Todd McCarthy On Clint Eastwood Turning 90 Today

Clint Eastwood

With all the other good fortune that’s fallen upon Clint Eastwood—great looks and talent, for starters—the one that calls out to be noted today is his extraordinary longevity. Sunday, May 31st marks the man’s 90th birthday, a landmark exceptional in itself—most of us would be thrilled to make it anywhere near that threshold of life, not to mention being in such good shape to enjoy it. Congratulations, and happy birthday, Clint!

Gene Hackman, Eastwood Unforgiven Shutterstock

Beyond simply making it to this enviable life landmark, remaining lucid and able to stand on one’s two feet, there’s the uncommon blessing of being able to do what one loves doing and still be good at it. Not many can claim this pleasure or distinction, so it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate and assess what Clint (as essentially everyone calls him whether they know him or not) has pulled off at this cherishable moment.

Understandably, Clint has eased off the pedal a bit when it comes to acting—over the past decade, he’s starred in just two films, Trouble With the Curve and The Mule. But his directorial career has continued unabated: During his 80s, he made eight films (the same number as the 16-years-younger Steven Spielberg during the identical period), one of which, American Sniper, was the top-grossing non-franchise/non-Disney animated release of 2015.
This is where we begin to orbit into much thinner atmosphere. First off, directing is often considered a young person’s game; Hollywood is always on the lookout for dynamic new talents, who commonly announce themselves in their 20s, flourish through their subsequent two or three decades and then begin to ease off and fade, however unwillingly, into the sunset.

While some auteurist film critics have worked overtime to make cases for the continued value of the work of certain revered directors as they entered their dotage—those championing the hidden virtues of late-period Ford, Cukor, Preminger, et al.—the fact is that strength fades, complacency can set in and one loses touch with the currents of contemporary life.

We’ve all seen it happen, and more than once: For a while you’ve got it, and then you just don’t. Back in 1980, M-G-M saw fit to defy this belief by hiring two of Old Hollywood’s most celebrated directors, George Cukor and Billy Wilder–81 and 74, respectively– both at stages of their careers when they counted themselves fortunate to get any work at all. Both were put onto remakes: Cukor was in charge of Rich and Famous, an update of the 1943 female friendship tale Old Acquaintance, while Wilder took the helm on Buddy Buddy, a Hollywood redo of the French hit L’emmerdeur.

As a young Variety scribe enamored of both men’s work, I jumped at the chance to spend time on the sets (both were shot on the old M-G-M lot) and watch the old legends in action. Action was the operative word where Wilder was concerned; he was constantly on his feet, cracking jokes with old cohorts Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthew and seemingly happy to be back in his element (he hadn’t made a film in Hollywood in seven years).

Action, however, is hardly a word I would have applied to Cukor’s set. The man was indisputably old at this point; most of the time he could be observed to be resting, husbanding his strength until it was time to roll with his two leads, Jacqueline Bisset (who was also co-producing) and Candice Bergen. Just about the only piece of direction I heard him say—and which he said before virtually every take—was “Pick up the pace, ladies, pick up the pace!” Thereafter he would slump in his chair and await the next take and sometimes, it must be said, doze until it was time to roll again.

The creative and financial failures of both Wilder’s and Cukor’s films simply confirmed the conventional wisdom of the time that the remaining golden-era Hollywood directors were over-the-hill, plain and simple, the victims of diminished physical energy and intellectual focus; certainly, this applied also to Chaplin, Ford, Wyler, Hitchcock, Hawks, Lang, Minnelli, Preminger, Walsh, Kazan and Zinnemann, among others, several of whom I knew and/or watched work toward the ends of their careers.

Clint Eastwood in “A Fistful Of Dollars” 1964 Jolly/Constantin/Ocean/Kobal/Shutterstock

It’s different now, as some directors exhibit great drive, energy and creative vitality past retirement age and beyond; among the persistently creative non-geriatrics are Scorsese, Almodovar, Schrader, Spielberg, Polanski, Werner Herzog, Ridley Scott, Errol Morris, Spike Lee (OK, he’s only 63), the Coen Brothers (127 years of smarts and smart-aleckiness combined) and the ageless 90-year-old Frederick Wiseman.

Whenever I’ve watched Clint work, the set has been unusually quiet and lacking in the fuss, bother and neuroses common on many locations; everyone’s there to get the job done quickly and efficiently and the boss isn’t going to tolerate anyone who isn’t in synch with this goal.

Even as Clint grew in confidence, ambition and achievement over the years, he never slowed down. For means of comparison, he has directed 38 feature films since his first, Play Misty for Me, in 1971, while Steven Spielberg, beginning with The Sugarland Express in 1974, has been behind the camera on 32 features including the forthcoming West Side Story. This is on a par with, or beyond, the productivity of some of the old Hollywood greats.
Among still-living-and-working major American directors, the only one who surpasses Clint in terms of productivity is Woody Allen, who, at 84, has directed (and written) an incredible 50 features in 51 years. Even though he hasn’t been able to get last year’s A Rainy Day in New York, released in the U.S., he’s now in post on his latest, Rifkin’s Women.

A passing thought: I wonder if they’ve ever met, or jammed together, Clint on piano and Woody on clarinet. They’re from totally different worlds, but maybe in S.F. back in the old days….

REX/Shutterstock REX/Shutterstock

Given that Clint is entering essentially uncharted territory when it comes to the outer limits of age among working Hollywood film directors, it might be worth taking a look at the few others who have had the physical and creative wherewithal to continue their careers into what is normally called one’s dotage.

The world’s record-holder in this regard is the Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, who died five years ago at 106, a year after he completed his final short film, The Oldest Man of Belem; his last feature-length work was Gebo et l’lombre, finished in 2012, when the director was 103. A devout Catholic and wealthy polo player growing up in fascist Portugal, he only became an artistic force to be reckoned with in the 1980s and kept continuously active thereafter.

I had the pleasure of meeting de Oliveira at a Cannes party some years ago. Already 100, utterly buoyant and happy to be there, he mentioned that he had just arrived from Rome where, that morning, he had enjoyed the privilege of a private audience with the Pope. He laughed and laughed when I responded that he was undoubtedly the only man in history who had met with the Pope and attended the Cannes Film Festival on the same day.

Other filmmakers who have forcefully demonstrated that there can be lots of life well past 65 or 70. Jean-Luc Godard, who will turn 90 in December, nowadays makes rarified self-reflexive works for a highly select audience; Alain Resnais had a late-life blossoming with a rush of films that culminated in Life of Riley, released in 2014, when the filmmaker died 91; Chris Marker passed at the same age in 2012, having just made Aimer, boire et chanter; Alejandro Jodorowsky made The Dance of Reality at 85, while Eric Rohmer finished his final feature, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon in 2010, when he was 89.

It would seem, then, that there’s a trend toward more opportunity for, and tolerance of, older people in movies as in politics. It’s just that this has lately worked out far better in Hollywood than in Washington, D.C.

So once again, Happy 90th, Clint!

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