to have Richard Pryor portray Charlie Parker but when selecting his leading man for Bird (1988) the director made a different choice. “I’d enjoyed him in his supporting roles, particularly in The Color of Money ,” said Eastwood referring to actor Forest Whitaker. “He always conveyed a truthfulness. I looked at a few other actors but I decided in favour of him very early. That was the second decision. The first was Diane Venora [The Insider] as Chan [Parker, the wife of the musician]. I’d seen her on a videotape in New York, and I said, ‘Get her!’” Other cast members in the $9 million period production include Michael Zelniker (Naked Lunch), Samuel E. Wright (Me and Him), Keith David (Platoon), Michael McGuire (Hard Times), James Handy (The Rocketeer), Damon Whitaker (First Daughter), Morgan Nagler (Domino), Arlen Dean Snyder, and Sam Robards (Beautiful Girls).
“Columbia was going to hire a musician who would re-record Parker’s music because they wanted to have the sound in stereo,” revealed Clint Eastwood. “There are some very good alto sax players, but I was of the opinion that Charlie Parker was a unique musician and that it would have been a shame not to use his music. I found some outstanding recordings Chan had made. In some cases, she had recorded almost nothing but Charlie’s solos, so we ‘only’ had to add the rest.” At the time, musicians Ray Brown, Walter Davis, Buddy Alexander, Ron Carter, Barry Harris, and Red Rodney were hired to re-record the solos Parker had played 40 years ago. “Because Bird is a movie about musicians who often play at night, there are a lot of night scenes, a lot of blackness. After all, the greatest part of their life takes place at night. I like the hard contrasts that arise through the extreme darkness.” A stylized approach was adopted. “Instead of a straight-on-approach, it had flashbacks and a lot of jockeying around because the story was woven, much like a musician playing a solo.” Chan Parker was given an advance screening of the biopic. “She was speechless. I told her to take her time to make up her mind. After a few hours, she came and let me know that she liked the picture very much.” Eastwood recalled, “I never forgot how Parker moved, how he walked and stood, and of course the sound; this stirring, joyous music which didn’t hint at the player’s tragic fate.” Despite winning an Oscar for Best Sound, receiving BAFTA Awards nominations for Best Score and Best Sound, Forest Whitaker winning Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival, Clint Eastwood being lauded with Best Director at the Golden Globes (Whitaker and Diane Venora contended for Best Actor – Drama and Best Supporting Actress), Bird grossed $2 million domestically. “We found out how a jazz movie shouldn’t be marketed.”
With the emergence of the 1990s, Clint Eastwood headed into the heart of Africa to shoot his next cinematic effort.
Continue to part four.
For more on the legendary actor and filmmaker, visit Clint Eastwood.net and ClintEastwoodSite.com, along with the Dirty Harry fan-site The-Dirtiest.com.
Five Essential Films of Clint Eastwood
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.