Dirty Harry comes clean
Friday June 6, 2008
Clint Eastwood folds his gangly frame behind a clifftop table at the Hotel Du Cap, a few miles up the coast from Cannes, sighs deeply, and squints out over the Mediterranean. "Has he ever studied the history?" he asks, in that familiar near-whisper.
The "he" is Spike Lee, and the reason Eastwood is asking is because of something Lee had said about Eastwood's Iwo Jima movie Flags of Our Fathers, while promoting his own war movie, Miracle at St Anna, about a black US unit in the second world war. Lee had noted the lack of African-Americans in Eastwood's movie and told reporters: "That was his version. The negro version did not exist."
Eastwood has no time for Lee's gripes. "He was complaining when I did Bird [the 1988 biopic of Charlie Parker]. Why would a white guy be doing that? I was the only guy who made it, that's why. He could have gone ahead and made it. Instead he was making something else." As for Flags of Our Fathers, he says, yes, there was a small detachment of black troops on Iwo Jima as a part of a munitions company, "but they didn't raise the flag. The story is Flags of Our Fathers, the famous flag-raising picture, and they didn't do that. If I go ahead and put an African-American actor in there, people'd go, 'This guy's lost his mind.' I mean, it's not accurate."
Lee shouldn't be demanding African-Americans in Eastwood's next picture, either. Changeling is set in Los Angeles during the Depression, before the city's make-up was changed by the large black influx. "What are you going to do, you gonna tell a fuckin' story about that?" he growls. "Make it look like a commercial for an equal opportunity player? I'm not in that game. I'm playing it the way I read it historically, and that's the way it is. When I do a picture and it's 90% black, like Bird, I use 90% black people."
Eastwood pauses, deliberately - once it would have provided him with the beat in which to spit out his cheroot before flinging back his poncho - and offers a last word of advice to the most influential black director in American movies. "A guy like him should shut his face."
Eastwood knows how to handle controversy. Four years ago, his boxing flick Million Dollar Baby, which garnered him best picture and best director Oscars (giving him five in total, including two for Unforgiven and a premature lifetime achievement gong back in 1995), was attacked by Christian groups. They had objected to the plot's "assisted suicide" of a paralysed athlete. "People who hadn't even seen the movie were saying that it's pro-euthanasia, but it wasn't," Eastwood says. "If you had asked Frankie [his character in the film], 'Do you believe in euthanasia?', he'd have probably said no. But that was the circumstances of the moment. Highly dramatic circumstances."
And 37 years ago, he starred in a film that has been a bone of contention ever since, and which is the reason for our conversation today. Dirty Harry, the film that liberals have long argued was little more than an argument for summary justice, is being rereleased in DVD form, packaged with its quartet of siblings (Magnum Force, The Enforcer, Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool), as part of Warner Brothers' 85th birthday celebrations.
Dirty Harry - the story of a cop railing against bureaucracy and pursuing criminals according to his own whim - has been so imitated that it is hard to imagine the revulsion that spilled over it upon its release. The New Yorker's critic, Pauline Kael, called it "fascist", and other reviewers heaped similar scorn on it. They wondered whether holding a .44 Magnum in a suspect's face was the best way to pursue justice; they wondered whether the San Francisco setting was a slap at one of America's most liberal cities; even the CND belt buckle sported by Scorpio, the serial killer in the film, was interpreted as a swipe at the left. With the cop thriller supplanting the western as Hollywood's action genre of choice, Eastwood was surely the political as well as cinematic successor to John Wayne.
But moviegoers took little notice of those who attacked the film. They flocked to the cinemas, Dirty Harry's dialogue passed into common parlance, and it now occupies an important if uneasy place in film history.
"Of course people built a lot of connotations into the film that weren't necessarily there." Eastwood grins. "Being a contrary sort of person, I figured there had been enough politically correct crap going around. The police were not held in great favour particularly, the Miranda decisions had come down [forcing police to read arrested suspects their rights], people were thinking about the plight of the accused. I thought, 'Let's do a picture about the plight of the victim.'"
