Clint Eastwood, seen as an emerging auteur

December 01, 1996|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Clint Eastwood: A Biography" by Richard Schickel. Knopf. 537 pages. $26.

Eschewing the predictable Hollywood formulas of Spielberg or the avant-garde self-consciousness of Scorsese and Coppola, Clint Eastwood, in ""The Outlaw Josey Wales," ""Unforgiven" and ""Bridges of Madison County," has become a major film director. The actor who first was seen in Sergio Leone's ""spaghetti Westerns" and then as Dirty Harry, the rogue cop at war with the Constitution, has be come an auteur of grace and craft. Eastwood took advantage of having become John Wayne's successor as an icon of American cinema to buy himself artistic freedom as a director. His capacity to surprise has been huge.

In this authorized biography, Richard Schickel treats readers to many interviews with Eastwood. What appears is a self-effacing man deeply courteous toward his fellow actors, a generous man who never sought the largest role in a film, a tolerant man, and a First Amendment absolutist. Eastwood reveals how hard he worked to become the hero of his own life. Readers witness his love of jazz, his loathing of the military, and how he dug swimming pools on weekends as he studied acting. Throughout, his charm is without arrogance.

Surprisingly, given Schickel's long service as Time magazine's film critic, there are serious lapses in his film history. Sergio Leone was hardly among the first revisionists of the American Western; Arthur Penn's ""The Left-Handed Gun" long preceded him. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's sensibility is light years from Sergio Leone's ""sentimental nihilism that ranks survival above honor and revenge above morality"; that's just plain inaccurate.

Casting logic to the winds, Schickel deploys Eastwood's artistic growth to denigrate the views of those who in the early 1970s, myself included, saw the image of Dirty Harry as an obvious backlash against the anti-war views of the Sixties; the sadistic sniper, after all, sports a very large peace symbol on his belt buckle. Unable to view ""Dirty Harry" as a product of the historical moment in which it was made, preposterously he treats its ideas as accidental ("Had this movie been released in a less polarized political climate. ..."). His evidence is a disingenuous Don Siegel's assertion: ""I don't make political movies."

That New Yorker critic Pauline Kael conducted a career-long personal vendetta against Eastwood seems indeed to be a scandalous misuse of her position; Schickel, however, is careless when he calls her a ""radical," something she never was. It is also embarrassing when the film critic suddenly launches into schoolboy language to describe Eastwood's recent new marriage: He "fell in love." (Schickel covers the landscape of women disappointed by Eastwood's sexual restlessness. But the biographer pays dearly for the subject's cooperation, and this book presents the controversies of Eastwood's personal life from one side only).

It doesn't matter. If there ever were a justifiable subject of an as-told-to book, Eastwood qualifies. Read this not as a biography - it isn't really one - but as an introduction to a complex, intriguing man of significant accomplishment and seriousness of purpose. It's Eastwood's memoir most of the time. He's frank, honest and forthright and it's well worth the price of admission to listen to what he has to say.

Joan Mellen is the author of seven books about film, including "Big Bad Wolves," a history of the theme of masculinity in the American film, and ""The Waves At Genji's Door: Japan Through Its Cinema." Her most recent book is the dual biography ""Hellman and Hammett." (See facing page.)

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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