Clint Eastwood: no manufactured standardized personality

By taking a specific star, examining his career in general and two films in particular, this essay intends to demonstrate a star is not a standardized personality. Clint Eastwood (1930-) is without question a star of immense proportions, a fact appreciated by studios and audiences alike. His prolific film career stretches from the 1950s when he made a brief uncredited appearance as lab technician in Revenge of the Creature  ((Universal-International: Jack Arnold, 1955)) to the 2000 film Space Cowboys  ((Warner Bros./Malpaso: Clint Eastwood, 2000)). He first became a household name as Rowdy Yates, cattle drover in the long-running US television series Rawhide, and, despite arguably spending the bulk of his career away from trail, the Western remains the genre with which he is in the main associated. Such an association comes as no blow to the man often quoted as believing the Western along with jazz are the only two truly American art forms, bemoaning the lack of general support each presently attracts ((Quoted as a chapter heading in Thompson, Douglas: Clint Eastwood: Sexual Cowboy (London: Smith Gryphon Ltd, 1992), p81 and in an interview with Eastwood in the Arena special)); but such an association is possibly unfair, given that his career has also encompassed every major genre from gay with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil  ((Warner Bros./Malpaso: Eastwood, 1997)) to space opera, with Space Cowboys. From a production perspective, Eastwood is one of the most successful actors of all time:

A [Warner Bros.] executive said recently that 95 percent of Clint’s films have made money. […] in worldwide theatrical release alone they have returned something over $1.5 billion to Warner Bros. […] All in all his grosses for the company far exceed $2 billion […] not includ[ing] the monies generated by the eighteen films he has starred in or directed elsewhere, which surely add another billion to his works’ total earnings. ((Schickel, Richard: Clint Eastwood (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996), p370))

Such success in production is in spite of his policy in the more secure years of his career of alternating the films he wanted to make with the films foisted upon him by the studio. His own choice films have included such less obviously commercially viable biopic / art house films as Bird  ((Warner Bros./Malpaso: Clint Eastwood, 1988)), (of the jazz musician Charlie Parker) and White Hunter, Black Heart  ((Warner Bros./Malpaso: Clint Eastwood, 1990)) (ostensibly of director John Huston).

Eastwood has justly received critical attention for his work behind the camera as well as in front of it, being one of the few who has made the transition from acting to directing. His directorial début was in 1971 with Play Misty for me  ((Universal/Malpaso: Clint Eastwood, 1971)) , made with his own production company Malpaso founded in 1968. Eastwood has directed himself on numerous occasions – indeed Schickel makes it clear that subsequently, it has been a hard task for anyone else to direct him. Less justly, his fame for his acting and directing career has led to the inevitable intrusions into his personal life such notoriety attracts. As Douglas Thompson argues in his prurient tabloid-style biography “Clint Eastwood: Sexual Cowboy” ((Thompson, Clint Eastwood: Sexual Cowboy)), he is famously attractive to women, and his life has been subject to intense media scrutiny at the times of his divorce from long-suffering wife Maggie Eastwood, as well as the costly palimony case with Sondra Locke, his long term lover and co-star. But despite the upheavals in his personal life, the star remains well loved both at the box office, and critically, and continues to make films. A sign of his importance to the culture industry around the world was his placing in the BBC Christmas 2000 television schedule, with a pair of important, and lengthy bibliographical Arena documentaries ((Arena: Clint Eastwood, broadcast on BBC2 in the UK in two parts on the 24th and 25th December 2000)) with interviews with the star himself, and inter alia his biographer Richard Schickel, and the film critic Pauline Kael, presenting her well-rehearsed argument that Eastwood does not deserve his fame. Hers was a voice against the popular line of argument, as names like Meryl Streep, Gene Hackman, and Martin Scorsese all affectionately described working with the star and their appreciation of the whole of his career. The BBC Christmas schedule also included a mini-retrospective of some of his most important films, including Escape from Alcatraz ((Paramount/Malpaso: Don Siegal, 1979)), Play Misty for Me, and The Bridges of Madison County ((Warner Bros./Malpaso: Clint Eastwood, 1995))

