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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).

After he became a world-wide box office star, he was able to return to Hollywood on his own terms. His first directorial efforts were halting imitations of Leone, who himself had just taken the Westerns of John Ford—filtered through the samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa—and blew them up to operatic proportions. If Clint's early efforts had a characteristic flaw, it was in his translation of Leone's grandiose vision of the Western as magnum opus into .44 magnum opera buffo. Eastwood was fond of painting in broad strokes, too heavily laying on the stock Western archetypes cosmetically redrawn for a cynical age, and his sometimes capricious casting. Clint's on-the-job training as a director came under the worst possible circumstances; churning out commercially successful crowd pleasers, in spite of their weaknesses, that didn't challenge him as an artist. Eastwood's early directorial style often felt loose, hands-off, and improvisational when it came to handling actors; an actor leading actors rather than a director guiding a film. It's like the difference between being a school principal and being the class president. He still occasionally gives his actors a disaster-courting amount of leeway, but now he has the touch and the experience to keep it from turning into a train wreck. And it doesn't hurt that Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank can bring the sort of master class chops to the table that Albert Popwell and Verna Bloom could not.

The Seventies brought several fortuitous turns for Eastwood. First, and most importantly, he began working with Don Siegel. If John Ford was a virtuoso and Sergio Leone a maestro, then Siegel was a solid craftsman, a latter day Victor Fleming. Lacking Leone's bravado and flourish, Siegel knew how to take a good, solid story and make a good, solid movie out of it. He patiently worked the performances from his actors that he wanted, shaping nuances and guiding the evolution of the story, all without pushing them too far beyond the limits of their abilities or allowing them to phone in a workmanlike performance. Eastwood took the lessons to heart, but it would take him another two decades of laboring at his craft before he could confidently put Siegel's lessons to work in his own directorial style, without merely imitating his mentor.

The biggest gift the Seventies gave to Eastwood was the fortuitous curse of commercial success. The pop culture phenomenon of the Dirty Harry films and a handful of successful Siegel-meets-Leone Westerns overshadowed his own fledgling attempts to break out of his established formula and take a more complete role in the entire process of filmmaking, such as he'd done with 1971's Play Misty for Me. He ended the decade with the hixploitation box-office champ Every Which Way But Loose, where he confidently allowed his carefully cultivated leading man status to be upstaged by a beer-swilling orangutan who, though marginally less attractive than co-star/girlfriend Sondra Locke, was considerably more convincing in his role. He didn't abandon the types of films that made him; can you imagine Tom Hanks making Bachelor Party or Turner and Hooch now? He didn't worry about being seen as a Serious Artist, like Woody Allen as he transitioned from the brilliant silliness of Take The Money And Run and Sleeper to the naked pleas for intellectual validation of his later works. And at no point did he ever feel the need to screw with the classics to appease his own vanity ("Clint Eastwood in Citizen Kane 2: Rosebud's Revenge! By the time you see the sled, you're already dead!")

Eastwood began the Eighties using his long leash to make a mixture of small, surprisingly good but overlooked films like Bronco Billy and Tightrope, and some reliable box office fare that emphasized his action-hero status like Escape from Alcatraz and Firefox. He revisited Dirty Harry a couple more times to pay the bills (leaving Harry dangling in an ignominious Purgatory in the silly and cartoonish The Dead Pool), resurrected the Man With No Name only so that he could be given a proper retirement in Pale Rider, and, after the regrettable sequel Any Which Way You Can and the mildly entertaining penultimate Dirty Harry flick, Sudden Impact, learned his lesson about co-starring with orangutans and Sondra Locke. He was also coming into his own as a director at an age when most men are learning not to take erections for granted, not learning to implement the finer points of his craft.

There is a theory about two types of geniuses, early geniuses and late geniuses. Orson Welles, for example, was an early genius; a precocious force of nature in his twenties, he made the unforgivable mistake of making Citizen Kane first. He made powerful enemies and burned bridges right out of the gate, betting on his considerable talent (and even more substantial ego) to bring the studio system under his subjugation. He was wrong. The studio ruined his adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons, and plagued his career until the final indignity of the legendary hack job they did on A Touch of Evil. Welles lived out the rest of his days in show biz exile as a shameless commercial shill, a bloated pariah, with Peter Bogdanovich worshipping at his feet. Alfred Hitchcock, on the other hand, was a late genius. Though well-schooled by the pre-Nazi German masters, and capable of turning out stylish thrillers with the best of them, he did not hit his stride as a director until well into his fifties. He became bolder and more inventive with age, willing to gamble his reputation on experimental films like Rope and Rear Window. He was nearly sixty when he made his masterwork, the still spellbinding Vertigo. And he could still have fun with both the craft of filmmaking and with his own carefully cultivated image, turning the horror genre on its ear with Psycho and The Birds at an age when a lesser man would be resting on his laurels. He lived out the rest of his days being forgiven for such inferior efforts as Marnie and Family Plot, having earned a rare pass from an industry that has still yet to forgive former wunderkind Michael Cimino for Heaven's Gate.

