(Welcome to Role Call, where we examine two performances from an actor – their first defining role and their most recent/last – to get a sense of who they are.)
There are two options when you picture Clint Eastwood. His image has been frozen in amber twice during his career, offering us only the cigar-chomping, heavily tanned silence of Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” and the gray-headed, lawn protector of Gran Torino. One is a genre king during the halcyon days of wild west romanticism; the other is the fantasy fulfillment of old man anger at the world. One is everyone’s dad’s favorite actor; the other is what almost everyone’s dad has morphed into over the past twenty years.
That’s not to say that he didn’t branch out as an actor. He made not one, but two buddy comedies with an orangutan after all. Yet even though he talked enough as Dirty Harry to earn a globally-recognized (and almost always misquoted) catch phrase, his unhinged detective was a simmering extension of his tight-lipped western anti-heroes. Different haircut, less stubble, same attitude.
His Early Role: The Man With No Name
From 1959 to 1965, Eastwood did over 200 episodes of Rawhide as the joyfully impetuous Rowdy Yates. The television-friendly version of trail life with the herd set him up to escape to the browner pastures of playing bad men.
His leap to stardom came at the same time as his leap to a different acting persona. When a Rawhide co-star refused a role in Leone’s mid-budget foreign film, Eastwood jumped at the chance to change his career track and gain the spotlight. That paired perfectly with Leone’s own goal of reviving the fabricated American western as something wild again.
Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” sports a Mexican poncho, a cowing sneer of profound self-confidence, and an opaque sense of ethics. He inserts himself into a local squabble, fills a bunch of people full of lead, and then rides off with a tip of the hat. A hurricane without the silly ten gallon hat. Or The Dark Knight‘s Joker if you want to put it in modern terms. Is he good? Is he bad? Is he selfless or selfish? And does that matter as long as he’s entertaining?
The Persona: Quiet Masculinity
Although New York Times critic Bosley Crowther bashed Eastwood as, “a morbid, amusing, campy fraud,” he also hit on a sly subtlety of Eastwood’s performance that would set him apart from other actors and cement The Man with No Name as his permanent persona: barbarism with a dash of kindness.
In other words, his rare ability to inhabit the anti-hero. Eastwood could play a likable villain, which was as hard to find back then as it is now. “His distinction is that he succeeds in being ruthless without seeming cruel,” Crowther said, setting up the first part of the equation to understanding Eastwood’s image.
The second part is in how he achieved that feat. More specifically, how he didn’t achieve it. The Man with No Name barely talks through three films, lending him an automatic air of mystery that must be shouldered by Eastwood’s performances alone. “I wanted to play it with an economy of words and create this whole feeling through attitude and movement,” Eastwood said of the role. Far from an empty vessel, The Man with No Name is a complete, rounded character that we simply know nothing about.
That’s absolutely incredible. And as an emblem of masculinity, The Man with No Name defined the kind of man the west or our imagination demanded. Someone who could get business done without a lot of fuss or grandstanding. He didn’t talk. He acted.
His Latest Role: Earl Stone in The Mule
Starting with Play Misty For Me, the world discovered that Eastwood did his best performances directing himself. He held tight to stardom throughout the 70s and 80s – giving The Man with No Name a badge and .44 Magnum – despite a raft of forgettable films that eventually gave way to more personal projects.
All the while, he had Unforgiven in his back pocket. Eastwood built the capstone of his career as a revisionist western icon, shifting the youthful exuberance of Rawhide into the elder statesman of the scofflaw west, and gaining the Academy’s attention all at once. Will Munny is a middle-aged version of The Man with No Name, operating in the grand gray ethical area of the high plains.
Leaving the era behind, Eastwood built on his prestige with more grizzled grandpa roles and challenging directorial work with Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby and more. From Frankie Dunn to Walt Kowalski to Earl Stone, Eastwood’s late-career brand is “Salty Old Dude with Regrets” – fitting for an actor whose youth was spent playing men doing regretful things.
The Persona: Older Man With No Name
What’s most fascinating about that shift is that his recent portrayals of troubled older men have simultaneously questioned the actions of his past roles without rejecting their murky ethics at all. “It was a different time,” is the mantra repeated throughout films where Eastwood’s charisma papers over racism, generic misanthropy, or the same violence that The Man with No Name traded in. The only difference is that Eastwood’s characters now wallow in its misery instead of riding off into the sunset.
In that sense, movies like Gran Torino and The Mule can be seen as revisionist westerns that just aren’t set in the old west. The crime, the necessity of survival, the lawless landscape. They’re all there. So are the bloody consequences.
That makes it hard to say whether Eastwood has crafted two distinct personas, or whether the icon that first took over his image simply got older and older. His success hasn’t come from reinventing himself or showing a broad range of acting ability. Like The Man with No Name, Eastwood has proven that range through subtlety, playing a host of similar characters that are nonetheless unique because of Eastwood’s peerless capability to chomp a cigar a hundred different ways.
Even in his rowdy old age, Eastwood is still playing a new version of The Man with No Name.
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