That same year, Eastwood directed his first film, Play Misty for Me. With Dirty Harry having established him as Warner Brothers' surest banker, he negotiated a quid pro quo: the studio would indulge his personal projects, such as Bronco Billy or Honkytonk Man, the kind of fare that would shape him as the director we know today, as long as he kept on cranking out the blockbusters, even if that meant working with an orangutan.
Sergio Leone, who directed Eastwood in his breakthrough role in the Man With No Name trilogy of spaghetti westerns, said he liked the actor because he had only two expressions: "one with the hat, one without it". These days it would be stretching it to suggest that Eastwood's range is quite that broad, his face seemingly fixed in a beatific beam, the sort of blissful countenance that once had him pegged in a scurrilous - and erroneous - piece of showbiz gossip as Stan Laurel's love child. The skin on his cheeks certainly seems tauter than one might expect of a man of his vintage. The contentment of his autumn years or the proverbial "bit of work"? Frankly, you can only wonder.
Nevertheless, he's imposingly tall (6ft 2in), sporty-lean, and could probably knock both 10 years off the 78 he has clocked up and seven bells out of anyone who messes with him, the result of relentless exercising, a strict diet and, probably, fatherhood late in life. In an arrangement at which even Ken Livingstone might raise eyebrows, Eastwood has had seven children with five different women, including an 11-year-old daughter with his current wife, Dina. It surely accounts for the emotional content of some of his recent films, not least Changeling, which had been in competition for the Palme d'Or and, like the lauded Mystic River, concerns child abduction.
There are actually echoes of Dirty Harry in Changeling, Eastwood says, and he's not making any concessions to liberals: "I get a kick out of it because the judge convicts the killer to two years in solitary confinement, and then to be hanged. In 1928 they said: 'You can spend two years thinking about it and then we're going to kill you.' Nowadays they're sitting there worrying about how putting a needle in is a cruel and unusual punishment, the same needle you would have if you had a blood test."
The politics are evidently always simmering with Eastwood. By the time Ronald Reagan was in the White House quoting Eastwood's "Go ahead, make my day" from Sudden Impact in a speech about tax cuts ("I must have heard it about 10,000 times," says Eastwood), he was shaping up to become the non-partisan mayor of the California town of Carmel, where he was sympathetic to environmental concerns and less sympathetic to big business.
Eastwood still likes to let his views be known, often forcefully. In 2005, he vowed he'd kill Michael Moore if the documentarian ever showed up at his house, the way he had doorstepped Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine. This March he was sacked from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's California state parks commission for objecting to the building of a toll road through a national forest. But though he has been associated in the public mind with Republican viewpoints, he's something of an individualist. "I don't pay attention to either side," he claims. "I mean, I've always been a libertarian. Leave everybody alone. Let everybody else do what they want. Just stay out of everybody else's hair. So I believe in that value of smaller government. Give politicians power and all of a sudden they'll misuse it on ya."
Has he declared for anybody in this electoral cycle? "You know, I haven't really," he says. "My wife used to be an anchorwoman in Arizona, so she knew John McCain and she liked him and I kinda liked him. In fact, we sort of supported him when he was running the first time against Bush eight years ago. But we haven't been active as yet. It's kind of a zoo out there right now. So I think I'll kinda let things percolate."
One thing he has made clear is that he will definitely not be making Dirty Harry 6, despite rumours to the contrary. "Some idiot came up with some theory," he says. The crime flick Gran Torino, which he is due to film at some point, is emphatically not part of the Dirty Harry cycle. "Not at my age," he stresses. "There are certain age limits on police officers. They'd have retired me out at 65."
But there's one film project on the cards that might interest Spike Lee. Eastwood's next project, The Human Factor, is about Nelson Mandela and how he used the country's victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup as a means of fostering national unity. Will he be sticking with the historical record on that one? He laughs. "Yeah, I'm not going to make Nelson Mandela a white guy."