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Jazz Lovers Series: Clint Eastwood

Jazz Lovers Series: Clint Eastwood
Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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It goes without saying that those who appreciate Jazz are a special lot. You will rarely find lovers of Our Music who have not managed to distinguish themselves in their chosen vocations, be it in the arts, business, the humanities, or the kid at Subway who earned Employee of the Month honors while listening to The Bad Plus and making my Cold Cut Combo exactly the way I like it.

Clint Eastwood is a shining example of this fact, having established himself as a top box-office draw for over fifty years, and succeeding both in front of and behind the camera on a level perhaps only achieved by Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles before him. He has also established himself as a more-than-competent Jazz pianist, and has contributed to the music of his films as far back as The Beguiled in 1971. His trophy case includes two Best Director Oscars, and virtually every other film award worth winning (Cannes can cram their rinky-dink Palm D'Or). And he would have won Employee of the Month at his Subway were it not for the fact that Jennifer is a notorious suck-up who walks around with her nose stuck up Brad the manager's butt.

Clint's beginnings in Hollywood were inauspicious. A contract player at the beginning of the slow decline of the studio system, he witnessed the dying days of the system that produced the myth of Hollywood and had powered the dreams of millions of Americans ever since a group of East Coast pirates took their operation to a little-known backwater in southern California to maximize their potential profits by avoiding having to pay Thomas Edison for the rights to use his invention. They built an industry of unimaginable power, created some of the greatest and most enduring stars, and advanced the art of the moving picture to a level that, if Shakespeare had been around, he would have had a three picture development deal with MGM ("Bill, love the Romeo and Juliet scenario. The ending is a bit of a downer, though. How about a musical number instead? Get me Busby Berkeley's agent on the horn."). They also ruthlessly destroyed innumerable "little people" and more than a few big ones, enrobed themselves with staggering levels of decadence that would have made a Roman orgy look like a Tuesday night at the Elk's Lodge, and ruled their dream factories with an iron fist and an ultimately fatal overdose of hubris. And Clint was right on the scene, taking it all in, ready to emerge from the wreckage when Hollywood was forced to reconsider its entire creative process for an audience increasingly unwilling to pay their hard-earned dollar for outmoded Hays Code censorship and quaint, stagey, old-school acting.

Eastwood found himself a niche as Rowdy Yates on the TV show Rawhide, where he attracted the notice of pathologically Italian director Sergio Leone, who was looking for a different kind of protagonist for his entry into the burgeoning Spaghetti Western genre (so named because early examples, true to their native origins, frequently featured barroom brawls begun when the bad guy insulted the quality of the hero's mother's pasta). Eastwood conveyed all the qualities Leone was seeking in a lead character: a man of few words with an inscrutable, weathered face upon whom the audience could project their own ideal notions of the flawed hero. Unlike John Wayne, who dominated the screen with his charismatic screen presence and the sheer magnitude of his persona, Clint employed the mysteries of his own unspoken and unspeakable struggles and let the audience supply the internal monologs to fill the frequent screen silence that punctuates his most indelible characters' sparse screen dialog. It was a place Wayne found only once, as the prototypical anti-hero Ethan Edwards in John Ford's masterwork, The Searchers; Clint inhabited some version of that character throughout his entire career arc, from the Man With No Name and Dirty Harry to Walt Kowalski (Gran Torino) and Frankie Dunn (Million Dollar Baby).

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