Eastwood, as a director, is an example of a late genius. In his sixties, he finally freed himself from the long reach of his influences, bidding Siegel and Leone a fond farewell in the Academy Award-winning Unforgiven. He sought out topnotch stories, like 2003's Mystic River, took risks a young Clint might have shied away from, such as the decidedly un-Hollywood ending of Million Dollar Baby. And he made the best Western of his career—Gran Torino, which despite external appearances, is every bit the Western The Outlaw Josie Wales should have been. He has developed the deft touch the best directors have, uniting the actors in a common vision of the story and skillfully shepherding them to the work he has in mind. It doesn't hurt that he can now pick and choose his casts from the best talent in Hollywood; Clyde the orangutan could make an Oscar-nominated—and Golden Globe-winning—film starring Morgan Freeman, Meryl Streep, a classic muscle car and/or Angelina Jolie. But even when working with a relatively unknown and inexperienced cast, as in Gran Torino, he can still craft a nearly perfect film that is debatably superior even to the best works of his mentors and influences, John Ford (and Kurosawa, by way of Leone once removed) excepted.

His latest film, Trouble With the Curve, feels like a personal allegory of a man who has spent a lifetime chasing his passion no matter the personal cost. It feels like an existence of lessons learned almost, but not quite, too late. Most of Eastwood's later films feel more intimate, giving glimpses of a man facing his own mortality, struggling with his faith, mourning perhaps-not-quite-so-irrevocably broken relationships, and salvaging some form of redemption in the unlikeliest of circumstances. Sacrifice of self lives at the heart of his best recent films, from sacrifice of what remains of his tortured soul in Million Dollar Baby to sacrifice of what little remains of his life in Gran Torino to sacrifice of his stubborn pride in Trouble With the Curve. His muses are no longer objects of his carnal desire, but ones who appeal to the sacrificial nature of fatherly love. They are all, in their own way, bright and beautiful young things for whom he gives the fullest, final measure of himself. Even the tragic Maggie Fitzgerald (no relation) from Million Dollar Baby is rescued from the miserable hell of a hopeless existence, gets the chance to live a post-modern fairy tale, and is delivered from a fate arguably worse than death by the last bit of love Eastwood's Frankie Dunn has left in him.

Some further mention should be made of Eastwood's acting. Though I consider it the least of his talents (after directing, composing, piano, and that "whistling bellybutton" act he does every year in the VFW talent show), he has made a long and envious career of a relatively narrow range of characters, now that his brand of anti-hero has no meaning in a world where regular heroes are no longer fashionable. He excels at playing the gruff but haunted, gruff but cynical, gruff but vengeful, and gruff but not quite as gruff as he could be under the circumstances. Though he has occasionally stepped out of type, playing the gruff-but-idealistic Bronco Billy, and gruff-but-hey-I'm-still-banging-Meryl-Streep Kincaid in The Bridges of Madison County, he has still never lost sight of the things that made icons of actors like Jimmy Stewart—who essentially played himself in every movie, but was a likeable sort to whom the audience could relate, an onscreen surrogate who allowed himself to be occupied by the individual imagination of the moviegoer. The Average Joe could see the world through Clint Eastwood's trademarked squint, down the barrel of Dirty Harry's .44 or between the ears of the Man With No Name's trusted horse Whatshisface, and imagine himself deftly handling any conflict with hot lead and a cool catchphrase.

The real genius of the old studio system was the understanding that movies were first and foremost about escape. The tougher things were for the moviegoer outside the theater, the more dire their need to lose themselves for a couple of hours inside it. This is something Eastwood has never forgotten, as an actor or as a director, but that doesn't equate to just turning out mindless fluff.

Clint cut through the navel-gazing and convoluted psychoanalysis that has paralyzed the post-WWII generations, to find the collective heart of the audience, yearning for the relief and renewal that a good story well told can provide. The young Eastwood supplied increasingly cynical baby boomers, coming to terms with their own diminishing expectations of the American Success Story, with a conflicted but ultimately triumphant-in-his-own-way protagonist who was never the captain of the basketball team or pinned to a sweetheart of Sigma Nu. The middle-aged Eastwood reassured disaffected and directionless Gen Xers that there were still things in this world worth believing in, even if they weren't always perfect and sometimes in desperate need of repair. He provides a grandfatherly bit of advice for the cosseted and entitled Millennials, assuring them that they will not go through life being rewarded just for showing up, so they'd better pull up their pants and get a job before they wake up one day to find that the world has engineered around them and they're now about as in-demand as elevator operators and typewriter repairmen. And the 80-something Eastwood speaks to the man who carries a lifetime of regret, accrued after chasing his own selfish idea of happiness, and affords him a vicarious release from the terrible burden of unspent emotions.

