ON THE AISLE, by Tony Macklin
In 2004 I spent an hour and 45 minutes with Clint Eastwood (interview on tonymacklin.net) and was properly impressed. He was gentler than I assumed and more well read.
As he has many times, Clint talked about how people wanted him to bring back Dirty Harry. He said, “Are you going to have him driving along the highway in a trailer with an AARP sign on one side and an ‘I’m Spending the Kids’ Inheritance’ on the other. Then what happens? He has to come out of retirement with a big 44? I’ve pretty well shot that down.”
Although Clint decided that Harry Callahan would stay retired, would he decide that for himself as an actor?
“Million Dollar Baby” seemed to stand as Clint’s last acting appearance. Its penultimate shot was Clint walking away down a hallway and out a door. This was an apt closing signature shot. But it didn’t turn out to be.
When it was announced that Clint was going to star in “Gran Torino,” it seemed as though the actor might have overstayed his performing career. What was he doing?
Would “Gran Torino” have any chance at the box office? Who wanted to see a 78-year-old actor strutting his stuff? Would there be any room for him at all in the glut of holiday releases? Would “Gran Torino” get buried?
The answer to all of the above: “Gran Torino” had the biggest wide-opening at the box office of Clint Eastwood’s career.
In “Gran Torino” Clint plays hard-bitten, alienated, anti-everything Walt Kowalski. Sound familiar? Clint didn’t bring back Dirty Harry, but he gave us Dirty Walt.
Walt has his own independent code and is fiercely anti-social. He is a recent widower, a veteran of the Korean War, and is a retiree from the auto industry. His world goes to the edge of his lawn; anything beyond is foreign territory. His suburban Detroit neighborhood has deteriorated, and all his previous neighbors have died or moved away.
Walt still goes to the barbershop for male banter with the barber, but his only constant friend is his dog Daisy, a loyal Labrador.
Walt also is pestered by a young priest (Christopher Carley), who is trying to fulfill Walt’s wife’s final wish that her husband go to confession. Walt gruffly dismisses the young man’s mission.
Now living next to Walt is a Hmong family, refugees from Southeast Asia. He bluntly insults them. Since there is no father in the family, could Walt become the father figure? Of course. (Remember Clint is the man who directed “Letters from Iwo Jima,” which empathetically told the story of the attack on Iwo Jima from the Japanese side.)
The breakthough comes when the next-door teenager Thao (Bee Vang), whom Walt calls “Toad,” tries to steal Walt’s beloved 1972 Gran Torino, as part of a gang initiation.
As punishment, the Hmong family allows Walt to dictate what work Thao will do for Walt. A strong bond evolves between the uncertain lad, whom the gang is now after, and the wily old man.
Clint directs capably, giving his leading man room to roam, utilizing Nick Schenk’s contrived but entertaining script.
Clint Eastwood has never won an Oscar for acting; he has been awarded two Academy Awards for directing Best Pictures of the Year, “Unforgiven” (1992) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004).
Clint probably won’t achieve the acting award for 2008. He will split the sentimentality vote with Mickey Rourke, who made a major comeback in “The Wrestler.”
Though taciturn, Clint’s image is not set in stone. He knows how to place his tongue firmly in his cheek. He’s a natural, but at times he allows a little natural ham in. When Walt curses, belittles, berates and insults, it’s funny. His offensiveness is a jab; it never draws blood. But if you’re a card-carrying PCer, you won’t get the full pleasure of Clint’s performance. Clint knows not to go too far, no N-word, but he does roil the language. Walt memorably rasps disdain.
The last shot we get of Clint in “Gran Torino” trumps the penultimate shot in “Million Dollar Baby.” And Clint has a great sense of his ever-evolving image. Watch how many times Clint fires his weapon.
Clint Eastwood has come a long way since he acted in spaghetti westerns for Sergio Leone in Spain. “The Man with No Name” has now become The Man with the Biggest Name in Hollywood.
“Gran Torino” takes us for a hell of a ride down Memory Lane.
Whether aiming a .44 magnum, kissing an orangutan, carrying flowers to a woman near a bridge, or buffing an old car, the man knows what he’s doing. And he has a vast audience that wants to see him do it. Clint still has game.