In such a long and prolific career (Schickel’s filmography ((in the appendix to Schickel, Clint Eastwood, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996), pp505-515)) for Eastwood lists 56 entries between 1955 and 1996) there are some notable high points. He took minor roles in a series of films made by Universal-International between 1955 and 1958, but he first came to major public and critical acclaim by leaving Hollywood for Europe to make the series of three so called Spaghetti Westerns, directed by Sergio Leone, For a Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Eastwood’s first major move into the film industry fixed for him his cowboy voice, and earned him his place in O E Klapp’s Tough Guy social type, as shown by Richard Dyer in Stars  ((Dyer, Richard: Stars (London: British Film Institute, 1979), p55. Note, Dyer’s book was written just after the Dirty Harry series, when Eastwood’s image was at about its toughest, and does not take into account the change his image underwent subsequently. It also reflects the common critical response of the time, which was to underestimate his work as violent trash; a response largely overthrown in later years.)). Westerns aside, arguably his most famous series has been the five Dirty Harry films (Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, The Enforcer, Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool), from 1971 to 1988 in which Eastwood plays the eponymous disillusioned cop, Harry Callahan. Dirty Harry is every bit the corollary of the ideology of the time: he represents the conservative America of the period. These films earned him respect from cinemagoers, convinced studio bosses of Eastwood’s true star status (despite the fact that role fell to him only after a number of other big names had turned it down, including Paul Newman) – but also lead to accusations of fascism to be levelled at him, for the ultra-violent, ultra-conservative nature of the character. There is, however, far more to Eastwood than violence and conservatism, and his film career includes paeans to American music, in Bird, Honkeytonk Man and as Executive Producer for Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser; two massively popular films about a man and his orang-utan, Any Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can; Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, a film lambasted and retitled “Tightarse and Cocksucker” by Peter Biskind ((Related in Russo, Vito: The Celluloid Closet: homosexuality in the movies (New York: HarperPerennial, 1987), p85))); and the films Play Misty for Me, Gauntlet, Bronco Billy, as well as The Outlaw Josey Wales and Sudden Impact, whose strong women characters lead to Tom Stempel recognizing Eastwood as a ‘feminist filmmaker’ ((Schickel, Clint Eastwood p386)).

But we will take as the basis for this essay perhaps two of Eastwood’s most famous Western films, The Outlaw Josey Wales  ((Warner Bros./Malpaso: Clint Eastwood, 1976)) and Unforgiven  ((Warner Bros./Malpaso: Clint Eastwood, 1992)). From a production perspective, both are films that Eastwood starred in and directed; both, according to Schickel, who devotes a chapter to each, were, and remain projects particularly dear to Eastwood’s heart ((Schickel, Clint Eastwood, Chapter 11 ‘A Labor of love’ pp318-39 and Chapter 16 ‘Lucky in the order’ p452-70)). From the consumption angle, both received critical acclaim, although in the case of Josey Wales, not immediately. Both are particularly well suited to examine Eastwood from a star studies perspective because each, as Schickel points out, is a “meditation on celebrity” ((ibid. p456, see also p334, and later in this essay.)), as we shall consider later. But most importantly, these two films show us Eastwood in his element, doing what he does best of all, and doing it supremely well.

