Clint Eastwood Is a Closet Feminist

The Clint Eastwood reappraisal is over — he’s a Great Director. It’s contestable which film turned the sentiment of the jaundiced eye, but I would say "Bird." By the time he made "Unforgiven," everyone was in on the act. And no wonder. What a masterpiece that film is, a Western as a loose American interpretation […]

Last Updated: April 21, 2009 @ 6:26 PM

The Clint Eastwood reappraisal is over — he’s a Great Director.

It’s contestable which film turned the sentiment of the jaundiced eye, but I would say "Bird." By the time he made "Unforgiven," everyone was in on the act. And no wonder. What a masterpiece that film is, a Western as a loose American interpretation of classical tragedy with characters condemned to an inevitable destiny in an evocative landscape. Ample acknowledgment must be reserved for David Webb Peoples’ script.

Revisiting Eastwood’s career as it found its flow at the end of the ’60s, I wasn’t struck by gratuitous violence — rather, I came to an ununexpected and unlikely conclusion: Clint Eastwood is a closet feminist. The evidence is before our eyes, but we were so absorbed by Clint’s tough-guy image that we never noticed he has only ever cast some of the very best actresses of the day.

In "The Beguiled," it’s Eastwood opposite Geraldine Page, one of the greatest American actresses ever. Although Don Siegel helmed that film, his influence and bond with Eastwood is well documented so the casting must surely have been the latter‘s consent.

"Play Misty for Me," Eastwood’s directorial debut, had him with Jessica Walter and Donna Reed. Walter’s talent needs no elaborating, but Reed is a very good actress whose formulaic TV work has damaged her reputation. Then came "Breezy," the nearest Clint got to dabbling in the counterculture, with a lovely performance by a very youthful Kay Lenz.

The female characters in these films are fundamental. Then Verna Bloom in "High Plains Drifter." Tyne Daly, Patricia Clarkson and Sondra Locke joined him in three outings as Harry Callahan.

Eastwood formed a personal and professional partnership with Locke, which ended acrimounsly, to say the least. At this point I should say I’m discussing Eastwood professionally and haven’t read any accounts of his personal conduct, widely reported to be colorful. (Though, for your inner Dr. Freud, it is somewhat interesting that he fathered a daughter, unknown to his wife, and visited her secretly, and in "Absolute Power," he plays a master thief who, although estranged from his daughter, breaks into her apartment to check she has enough food in the fridge!)

Eastwood’s career as director (and producer) has been noted for canniness and complete rejection of artifice and extravaganza, so I absolutely do not think he has assembled such an astonishing assembly of leading ladies by chance.

There is an element of business sense in it: In Hollywood great actresses can sometimes be an unexpected bargain, but I also believe that he learned more about acting from his female co-stars than male, whose performances are largely workmanlike.

Although Eastwood is always an overtly masculine actor, his style is understated — his readings are consistently soft; even his most famous Harry Callahan lines are quiet and unhurried. I have absolutely no wish to ridicule or belittle Eastwood in any way, but it seems clear that his acting style has a feminine tinge. After all, he is in a business where straight men are often the biggest divas and some of the most prolific purveyors of ham served with camp.

As his career progressed, Eastwood increased his range so subtly that he could cast Meryl Streep as his leading lady in "The Bridges of Madison County" without fear of being eclipsed. He pulled off a fantastic scene with Ed Harris, himself a sublime actor, in "Absolute Power." It takes considerable assurance to direct or act with Streep and Harris, never mind do both.

In "Tightrope" he worked with the sublime Genevieve Bujold in his role as a policeman with kinky tastes, a daring role for him.

Even when he allowed Clyde the orangutan to steal two pictures, he also roped in Ruth Gordon and Beverly D’Angelo. Even an actress who had undeservedly fallen off the radar like the late Carrie Snodgress found work with Eastwood. Diane Venora, one of the few actresses to have played Hamlet, was sensational in "Bird." It can’t be chance that Eastwood has directed so many wonderful talents who have flourished in his films.

He has an affinity with them that many less macho directors don’t. In the revisionist "Unforgiven," it is the prostitutes who come to his aid; as actor and director he responded to that scenario completely.

As producer and director Eastwood has not been swayed by actresses who are flavor of the month, rather he has a matchless record for employing actresses who can be judged on their talent only.

My hunch is, and this could be an overstatement, that having hatched his ideas on direction under the auspices of Siegel, he knew he could refine his minimalist acting technique watching and directing great actresses.

Additionally, Eastwood’s course as a director is possibly the model that women in film should be following. By keeping budgets on a leash throughout his career, he has, largely, been allowed to do what he wants, and his arrangement with Warner Bros. has benefitted both.

Eastwood flops have been few and far between as he moves between ambitious filmmaking and "entertainments," to use a term the great author Graham Greene reserved for his lesser books.
 

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