Saturday, September 16th, 2000
Life section

Clint still a draw at 70

Cinema's Journeyman

Clint Eastwood's latest movie was a hit at the US box office, showing that the actor-director is still a major force in cinema

In Nasa, Houston, Texas

AFTER the press conference, as we piled into the bus which would take us to the hotel, a young German reporter, with unkempt hair and big unvarnished toenails protruding from her scuffed sandals, snorted loudly to no one in particular:

""Such a shit. He's 73 years old, and he's telling us he's got a three-year-old baby. All this alpha male shit.''

She got Clint Eastwood's age wrong: He's 70. She looked to be his wife's age, 33. She obviously wasn't charmed by the man who, though still lanky and lean, looked his age.

Underneath his trousers, you could see that the bones in his legs had shrunk.

But, even today, hundreds, if not thousands of women wouldn't mind taking a bath with him, as the fortunate Meryl Streep did in The Bridges Of Madison County (1995). During the press conference held at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, packed with more than 50 journalists flown in from different corners of the globe for the premiere of his latest outing, Space Cowboys, the American director-actor had said, when asked how it felt to be a father again at this late age:

""I kept joking that because I don't have any grandchildren I had to have my own.''

He added with a grin: ""One of the nice things about being male is that you can have children at an age when you can really appreciate it and not be obsessed by a lot of other things. I love it, I'm much more attentive this time.''

The twice-married Eastwood has four other children by three different women. His first wife, Maggie Johnson, bore him two. The other two were by Roxanne Tunis and Frances Fisher, both actresses. He married TV journalist Dina Ruiz, soon after he finished making The Bridges Of Madison County.

They had met in Carmel, California, where he has his ranch, when she went to interview him for a local TV station after he won the Oscars for Best Film and Best Direction for his magnum opus, Unforgiven (1992).

During the press conference, the German reporter had put to Eastwood that Space Cowboys was just ""a teen flick for oldies''.

He smiled and shrugged. ""Yes, maybe you're right.''

Space Cowboys also stars James Garner, 72, Donald Sutherland, 65, and Tommy Lee Jones, 54. It's about four old geezers sent into space to repair a Russian satellite whose faulty guidance system is so outdated that only Eastwood's character, a former test-pilot, knows how to do it.

Shot in the Johnson Space Center and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, it celebrates old age even as it makes a non-stop barrage of jokes about it.

It was a summer hit in America. Its US$17.5 million (S$30.6 million) gross on its opening weekend was the largest ever for an Eastwood movie. Since its opening about six weeks ago till last Sunday, it has pulled in about US$79 million. That's comparable to Bridges Of Madison County, which grossed US$70 million in the US and US$200 million worldwide.

Of course, it didn't hurt that, when the film was in preproduction, the 77-year-old senator John Glenn went on a space jaunt, 36 years after his last trip.

Eastwood joked: ""I think when Nasa found out we were doing this film, they decided to send Glenn up.

""I was on the film long before he went up, but I must say that it was convenient of him to do that because it proved that a 77-year-old in decent shape could go up and perform. At least, I assumed he performed well.''

His three other fellow-actors were also present at the afternoon press conference, after submitting themselves to rounds of one-on-one interviews with TV journalists since nine in the morning.

While Sutherland and Garner bantered good-naturedly with the press, the younger Jones was testy.

He has the plummiest role in the movie, and should work as hard as the others to promote it, but that's impatient and arrogant youth for you.

He looked like he wished he were somewhere else. Perhaps, he should have taken the pesky German reporter to the mall to buy her a decent pair of shoes, and do what a man's got to do.

NO THANKS to his early spaghetti westerns in the 1960s and the 1970s Dirty Harry series, the ordinary cinema-goer may think Clint Eastwood embodies rugged malehood.

But, look more closely at his body of work and you see they are really about disaffected, isolated men who have difficulties connecting with other men, women, and their community.