In The Outlaw Josey Wales, Eastwood takes the role of the eponymous outlaw. In the pre-title sequence, the back-history of the character is given, for in these first few minutes, Wales is no outlaw, but a law-abiding farmer. We see him hard at work, ploughing his field by hand, and it is obvious from these scenes that this movie belongs to Eastwood. He dominates the frame in every shot, showcasing his formidable body. A close-up on his head shows him to be clean-shaven, a fact which does not reoccur throughout the film, and which is equally rare in his other Westerns. Equally unusual, his clothes are clean. These establishing shots are there to provide us with the contrast between the happy and contented domesticated man, and the man he becomes after his family (the cameo role of Wales’ son given to Eastwood’s real life son, Kyle) are brutally wiped out by marauding Government soldiers, with his son perishing in his burning wood house, and his wife carried off before his (and of course, our) very eyes – whilst he is horsewhipped by Terrill (Bill McKinney). We can build easy parallels between Wales’ appearance, and the events of his life:

Groomed Domesticity Partner & child
Unkempt Wilderness Loneliness

To this, we can add the additional factor of Wales’ prominent facial scar, earned from Terrill’s whip in the same event. The scar emblazons his face, cutting him from cheekbone down through his beard line, and once Wales’ beard returns, the line where the no beard grows only serves to make the scar more prominent. The scar – visible whenever Wales’ face is in shot, (that is to say, almost permanently) is an obvious physical reminder of the plot: an outward sign of Wales’ inner emotional scar in the loss of his family.

Eastwood’s dominance of the frame does not end with the title sequence: this film is every bit a star vehicle. There is hardly scene throughout the film in which he does not feature; this is classic Hollywood’s ‘goal-governed protagonist’ ((Jenkins, Henry: Historical Poetics, p103)), and the causal structure is Wales’ desire for revenge against the Red-legged captain who did him so wrong. It is a curiously enacted revenge, in terms of who is pursuing whom; and indeed the quest for revenge is as much Terrill’s as Wales’. Wales’ betrayal by the authority figures of Fletcher and Terrill is compounded when, after the death of his flesh and blood family, he witnesses the brutal slaughter of his adopted Confederate family-at-arms. Forced to surrender their weapons to the victorious Yankees and led to believe they are signing up as Government soldiers, they are in fact lined up and machine-gunned. This scene, which has immediate parallels to the previous murder of Wales’ family, allows Wales to regain his heroic status. Where before he was powerless to help his family as the tyrannical marauders raped and pillaged, here he assumes the mantle of power. Capturing the Gattling-gun (although not before all but one of his comrades are dead) he turns the weapon on those who thought themselves safe, and wreaks a similarly deadly immediate revenge. Thus Captain Terrill also has a similar desire for further vengeance throughout the film: Wales has massacred his troupes. Given that it is Wales who is the film’s protagonist it is somewhat unusual that his revenge is only finally enacted because Terrill pursues him.

Wales discovers at this point in the film the downside of celebrity. He begins to find that his notoriety advances faster than he does. Wales has righteousness on his side, but Terrill has as mighty a weapon: the law, and access to the law-enforcement system. Finally, Wales has not only become the titular outlaw, but famously an outlaw. Schickel writes:

[The film] is palpably a meditation on celebrity. Josey Wales begins his life within this narrative as an anonymous figure. But as he proceeds along his path, making one vivid assertion after another of his prowess, he becomes a public figure, a source of rumor, legend and awe, creating – without entirely meaning to – an image almost like that of a movie star in that it simultaneously distances and entrances his public. ((Schickel, Clint Eastwood, p334))

There is an inviting parallel to Eastwood’s own life. Early chapters in all the biographies suggest that Eastwood never really intended to make acting his life; yet a ‘vivid assertion’ – or two – ‘of his prowess’ in his films, and suddenly he two is a ‘public figure’ with all that entails.

