Never mind all those years in fantasyland, Clint Eastwood is still shooting straight

August 02, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

NEW YORK — New York--He's been good, he's been bad, he's been ugly, but who would ever guess the man with no name is talky? In fact, despite his screen image as a taciturn and guarded presence, Clint Eastwood turns out to be a real magpie.

Talk, talk, talk, talk! The lanky movie star kicks back with a vengeance, takes a swig on a bottle of Perrier, and lets fly. Wait a minute? Eastwood? With an effete bubbly effervescence out of a delicate green bottle that looks like a Ming vase?

Yes indeed, that is the man's poison of choice, and when you say that, smile.

Actually, smiling in the Eastwood presence is not particularly difficult. The Big Guy, in conversation, turns out to be a gifted raconteur who, moreover, possesses one of those deadpan, self-deprecating senses of humor found rarely enough among normal people but almost never among world-class movie stars.

Asked if he ever considered giving up acting, Eastwood replies, "Yeah. Every time I do a movie." He laughs. "Sometimes I look at myself up there, and I think, 'Hey. Give it up.' "

But his fans the world over hope he'll never give it up. In fact, like no actor of his and few of any other generation, he's transcended performance until he's become an icon. He just is, somehow, like a force of nature or the north face of an unclimbed mountain.

At 62, he's still magnificent, 6 feet 2 of ropy muscle stretched tight over a frame of bones that looks like some kind of rack for drying pemmican. The thick hair is a tangle of gray barbs, the skin is as buttery as old leather, the jaw line is still taut, the thin-lipped mouth an enigmatic jot. He retains that string bean cowpoke's loungy posture and endless shank, still every inch the high plains drifter who observes the world through eyes that appear to be nuggets of double-ought buckshot behind gun-muzzle cheekbones. He's like an old hunting rifle, much carried, well-worn, burnished, the bluing worn off in places, plenty of dings on the stock, but the whole piece still, at an advanced age, a lethal weapon.

And, in fact, to compare Eastwood to a gun is not inappropriate. Unlike any actor before or since, much of his career has been taken up with the subject of violence in general and killing in specific and killing with a firearm in the ultra-specific. And now he returns to screens in a long and melancholy meditation on the subject, "Unforgiven," which opens Friday. It's almost a "western-noir," a bleak parable in which a reformed homicidal maniac gives in to the temptation of his profession one last time and learns that most tragic of all lessons, that American lesson, which is that once the killing begins it can't be stopped.

It is pointed out that years back, the Italian director Sergio Leone firmly established the then-second-billed actor on a failing TV series as a cynical man-killer in a trio of worldwide revisionist western hits called "A Fistful of Dollars," "For a Few Dollars More" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." He's asked if he's had any regrets.

'I'm not a killer'

"No. I'm fatalistic about it. Obviously, if you become famous playing a certain kind of role, then somebody believes you're that person. I'm not a killer in real life, but if somebody wants to believe that or believes you're not acting, then that's the greatest compliment."

He pauses for just a second, then says, "I know I do it well. There must be something in my soul that drives me to it." He laughs loudly. "Who knows? There are certain things you do better than others, and the thing is to build on that strength."

But he's quick to point out that his biggest grossing film -- "Every Which Way But Loose" -- was a non-killing film.

"I've done a lot of different pictures, so it's not as if I've done just one thing. I could have done genre films for 35 years. If you just want to make some dough, there's plenty of ways to do it. But it wouldn't have been interesting."

And "being interesting" is one of the things Eastwood has insisted upon. In fact his career as both actor and director is filled with eccentricities of taste and intellect that not even a Steven Spielberg can boast. After all, he made "Bronco Billy," about a washed-up rodeo star, and "Honkytonk Man," about a washed-up country-western star, and "White Hunter, Black Heart," about a washed-up movie director. And "Bird," about jazz great Charlie Bird, in which he didn't even appear.

"I knew some of these films had a limited appeal, but if you've got to do it, you've got to do it. It's worthy. I'm a strong proponent of doing the best you can. If my interest in cinema was limited to westerns, I could have stayed in Italy and made a lot of money."

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