Director Clint Eastwood stands with Tim Robbins and Sean Penn as the two actors hold their Oscar statues at the Governor's Ball following the 76th annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, February 29 2004.
Director Clint Eastwood stands with "Million Dollar Baby" co-stars Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank as they pose with Eastwood's nominee plaque during the 57th annual Director's Guild Awards at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, January 29 2005.
I was about 12 when I first fell in love – with Kay Lenz in Breezy. This was Clint Eastwood's second directorial effort (filmed in 1973) and like his first, Play Misty For Me (1971), it contains typical California ingredients, the wonderful scenery, the Big Sur coastline and beautiful women – my kind of movie.
Breezy remains one of my favourites, not only for the delectable Kay but because I'm a soppy old sod and like these kind of flicks. Ok, so it's dated a bit and the central premise of a gorgeous 20-year-old falling in love with 55-year-old William Holden was a bit unlikely, particularly when "Bill" – a heavy smoker and drinker – had not aged particularly well. Well, that's an understatement; he had the map of America on his face, or was it the most inaccessible part of the Eiger? Still, compared to Richard Boone or Lee Marvin at a similar age, he looked youthful. Movie fans out there will know what I mean.
Anyway, when I first saw Breezy I was puzzled to find out that it was none other than Clint at the helm. I was really confused. How could super-macho Clint, who blew his opponents apart at the twitch of a nostril in Sergio Leone's iconic westerns, direct such a sensitive weepy?
At the time, of course, the significance of a story about such an unlikely pair of lovers – a world-weary, cynical, battle-hardened middle-aged divorcee and a youthful idealistic hippie was a bit lost on me. Now it...er...resonates to some degree a bit more, although I'm not divorced, I hasten to add. Anyway, I remember thinking, hey, perhaps granite-faced Clint is a bit of a softy at heart. You couldn't imagine John Wayne directing a film like that, could you?
Until I saw Breezy and Misty, I admit I was never particularly a Clint fan. Revisit the Dirty Harry movies, however, and what's undeniable is that Clint has oceans of star quality. And that's not something you learn at drama school. Rather, it's from birth. Perhaps even as a toddler, Clint had a way of looking at his parents when he was thirsty that just had them running for the milk. He may not be doing very much on screen. Like Steve McQueen, he could be sitting in a chair, squinting, walking down a street, just chewing gum, but he just HOLDS your attention, irrespective. He dominates the screen. Even in schoolboy adventure Where Eagles Dare (1969), for example, he holds his own against acting great Richard Burton in the big scenes.
Nevertheless, what was so unexpected was that Eastwood, the super-charismatic megastar – and I certainly don't mean to skip over his acting achievements lightly – would go on to become such a gifted director – although Breezy, Misty and High Plains Drifter gave us an inkling of this talent.
Unforgiven in 1992 won him an Oscar as best director, drawing strong performances from a great cast (Eastwood seems particularly good at getting the best from his actors) and helped resurrect the career of Richard Harris who had almost retired for good at that point. Bridges of Madison County (1995) was a beautiful film, which made the most of rather skimpy material, with a great performance from Meryl Streep as a lonely wife who has an affair with a travelling photographer. Were there any dry eyes at the end of the film when she goes back to her husband, who just "couldn't make her dreams come true", and the one man who could (Eastwood) drives away in the pouring rain?
As for Mystic River (2003), well, if you'd never told me it was directed by Eastwood, this would have been a shocker. The themes explored were tragic, haunting and altogether sombre. Perhaps it was a trifle overrated, although, again, the performances were superb. Redemption came with Million Dollar Baby in 2005. This film exemplified Eastwood's professionalism and tight working ship. Shot on a relatively small budget, wrapping before schedule, with a no-nonsense, swift pace – and a nice supporting role from Eastwood regular Morgan Freeman – who featured in the recent Mandela biopic Invictus – and Clint himself cast as an embittered old loner. The film won the Oscar for best picture.
Changeling (2008) was well made but somehow the premise – a mother whose son disappears but who then agrees to take back the wrong child – was a little hard to take. The recent Gran Torino, however, was a return to form, a great film with Eastwood as a crotchety old beer-swilling racist, full of nice touches as he sits on his porch with wry, caustic observations on his neighbours and the world around him.
Eastwood, the man, refuses to be pigeon-holed. A liberal conservative who opposed the Iraq War, a man who takes his work seriously but not himself, he exhibits all the no-nonsense professionalism of the likes of old Hollywood directors such as John Ford and Henry Hathaway. By all accounts, he shuns the Hollywood scene, living quietly in Carmel. At an age when most of his contemporaries are either dead, or hanging their feet up on the porch, Clint is still making great movies. And long may he do so.
Happy birthday, Clint!