Yet even in 1976, despite the fact that the ‘Clint Eastwood’ phenomenon had been a household name for at least fifteen years (since Rawhide and the Spaghetti westerns), Eastwood received remarkably little public acclaim. Schickel notes that Josey Wales was in the main

scanned […] with maddening superficiality. To [the critics] it was either just another Western or, worse, just another Eastwoodian bucket of blood. By and large, they did not review it so much as they used it to confirm their worst expectations of Clint. ((ibid., p335))

Clearly the reviewers saw Wales as more of the same, as another Dirty Harry: one more disillusioned anti-government hero; and in doing so,

‘missed all the movie’s most interesting points […] its pacifist subtext, its relationship to genre traditions, [and] the variant Clint was offering to his own screen character.’ ((ibid. p335))

The most famous opposition to this negligent critical hegemony came years later in the form of a Merv Griffin television interview with Orson Welles, when, à propos of nothing, Welles described it as ‘a wonderful film’ and went on to decry the critical ambivalence Eastwood’s films received.

By 1992, when Unforgiven was released, all that critical ambivalence had been swept aside. Eastwood had, in the 80s, been welcomed into the Museum of Modern Art, lectured at the BFI, presented work at Cannes as well as presided over its jury: in short, was finally being taken seriously as a filmmaker. The turning point does not seem to be associated with any particular film; but Unforgiven marks the highest point in Eastwood’s career to date. The film earned him four Academy Awards, including Best Picture (although he has still never won Best Actor) and universal critical acclaim. Reviews appeared in journals as august as the TLS ((Sinclair, Clive: ‘Unforgiven’ in Times Literary Supplement 23:4669 25 Sep 1992, an edition of the TLS which had as its lead article a review of two biographies of Althusser, Marxist theorist dear to film studies as a discipline, including details about his life in mental institutions after he murdered his wife.)) and Film Quarterly ((Greenberg, Harvey R: ‘Unforgiven’ in Film Quarterly 46:3 Spring 1993, pp52-6)) comparing him to literary darlings like Kafka and Thomas Mann; finally, Eastwood had been appropriated to the academy.

As Westerns go – indeed as any film goes – Unforgiven is bleak and murky. As its writer David Webb Peoples said on his first sight of the finished film, ‘I’d never seen or imagined anything so dark and relentless and powerful’ ((Schickel, Clint Eastwood, p464)); indeed personally I found myself wondering whether Unremitting might have been a more apt title. It is also less immediately a star vehicle – for Eastwood at any rate – than Josey Wales had been sixteen years earlier – but by 1992, Eastwood was an immeasurably bigger star. Once again, the picture opens with back-story, once again Eastwood is present in the opening scene – but these are superficial similarities, for Eastwood is shown for a moment against a glorious landscape wide angle taking in a sunset whilst the story of his character’s wife – long dead before the movie begins – crawls across the screen. After that, it is a good eight minutes before we return to Eastwood’s image, the opening emphasis instead lent to the whores of Big Whisky whose actions providing a motivating drive for the ensuing narrative. And throughout, although this is Eastwood’s movie, he chose to share the vehicle with a number of other major stars: Gene Hackman, Bob Harris and Morgan Freeman. As such there are many moments when Eastwood is absent from the frame; and there is no single ‘goal-governed protagonist’ as a focus point for the narrative. Is this mutilated whore Delilah’s story? Certainly we see her from the initial attack to the resolution (the conclusion of the contract on the cowboys’ heads). It could obviously be William Munny’s story from his involvement in Delilah’s case some months after the initial attack; it could be the story of Sheriff Little Bill Daggett’s dominion over Big Whisky, and his building a house he never gets to finish; it could even be Munny’s wife’s story, given that her story is given in the first and last titles of the picture.

