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Saturday, September 1, 2012


Like all the other political junkies, I was mesmerized by Clint Eastwood's bizarre performance at the Republican Convention, a performance so riveting in an appalling way that it has already given rise to a new word, "eastwooding," which has gone viral on YouTube.  But I was also saddened.  I have always liked Clint Eastwood as an actor.  I have admired the way in which he graduated from Serge Leoni's spaghetti westerns to the Dirty Harry police procedurals, and then, as he aged, to his later roles as an over the hill thief or a long in the tooth Secret Service agent.  There was a quality of self-deprecatory humor about his cinema persona that made me think he was someone it would be fun to meet.  But there he was on the stage of the Republican Convention, older even than I am, rambling on in a pointless and scattered monologue to a chair.

It all made me think of an episode of the old Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson, on which Walter Pidgeon appeared as the featured guest.  Walter Pidgeon was a big, handsome Canadian film and stage actor with a magnificent presence and a deep, rich, rumbling, mellifluous voice, best known to film buffs for his performances in such classics as Mrs. Miniver opposite Greer Garson, and in the great sci fi rendering of Shakespeare's The Tempest, Forbidden Planet.

Pidgeon's appearance on the Tonight Show was for the most part a let-down.  Seated opposite Johnny, he seemed simply to be an old, big, classically handsome man with almost no personality.  [This was all about forty years ago, by the way, when I was still capable of staying up late enough to see the Tonight Show, which did not begin until after the evening news, at 11:30 p.m.]  Carson, casting about for something to keep the interview afloat, asked Pidgeon whether he had difficulty remembering his lines, and Pidgeon replied that for many years, as a sort of exercise, he had schooled himself to memorize a poem every day.  "Here is the poem I memorized yesterday," he said, a poem about a donkey, as I recall.

As he started to recite the poem, his voice deepened, his face took on a look of intense thoughtfulness, and magically, before our eyes, he became -- WALTER PIDGEON.  When he finished the little poem, it was as though a spotlight had gone dark, and he became, once again, an unremarkable old man.

Great actors have this capacity, when they recite the lines that have been given to them,  of becoming larger than life, filling the stage or the screen with their presence.  As a recent commentator to this blog observed wryly, they have the ability to fake sincerity.  I once saw Charles Laughton, in the George Bernard Shaw play Major Barbara, dominate a stage and command the attention of every person in the theater simply by walking slowly from downstage to upstage, not saying a word.

Clint Eastwood is a great actor, and he has demonstrated this capacity in countless movies.  He is also a fine director, so he knows something about how the illusions are created.  But, seduced by the moment, he confused his film personae with his real-world self, and made the fatal mistake of thinking that he was Dirty Harry.

I hate it when my film favorites reveal their right-wing politics.  I used to like the Charlton Heston of The Ten Commandments, but after he had morphed into the spokesman for the National Rifle Association, I could no longer enjoy watching reruns of his old movies.  Must I now stop watching A Fistful of Dollars?


Vegan Underpants said...

Well said, Sir.

Don Schneier said...

Given his resume, Eastwood's stunt was sad. In contrast, coming from a room-full of NRA puppets, the "Make my day!" chant was sickening.

Murfmensch said...

I believe that Eastwood workshopped an acting exercise and I am very surprised that the Romney team went with it.

Eastwood made his position quite clear. He called the Afghanistan and Iraq wars foolish (and everyone applauded, which he should have corrected).

He made it (sort of) clear that he is not a smooth fit with the Republicans.

A friend of mine from Norway has argued that his stunt should not be seen as campaigning (and then it would be a failure) but as an expression of his actual attitude (disappointed with Obama and not one hundred percent Republican).

I look forward to Saturday Night Live's take on this.

High Arka said...

What did he say that was objectionable?

High Arka said...

(for someone who does not watch any American TV, really, what did he say?)

Jim said...

Professor Wolff –
I have to weigh in on this. First of all, for those of us not living in a cave, Clint Eastwood has been a lifelong republican. He was the republican mayor of Carmel, CA in the 80’s for crying out loud, so there should be no surprise with regard to where his politics fall. However, that is not to say that Eastwood is a republican ideologue. He is quite liberal on social issues, which is why many Leftists like myself enjoy his films. Movies like Bird, White Hunter, Black Heart, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, Gran Torino and even J. Edgar are subtle, sensitive portrayals of complex characters that lack simplistic black and white exposition. I have admired and looked up to Eastwood since about the age of 9 or 10, and have diligently followed his films (but not so much his personal life) since then. I was not so much dismayed by Eastwood’s RNC speech as I was disappointed. I would like to believe that by now he knows better, and he is probably aware of his gaffe. I think it is more a reflection on the RNC organizers, who, upon learning that Eastwood agreed to speak before Romney’s appearance, were so excited and enthusiastic that a Hollywood icon would be there that they did not even consider any type of coaching or speech preparation – hence the reaction we are now experiencing. Given that, why would you even consider ceasing to watch A Fistful of Dollars? That thought sounds disingenuous at best, stupid at worst. It is an old argument. We all know that some of the greatest artists are not the nicest or brightest people. Does that mean we ignore their works of art? If it was somehow revealed to you that Mozart was a racist or homophobe, would you stop listening to his music? That’s moronic. If I stopped engaging with everyone who expressed support for Mitt Romney, I would be shutting out a huge portion of my life experience. Consequently, I will continue to re-watch my favorite Eastwood films and look forward to his new ones. As an open-minded, thoughtful and inquisitive person, you should as well.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

As it happens, just after writing my light-hearted reaction to the Clint Eastwood speech [or at least I thought it was light-hearted], I sumbled on a Clint Eastwood mini-festival on TCM and watched a bit of Fistful of Dollars. So I guess I am forgiven -- or is it Unforgiven?