Eastwood, always a favorite among fans, is now reaping the rewards of an artist Forgiven: The critics and bestowers of honors are giving The Man With No Name a fistful of awards.

February 27, 1996|By Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD -- Although winning best director and best picture Oscars (as he did for 1992's "Unforgiven") would qualify as the pinnacle of most people's careers, in Clint Eastwood's case Academy Awards have proved to be only launching pads to enough honors to embarrass a Roman senator, let alone the laconic Man With No Name.

On Thursday night, at a black-tie event to be telecast by ABC in the spring, Mr. Eastwood will become the 24th winner of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. Then, in May, he will cross the continent to be the recipient of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual gala tribute.

A full-dress biography of the man by Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel (with Mr. Eastwood's cooperation) is due out from Knopf in the fall.

Unwilling to let all this acclaim pass without a special promotion, Warner Home Video is repackaging a dozen films that have Mr. Eastwood on both sides of the camera with a snappy "Clint Directs Clint" sticker attached. They will cost either $14.95 or $19.98, the same prices that are being asked for another 10 Warner videos that Mr. Eastwood was content to only act in.

It's gratifying to see Mr. Eastwood's movies get this kind of wide video push because his is a case of public adulation paving the way for critical acceptance. A major presence with audiences around the world well before "cineastes" were persuaded to take him seriously, Mr. Eastwood at this point in his career is as justly and universally respected as any film personality on the planet.

Despite all that he's accomplished since, it's hard to consider Mr. Eastwood without "Dirty Harry" crossing your mind. "Dirty Harry," the first of five films featuring the curmudgeonly Inspector Callahan, had the services of master action director Don Siegel, one of Mr. Eastwood's key mentors, and its plot hook of a criminal justice system that favored criminals over victims had the advantage of freshness in 1971.

With a soft voice and hard demeanor, Harry Callahan had an authentically rebellious quality, the visual equivalent of a young Merle Haggard. And because time and audience acceptance have mellowed Mr. Eastwood's surly glower, it is a bit of a shock to be reminded of how much genuine hostility he invested in the Dirty Harry character.

Completely nonthreatening, and probably the most regrettably neglected of all Mr. Eastwood's work, is "Bronco Billy" (1980). It's not so much that this was a softer-focus project that makes it different, for Mr. Eastwood has periodically opted to do easygoing things such as "Honkytonk Man" and "Every Which Way but Loose." Rather, it is the gentle and pointed quality of its tongue-in-cheek nature that causes this film to stand out.

Closer to the western tradition but still a departure is Mr. Eastwood's sagebrush swan song, "Unforgiven." This story of a reformed killer who re-confronts his past is a violent film that is determined to demythologize killing. There are thrills to be had here, but none of them come at all cheaply.

"Unforgiven" showcases an icon of masculinity who has retained a matchless ability to hold the screen while continually improving on his acting skills. Being mythic has become so second nature to Mr. Eastwood that he is increasingly able to admit nuance and shading into his work.

Perhaps the only enigmatic loner able to convince us that he has reason to be both enigmatic and alone, Clint Eastwood is a craftsman who became an artist, and that is reason enough to celebrate.

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