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?