The term "survivor" in show business usually indicates someone who has been roughed up, at least somewhat, by the excesses and blandishments of fame, the cruel and fickle nature of the business, or the inevitable toll of being allowed to indulge ones' appetites virtually unimpeded. Jason Bateman managed to extricate himself from Hell's Ninth Circle of Former Child Stars to carve out a respectable movie career; Robert Downey, Jr., has overcome addictions and the low expectations attached to someone blessed with easy likeability and a photogenic face to rehabilitate his career and reputation with both bankable blockbusters and fearless career risks; Jennifer Love Hewitt has managed to transcend childhood stardom and mature into a beautiful and amply endowed woman, continuing to find work without having to flash her high beams, even though Anne Hathaway and Kate Winslet have proved time and time again that it is possible to be both a critically acclaimed actress and still haul out the girls when the occasion calls for it.

But Clint Eastwood has managed to survive in show business for over sixty years without losing any time to drug and drink (take note, Charlie Sheen), coasting on his achievements, cranking out insubstantial and formulaic rehashings of the same tired crap (make Jack and Jill 2, Mr. Sandler, and there will be consequences) or resorting to gratuitous nudity and making me enforce the Harvey Keitel Rule (If I see a man's whistle, the TV is going out into the yard). Whatever personal issues Clint has had with his children, ex-wives or former lovers, have largely failed to taint his legacy. Even the regrettable casting of the aforementioned Ms. Locke was largely overshadowed either by an otherwise decent movie, a ridiculously large gun, or a scene-stealing orangutan. The next time he gave a part to one of his girlfriends, he at least had the good taste to cast the very talented and exceptionally redheaded Frances Fisher. My own weakness for the auburn-maned members of the opposite sex compels me to give him a pass for that one.

Finally, there is the aspect of Clint's sideline as a Jazz pianist and aficionado to be considered. I have always wondered what would have happened if Clint had dedicated himself to Jazz piano early on, and been the recipient of a few lucky breaks and a Louis Armstrong-level love of the herb. Would he have become a Jazz icon instead of a film icon? Or would he have languished as a reliable but unspectacular session player who lives out his golden years plinking shopworn standards in hotel lobbies? I tend to believe that, like most of us who have flirted with Jazz only to realize that our real talents lie elsewhere, Eastwood followed his true abilities to their ultimate ends and carried Jazz with him as a precious part of his personal journey. I came to that realization at the age of 19, knowing that I would only ever be, at best, a serviceable Jazz trombonist, but that my writing would be the conduit that would carry me to my place in the world. And besides, it is a known fact that writers are preferred 12-to-1 over Jazz trombonists among redheaded females between the ages of "hey, look at my new tattoo!" and "is it okay if I bring my son with us on our first date? He needs a male role model."

In respect to his love of Our Music, Eastwood has been afforded by his successes the ability to indulge his avocation. He can play piano for the sheer joy of it, and has the talent and self-restraint to not inflict his musical ambitions on the unsuspecting and unfortunate (unlike Shaq, who rapped about as well as he shot free throws, and Bruce Willis, who played harmonica about as well as Toots Thielemans shot free throws). He can more than competently score his own films when he takes a notion, play Carnegie Hall with an enviable line-up of Jazz musicians and not come off like he's renting out the place for his own vanity project, and even live down an album from his Rawhide days that keeps coming back to haunt him, on which he gamely slogged through a handful of cheesy cowboy songs. Eastwood has truly been able to fully live his passions and make an indelible mark on the world, creating a legacy that will live on even after he has passed on to the next life and gets into a fistfight with Charles Mingus over Clint's chord voicings in "Peggy's Blue Skylight."

Though he is most definitely a unique example of the pinnacles achieved by our fellow Jazz lovers, he is by no means an anomaly. Devotees of Our Music continue to distinguish themselves in all facets of human achievement; from the NBA's leading scorer, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who proved that intelligent and cultured men could still excel at sports (imagine Duke Ellington penning "Black and Tan Fantasy," and then dropping a skyhook over Bill Walton) to pioneering magazine publisher Hugh Hefner, who proved to American men that it was possible to see nice girls in various states of undress without having to buy them jewelry first.

It almost begs the question whether is it Jazz that inspires greatness from the merely good, or do those with greatness in them gravitate to Jazz because it speaks to them in ways no other form of creative expression can? For now, I will leave that for you to decide, since it is almost dinner time and I still have to return Trouble With the Curve to the Redbox machine before they hit me for another $1.50, because I'm not exactly made of money these days.

Till next time, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

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