The most extraordinary aspect of American Sniper’s unprecedented success is its director, 84 year old Clint Eastwood. Sniper is now the biggest hit of a directing career that dates back to 1971’s “Play Misty For Me,” and marks an explosive return to form after a few years treading water with under-performing misfires like Hereafter and J. Edgar. Then again, practically nothing is expected of film directors at this stage of their lives. The master himself, Billy Wilder for example was reduced to flop comedies like Buddy Buddy by the time he retired, aged 75.
Similarly, the king of New York Sidney Lumet (Serpico, The Pawnbroker, Dog Day Afternoon, Q&A) had been debasing himself with third-rate courtroom thrillers like Guilty as Sin until he pulled out one final masterpiece (Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead) before his death, aged 86. Even Hitchcock’s seventies in the 70s were spent as a marquee name adding lustre to third-tier material like Frenzy and Family Plot. Only Woody Allen (a sprightly 79) can rival Eastwood for both the prolific nature of his output, and the wildly fluctuating quality of his work.
If Clint Eastwood had a nickel for every time he heard the expression ‘return to form,’ he’d be even richer than he is now, which I’d imagine is quite rich. ‘You’re only as good as your last movie’ is another favourite Hollywood axiom, one that Eastwood has been ignoring happily since he first put on his director’s cap. For example, the ‘last movie’ Eastwood made before Unforgiven, his multi-award-winning, career-redefining revisionist western classic was The Rookie, a wretched, lung-drainingly pointless buddy cop movie co-starring Charlie Sheen.
[pull_quote_right]There is an elusive side to his character has helped to power a mystique that has given the Eastwood image its longevity.[/pull_quote_right]A quick scroll down his filmography reveals a series of wild, see-sawing undulation, bouncing from western to comedy to independent drama via the occasional musical, a sexagenarian romance and a female boxing drama that turns into a treatise on euthanasia. Take 1978 – 1982, for example, when Eastwood was at his box office peak. For starters, he agreed to the seemingly insane idea to make Any Which Way But Loose, a knockabout comedy about a bare-knuckle fighter whose partner was an Orangutan called Clyde. Against the odds, this became the biggest hit of Eastwood’s career.
He followed this family-friendly outing with Escape From Alcatraz, a harrowing and brutal R-rated drama in which a prisoner cuts off his own fingers. A year later, Eastwood was indulging in a double-bill of horseplay with Bronco Billy and the even goofier Clyde sequel, Any Which Way You Can. Next up, though was the high-octane (but actually soul-sappingly dull) Cold War special effects-fest Firefox, which he followed the same year with Honkytonk Man, a depression-era drama about a country & western singer dying of tuberculosis. Now, if there is one thing you can say about Eastwood, it’s that he doesn’t care to repeat himself.
I think that this desperation not to be pinned down by anyone stems from his itinerant childhood spent drifting from town to town with his family during the Great Depression. This elusive side to his character has helped to power a mystique that has given the Eastwood image its longevity. The legendary roles like Harry Callahan and The Man With No Name are so instantly iconic – and the catchphrases so memorable – but the sands of their foundations are constantly being shifted by Eastwood’s oscillating modus operandi.
This ambiguity feeds itself into Eastwood’s politics too. A paid-up Republican, he has nonetheless infuriated his home-team repeatedly by supporting gun control, same-sex marriage and pro-choice in the abortion debate. However, American Sniper has taken on a political life of its own, having been adopted by the ‘Red State’ Republican right as a pro-war, flag-saluting all-American “Yee-haa,” and being decried by the left for exactly the same reason, pulling Eastwood into Michael Moore’s cross-hairs. Eastwood, characteristically has refused to allow either side to pin their medals on him, describing American Sniper as a character study and “The biggest anti-war statement.”
Eastwood being Eastwood, he’ll probably follow American Sniper with a remake of Big Top Pee Wee, but Sniper’s unprecedented, miraculous box office success – arriving as it did after the four-part wet-fart that was Invictus, Hereafter, J. Edgar and Jersey Boys – proves beyond a doubt that you can never, ever write off Clint Eastwood. As he said in 2005 when he won the Best Director Oscar for Million Dollar Baby, “I watched Sidney Lumet out there who is 80 and I figure, I’m just a kid. I’ve got a lot of stuff to do yet.”
Eastwood is one of the very few directors in Hollywood whose next film is more tantalisingly anticipated than his last. How many of our contemporary directors will be so fortunate when they’re 84?