Cinema and Media Studies Clint Eastwood
by
Dennis Bingham
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0018

Introduction

Clint Eastwood (b. 31 May 1930–), a dominant figure in cinema for more than five decades, has enjoyed three exceptional careers, almost concurrently. He is a star actor whose persona evolved into an exceptionally powerful signifier of American masculinity, a director whose work has all the characteristics of the classic auteur, and an independent producer whose methods both mesh with and run counter to the workings of the “New Hollywood.” Eastwood was the third TV actor (after James Garner and Steve McQueen) to attain major film stardom, the last great film star—and director—of westerns, and the only American actor to become a movie star first in Europe—the latter a quirk of the internationalized cinema of the 1960s. He directed thirty-four films between 1971 and 2014, making him by far the most successful actor-director in film history. Eastwood was in many ways a late bloomer. He received his first Academy Award nominations, for best actor, best director, and best picture, at age 62 (he won the latter two). He hit his peak as director more than a decade after that, winning his second, third, and fourth Oscar nominations for best director in his seventies, between 2003 and 2006. In 2005, at 74, he became the oldest person to win the Oscar for best director; in 2009, at 78, he was the oldest star ever of a movie that hit number one at the weekly North American box office. At 84, he produced and directed American Sniper, which unexpectedly became the number-one-grossing film released in 2014, as well as the highest-grossing film, even adjusted for inflation, which Eastwood either directed or starred in; it exploded the truism, repeated in much scholarship, that films Eastwood directs but does not appear in do not earn nearly as well as those in which he stars (See, for example, Ligensa 2012). An Iraq War–set biopic, American Sniper became, in its cultural moment, the kind of ideological Rorschach Test in which all viewers, be they politically right, left, or in between, seemed to find vital meaning (See Scott and Dargis 2015). With Eastwood’s extraordinary longevity, and no doubt inciting it, went an equally unlikely ideological trajectory. In the 1970s he was the chief cultural icon of machismo. Dirty Harry (1971), among other movies, established him as the avatar of a white male post-1960s backlash. Films he made in the 1980s, especially Tightrope (1984), spurred a reappraisal by feminist critics. Later, pictures such as Unforgiven (1992) and A Perfect World (1993) seemed conscious reversals of the equally conscious politics of Dirty Harry. Despite these evolutions in art and reception, Eastwood’s personal appearance on the final night of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, preceding nominee Mitt Romney in a 12-minute ad-libbed talk in which he addressed a chair on stage in which an imaginary President Barack Obama was supposedly sitting, reinforced the simplistic public image of Eastwood as a political conservative, an impression exceedingly complicated by his mature films as director (see, for example, McGilligan 2014). Overall, Eastwood is the last of the prolific studio directors, cranking out genre films, good, bad, and indifferent, and appearing to loathe idleness more than anything. Since the early 1970s, he has enjoyed a productive relationship with a major studio, Warner Bros., despite periods of great industrial and technological change, making modestly budgeted films as quickly as any independent director of the same eras. In Eastwood it seems as if personalities from studio-era Warner Bros.—moguls Jack and Harry Warner, producers Hal Wallis and Jerry Wald, stars Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart, and directors Michael Curtiz and Howard Hawks—had all been alchemized into one unlikely individual. Of all contemporary film figures, Eastwood is one of those most frequently written about. What follows is an attempt to represent by no means all, but rather the most important works on Eastwood across a variety of perspectives and formats.

Biographies

The three major Eastwood biographies are all over the Malpaso–Warner Bros. lot. Eliot 2009 and McGilligan 2002 are unauthorized works by noted professional show-business biographers. Schickel 1996 has the distinction of being not only the first authorized biography, but also by an individual having complete access to the subject. Just as all three books have their virtues, they also are ultimately unsatisfying, leaving the sense that the truth about Eastwood is still out there. If one can read just one of these, it should be Schickel 1996 for its mix of biography, production history, and cinematic analysis. In addition, other biographies are related to Eastwood, as well as books of photographs. Guérif 1986 and Johnstone 1989 provide fan-enthusiast rundowns of Eastwood’s career as star and director at a time when Eastwood was just beginning to gain a measure of critical acceptance. Two decades later, Verlhac 2008 is heavy on photographs, many of them rare, and light on text. Vaux 2014, nominally a biography, is inconsequential compared even to the other, flawed choices. In a quite different vein, Siegel 1996, the memoir of director Don Siegel (b. 1912–d. 1991), is laden with description of the actor-director collaboration that yielded five of Eastwood’s most iconic films, including Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz.

  • Eliot, Marc. American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood. New York: Crown Archetype, 2009.

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    Eliot’s biography is the most balanced and fair minded of the three major biographies. It is marred, however, by sloppy chronology and mangled quotations. It is also lacking Eastwood’s direct words, showing the subject decidedly from a distance.

  • Guérif, François. Clint Eastwood: From “Rawhide” to “Pale Rider.” London: R. Houghton, 1986.

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    A mostly uncritical overview of Eastwood’s career, of mainly historical interest.

  • Johnstone, Iain. The Man with No Name: Clint Eastwood. 2d rev. ed. New York: Quill/William Morrow, 1989.

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    As with Guérif 1986, a sympathetic chronicle of the star/director’s career, notable now mostly for its historical interest. First published in 1981.

  • McGilligan, Patrick. Clint: The Life and Legend. New York: St. Martin’s, 2002.

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    Published in the United Kingdom in 1999, McGilligan’s meticulously researched but relentlessly and one-sidedly negative life story of Eastwood was passed over by US publishers for three years. It is clear that McGilligan’s mounting disapproval of the star as he researched bled over into his impression of Eastwood’s films and career as well.

  • Schickel, Richard. Clint Eastwood: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

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    The opposite of Eliot 2009 and McGilligan 2002, Schickel’s biography is a cross between a book-length interview converted into prose, a conventional biography, and an appreciation by a reviewer long sympathetic to the actor-director’s work. The book benefits from Eastwood’s voice throughout, even though its presence raises as many questions about the biography’s credibility as McGilligan’s gutter sniping does at the opposite end of the scale.

  • Siegel, Don. A Siegel Film: An Autobiography. London: Faber and Faber, 1996.

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    The autobiography of Don Siegel, director of six Eastwood films and Eastwood’s most important directorial model and mentor. Foreword by Clint Eastwood.

  • Vaux, Sara Anson. Clint Eastwood: A Biography. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2014.

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    Calling this chatty, impressionistic 178-page stroll through Eastwood’s career and films “a biography” is as capricious a gesture as everything else in this ahistorical, anti-theory vanity book. Put together, apparently, from ideas left over from the author’s more substantive philosophical treatise on Eastwood; see also Vaux 2012 (cited under History, Politics, Mythology, and Philosophy). Sterritt 2014 (cited under Auteur Criticism) covers the same territory as Clint Eastwood: A Biography with far more seriousness and rigor.

  • Verlhac, Pierre-Henri. Clint Eastwood: A Life in Pictures. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2008.

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    Lavishly illustrated coffee-table book, with an informative foreword by the film director and historian Peter Bogdanovich.

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