As Time magazine movie critic Richard Schickel points out in his authoritative biography of the artiste, published in 1996, ""in many of his best films, he has explored the various ways that a man can fail to do what a man's got to do, showing how, through sexual arrogance, self-absorption, self-destructiveness, pride, perversity and even stupidity, he can fail, or come perilously close to failing, this primary obligation of the screen hero''.

In his 1983 essay on Eastwood, writer Norman Mailer said: ""He portrayed psychopaths who acted with all the silence, certainty and gravity of saints. Or, would it be closer to say that he played saints who killed like psychopaths?''

The veteran British critic Philip French, in his recent profile of Eastwood on the occasion of his being presented the special Lifetime Achievement Award at the Venice Film Festival, hailed him and Woody Allen as the world's two greatest actor-directors since Chaplin.

""They have been major forces, entirely for the good, in a profligate, disorganised industry. They came after the cinema's past masters, but before the emergence of the film school movie-brats...

""They've controlled their own careers, keeping a distance from Hollywood life, they invariably bring films in under budget, and have produced large and serious bodies of work.''

IT'S not quite in keeping with the new economy, but I like the fact that Clint Eastwood has worked with Warner Brothers for more than two decades. He has also held a production team together for as long. His crew, even if not paid the best of salaries, love him.

On his role as director and actor, he told Schickel, ""You're just a platoon leader with a backpack on your back the same as everyone else. You just get to point the direction we're going, whether it's east or west.''

These are the words of a modest man who stays close to the ground. He didn't refer to himself as a general.

Eastwood grew up during the Depression years, and though his parents were lower middle-class they had to wander up and down the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys looking for work.

He would have met the Okies and outlaws, truckers, and country and western singers who would later populate his movies. His was a redneck, small-town life in the South-west. He had a long, hard start in his career -- several years as a bit player on the Universal lot, then seven years on the TV series Rawhide as the hero's younger sidekick and, after that, it was off to Italy and Spain to work for then unknown Italian director Sergio Leone, who couldn't speak English.

Leone's first spaghetti western, Fistful Of Dollars (1964), was an unattributed rip-off of Akiro Kurosawa's Yojimbo. But following up with For A Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966), he made Eastwood a box-office star, even though critics sniffed at his apparent lack of acting talent.

Back in the US, with his Dirty Harry series in the 1970s, Eastwood had become a major star. Critics, almost all of them card-carrying liberals, denounced him as fascist but, if their words wounded him, he didn't show it. Perhaps he had known adversity all his life and never security. Work was the only area in his life where he could find order. And he worked ceaselessly.

He became an actor-director with Play Misty For Me (1971), and has worked consistently since, as though he were a journeyman, although he was often his own producer and director. The British blues musician Eric Clapton who, like him, has stayed the course; he even had an album titled Journeyman.

Both artistes seek their inspiration from the jazz and blues musicians who lived and died for their craft.

As with these musicians, age is not an impediment. Eastwood told the press conference at the Johnson Space Center: ""I think acting is one thing where you do see the benefits of experience, because every experience you have goes to make you a better actor.

""I'm fond of saying this: film isn't an intellectual art form, it's an emotional art form, and the more you allow your inner emotions to drive you then the more fun you can have with it."



Archive 1

03/12/00 Nice work if you can get it

19/11/00 Simple emotions stalls paperless future

04/11/00 A club of pretencious class

21/10/00 Canby's passion for cinema

16/09/00 Clint still a draw at 70

09/09/00 The inspiring Keppel Men

09/07/00 Time and love wait for no man

25/06/00 Seizing opportunity in old-economy biz

11/06/00 Bad news to have more papers?

14/05/00 When my hostesses didn't show up...

30/04/00 Bellow's betrayal -- or act of friendship?

16/04/00 Alone, you don't get to grow up

02/04/00 New Economy

19/03/00 The Good Life

06/03/00 Time for creative destruction

20/02/00 Meet the new superhuman

30/01/00 OK, I don't have to be rich

16/01/00 An intimation of timelessness

02/01/00 Let's not forget to meet F2F