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The Angel of Vengeance
A few film stars, males mostly, seem to escape the way of all flesh, actually gathering luster as they age. Fonda, Stewart, and Wayne all enjoyed an Indian summer of acclaim, although we may question whether those last years contained their best roles and work. What is sure is that none matched the steady ascent in esteem and influence achieved by Clint Eastwood, who has now entered his eighth decade and is going stronger than ever. The silent nameless gunman of Sergio Leone's offbeat westerns now sits atop the Hollywood heap, an actor-director of fame and repute. The rise was capped in 1993 when Eastwood's Unforgiven won Academy Awards for best director and best picture (and probably should have gotten best actor as well).
By any standard, this is an impressive career. But more than that, like very few screen figures before or behind the camera, Eastwood has created a folk legend, a lasting and powerful cinematic presence that rivals any in Hollywood history, including the legacy of John Wayne, whose cultural import is the subject of a new study by Garry Wills. In embracing the Eastwood persona, Americans have honored a new kind of hero, starkly different from Wayne's signature roles. The Eastwood myth not only celebrates bloodthirst and retribution but sacralizes the same with sundry trappings of the supernatural. All told, this is a daunting cultural shift, and in interpreting it and Eastwood we could use some help.
For starters we might turn to Richard Schickel, for long the esteemed film critic of Time, who has just produced a 500-page account of Eastwood's life and work. Schickel's slow take on Eastwood is dignified, genial, and leisurely, often too much so as he labors to wrest significance from some eminently forgettable films. And often this geniality goes so far as to slide into old-boy chumminess, since Schickel and Eastwood have been friends for many years. Once in a while Schickel even indulges a starstruck naïveté as he describes what ...