Even when Eastwood is present on the screen, this film shows him to be a very different cowboy from the one viewers were previously accustomed to. William Munny has been pigfarming for so long he has forgotten how to mount a horse, and a thing more fundamental to cowboyhood is hard to imagine. Equally, he catches a chill sleeping rough, loses a fight to such an extent that he is beaten half to death (and such violence perpetrated against the man we are so used to seeing survive almost anything unscathed is almost more unsettling than anything else the film displays), gunfight deaths, when they come are not accompanied by a clutch of the heart and a swift demise, but are agonizing, brutal, and long-winded affairs. The Schofield Kid is so myopic he’s almost blind; the bounty, when finally earned is spent not on hard liquor and easy women, but on a pair of specs, and the establishment of a hardware store. Even the film’s climax, in which Eastwood finally does what we expect him to do and initiates a shoot-out in Big Whisky’s bar, which only he, and the writer W W Beauchamp survive, is strangely unsatisfying in the light of all that has gone before. The film has made much of the senselessness of death throughout (“when you kill a man you take away all he’s got, all he’ll ever get”), and seeing so many die only serves to underline this point. Greenberg, writing in Film Quarterly sees Unforgiven as a systematic dismantling of the entire genre, ‘a “taking back” of every sagebrush shibboleth’ ((Greenberg, ‘Unforgiven’ p52; the “taking back” refers to the Thos. Mann quote with which he begins his article: “After enduring a child’s cruel death, the composer/hero of Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus is moved to write a piece which will subvert the ebullient optimism of the ‘Ode to Joy’ and “take back” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Mann’s oddly potent phrase springs to mind after viewing Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, the sixteenth film of an uneven but never uninteresting directorial career.”)). He points to Eastwood’s career with Leone and in Hang ‘em High and High Plains Drifter as well as other revisionist Westerns as influences on this film, but concludes

Its deconstructive task is accomplished with such fierce intelligence, mordant wit, and formal beauty as to place it within the pantheon of the genre’s finest achievements. ((Greenberg, ‘Unforgiven’, p52))

Deconstructive or no, the film certainly redoubles Josey Wales’ efforts as a meditation on celebrity. William Munny does not achieve his notoriety during the film in the same way Wales, but has been a famous bounty hunter who has hung up his guns years before. Again, there are easy parallels to the actor who is known for his support for the Western genre, but who has spent the last few years with other projects. Unforgiven is as much darker than Josey Wales in the celebrity aspect as it is in every other regard. Specifically, there is a character – the aforementioned penny dreadful hack W W Beauchamp – whose character is there solely to satirize the process by which people become famous. He rides into town with English Bob (Richard Harris), supposedly his biographer, but soon switches allegiance when Little Bill dispatches English Bob out of town. He is an easy parody of the entire journalistic profession: his knowledge of his subject material is limited to what he is told, as demonstrated when seeking an interview with Munny after the massacre in Big Whisky’s bar. “How did you know who to kill first?” / “I’ve always been lucky in the draw.” Even the final crawl, relating Munny’s life after the events in Big Whisky as seen by the mother of Munny’s wife, highlights the process of myth making. Schickel sees it as revealing the

“anonymity that is the last – and proper – refuge of a hero who knows that heroism is nearly always an accident, a lie, a media fantasy.” ((Schickel, Clint Eastwood, p460))

Greenberg reads an altogether more sinister meaning into ‘problematic coda’ of the final crawl:

it seems altogether more consistent with Eastwood’s subversive intentions that the coda should expose the mythmaking apparatus already busily at work, softening into more “acceptable” obscurity the baleful spectacle of Munny’s frightening rehabilitation which mocks the optimistic dream of the American frontier, indeed any dream of inevitable progress. ((Schickel, Clint Eastwood, p460))

A study of that allowed for a greater scope than this could no doubt examine in greater depth Eastwood’s own mythology. There is place in this essay however to mention an example that consistently comes to light across all media handling Eastwood: “Eastwood is not John Wayne”. Two of the three biographies in my bibliography, as well as the Arena documentary make a point of telling us this, in the light of the same anecdote. The Arena documentary included an interview with Martin Scorsese which attributed to Wayne himself the notion that whereas no character played by Wayne would ever shoot a man in the back, this would be acceptable an Eastwood character. Scorsese’s version had a director asking Wayne to shoot someone in the back with Wayne replying – on set – that this would be more Eastwood’s territory. Schickel attributes a similar quotation directly to Eastwood himself:

