Clint Eastwood Revealed: The Hollywood Icon’s 65-Year Journey as Actor and Director

When you think of career longevity in Hollywood, maybe you look at someone like Tom Cruise and are impressed by the fact he’s been a viable movie star since 1983’s Risky Business and is still going strong nearly 40 years later. But sitting in a class by himself is Clint Eastwood who, at 89, continues to act and direct in a career spanning 65 years, much of that success having to do with the fact that he struck out for independence early on in a gamble that paid off in a major way.

Biographer Marc Eliot, who wrote American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood, reflects, “I’ve always written about people who either are not in the mainstream or choose to take themselves out of the mainstream, like Steve McQueen or Jack Nicholson. Clint had a vision for himself early on. When he left his TV series Rawhide [currently airing on the MeTV Network], he had no interest in staying in Hollywood. He didn’t like Hollywood, the studio system, the people in charge or the scripts he was getting.”

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In response, he decided to take the money he’d earned from the “Man with No Name” trilogy (more on that later) and put it into the creation of his own company, Malpaso Productions, which he ultimately decided would be closely controlled in regards to films in terms of shooting schedules and budget. This arose at least partially from what he felt was excessive spending and wasted time on productions like the World War II adventure Where Eagles Dare (1968) and the musical(!) Paint Your Wagon (1969).

“Those were not the kind of films he wanted to do,” explains Marc. “So he left Hollywood physically and symbolically armed with Malpaso, in effect a mini-studio, and really set the standard for guys like George Lucas who did a similar thing. You know, made it in Hollywood and then left Hollywood to create his own mini-studio, although Lucas was able to call all of his own shots. Whereas Steven Spielberg, even though he formed Dreamworks, is very much a Hollywood director. There’s no getting around that and I think Spielberg always wanted to be a mainstream Hollywood director. That’s not the same about Lucas or, especially, Clint Eastwood. So Clint was able to leave the system, for lack of a better term, and started to call the shots on his own and make the films that he wanted to make.”

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As to his career longevity as an actor, Michael Smith, a professor of film studies and author of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry, points to Clint’s most recent acting role in 2018’s The Mule: “He was 88 when the film was released. That movie made nearly $200 million at the box office, which is crazy. But the thing he’s been exceptionally good at is finding roles that are appropriate for himself as he’s aged. I also don’t think you can talk about him as an actor without talking about him as a director, because what he’s always done when he’s directed himself is to interrogate the Clint Eastwood persona. Right from the very first film he directed, Play Misty for Me, he was asking, ‘Who is Clint Eastwood, movie star? What does this persona mean?’ And he’s oftentimes undermined it; subtly playing against type.”

“And as he’s gotten older,” he continues, “what’s really interesting is he’s found star vehicles that are appropriate for his age. Gran Torino, which came out in 2009, was a great example of him playing a character who was not dissimilar from Dirty Harry and the kind of characters he played in the 1970s, where he’s a war veteran, a badass. But at the same time, he’s past retirement age and yet it’s still convincing. There’s a scene where he punches a gang-banger in the face and you still believe he’s tough enough to be that guy. But in The Mule, which came out last year, he can no longer do that. He is physically frail; his posture is hunched over and yet he was still able to find a starring role that was appropriate for what he is now.”

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