I do all the stuff Wayne would never do. I play bigger-than-life characters, but I’ll shoot a guy in the back. I go by the expediency of the moment. ((Schickel, Clint Eastwood, p331. In his ‘Notes’ Appendix, Schickel sources this quote to an interview published in Variety (“shortly after The Outlaw Josey Wales was released” p331) entitled ‘Portrait of a mean BO Winner’))

Michael Munn has an almost identical quote, again attributed directly to Eastwood, but without Schickel’s excellent appendix, it is impossible to trace its origin:

John Wayne considered that Eastwood was ‘the best cowboy in the movies today,’ and no doubt the Duke […] felt that Clint was his successor. But Eastwood had avoided becoming the ‘new Gary Cooper’ and he knew he could never be ‘another John Wayne.’

‘I do everything that John Wayne would never do,’ he [Eastwood] said. ‘I play the hero, but I can shoot a guy in the back. I react according to the circumstances at the time.’ ((Munn, Michael: Clint Eastwood: Hollywood’s Loner (London: Robson Books, 1992), p156))

Clearly the meme encapsulating the difference between Wayne and Eastwood has its origins somewhere, but these origins have been obscured by time. The two Eastwood quotes are similar enough to lead one to suspect they have the same origin; and yet different enough to suggest this has become a saying. Scorsese’s repetition of the anecdote goes to show the currency it has achieved, but the fact of the different attribution is significant in showing the transition from man to myth.

As is the notion that Clint Eastwood is not John Wayne, any more than he is Gary Cooper, or Marilyn Monroe. I feel we can take this Eastwood myth as proof positive that stars are not standardized personalities; but I’d have to concede they are manufactured. Indeed, Eastwood has more control over the manufacture of his public persona than many stars, since he owns his own production company Malpaso, through which he releases the films he directs. In addition to his directorial control, his control as producer extends to who writes his scripts, and what scripts he makes into films. Time and time again, Schickel gives instances in which Eastwood has films altered to show himself in a different light; although Schickel’s emphasis is usually on changing the film for artistic rather than personal reasons. In the final count, however, and despite their appearances, stars are only human beings. Indeed, Dyer quotes Alberoni’s suggestion this is the nature of their appeal: “stars are a remarkable social phenomenon – an elite privileged group who […] do not excite envy or resentment (because anyone may become one)” ((Dyer, Stars, p7)). It may be that nothing Eastwood has done is unique. There are certainly others who have made jazz films, and others who have made revisionist Westerns, although it rather strikes me as unlikely that anyone else has made both. In the end, stars’ personalities are as differentiated from each other as the stars themselves. An argument could always be made for similarities between two images – and criticism largely works by drawing parallels – but that is quite different from saying stars are standardized personalities.


Dyer, Richard: Stars
(London: British Film Institute, 1979)

Greenberg, Harvey R: “Unforgiven
in Film Quarterly 46:3 Spring 1993, pp52-6

Jancovitch, Mark and Hollows, Joanne (eds): “Approaches to popular film”
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995)

Jenkins, Henry: “Historical Poetics”

Munn, Michael: “Clint Eastwood: Hollywood’s Loner”
(London: Robson Books, 1992)

Neale, Steve: “Masculinity as spectacle: reflections on men and mainstream cinema”
in Screen 24:6, pp2-17

Russo, Vito: “The Celluloid Closet: homosexuality in the movies”
(New York: HarperPerennial, 1987)

Sinclair, Clive: “Unforgiven”
in Times Literary Supplement 23:4669 25 Sep 1992

Schickel, Richard: “Clint Eastwood”
(London: Jonathan Cape, 1996)

Thompson, Douglas: “Clint Eastwood: Sexual Cowboy”
(London: Smith Gryphon Ltd, 1992)

Selective Filmography

The Outlaw Josey Wales (Warner Bros./Malpaso: Clint Eastwood, 1976)
Unforgiven (Warner Bros./Malpaso: Clint Eastwood, 1992)


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