The Directors: Clint Eastwood Receives First John Ford Award

Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood

By Patricia Danaher, Contributor
February / March 2012

“I’d love to make a movie in Ireland sometime,” Clint Eastwood said when I caught up with him at a recent Hollywood Irish event.

“The best part of me is the Irish part – Egans on my mother’s side – she had roots in Monaghan and I’ve been there many times. It’s one of my favorite places to golf.”  Eastwood was being presented with the inaugural John Ford Award at a special event at Warner Bros, hosted by the Irish ambassador Michael Collins and Aine Moriarty, CEO of Irish Film & Television Awards (IFTA), in December.

Ford’s contribution to film will be marked in Ireland with a new annual John Ford Symposium, presented by IFTA in Dublin in June.

“John Ford was a pioneer and I was a huge admirer of his Westerns,” Eastwood said of the legendary director. “I grew up on all that and it definitely influenced me. It’s a great privilege to be associated with John Ford in this way, as he was such a pioneer of American film making. Every filmmaker I know is very influenced by Ford, whether it’s his Westerns or The Grapes of Wrath.”

Ford’s influence has been acknowledged by giants of the industry from Federico Fellini to Ingmar Bergman to Alfred Hitchcock. “When I worked with Sergio Leone he often talked about Ford’s influence on him. I’m sure he would have persecuted me like he did many of his actors, but I would have been able to take it,” Eastwood joked.

“Two alpha males like you guys might not have gotten along too well on set, but I know he would have had a lot of respect for your style of working,” Ford’s grandson, Dan Ford, acknowledged.

Dan, who wrote a biography of his grandfather called The Unquiet Man, remembers the man as “irascible, eccentric, extremely funny and a terrific card player and binge drinker.” John Ford was closely connected to his Irish roots and was a frequent visitor to Spiddal, from where his father emigrated to Maine in the late 1880’s. His mother, Barbara, who came from Inishmore, left at the same time.

At 81, Eastwood is flirtatious, warm and gracious to everyone who crosses his path. All 6 foot 2 of him dwarfs nearly everyone in his orbit in both stature and presence, a star wattage brighter than that of many who are a quarter of his age.

Eastwood, who was born in San Francisco, first came to prominence as an actor on television’s Rawhide and went on to star in such westerns as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Paint Your Wagon,  Two Mules for Sister Sara, and Play Misty for Me, which he directed as well as starred in. That same year, 1971, he took on the role of tough cop in Dirty Harry, a blockbuster success that made him a superstar.

In his long-lasting career, Eastwood has become one of the most honored actors and directors in America. Whether it’s Unforgiven (1992) which garnered his  first Best Actor Oscar nomination, as well as wins for Best Director and Producer of Best Picture,  or the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby (2004), he seems to be constantly pushing his own boundaries, unperturbed by age or mortality. His latest movie, J. Edgar, a bio-pic about J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the F.B.I., again shows his willingness to explore unpopular and non-commercial subjects.

“I’m always learning something new and that’s why every film is a challenge for me,” he said. “I like working. I thrive on it, so it’s fun for me. A lot of people ask me about retiring and seem to have thought about it a lot for me!” he says with a grin. “I was always curious why somebody like Billy Wilder would stop directing in his 60s, or not be considered hireable in his 60s. Then you have people like John Huston, who was actually directing The Dead in a wheelchair, with an oxygen tank beside him. Some people just have a different time in their life when they peak.”

Clint Eastwood could hardly be described as having led an unlived life, or even, as he sees it, to have peaked. As well as acting and directing consistently over seven decades, he also served a term as Mayor of Carmel in the early ’80s. The town, in Northern California, has been his home for most of his adult life. He also owns a hotel there.

Eastwood, who is the father of five daughters and two sons from three different relationships, and a grandfather of two, was born to itinerant workers during the Depression. The family moved constantly in search of work. He attended eight different primary schools and, perhaps because of the lack of stability in his early life, living in the here and now is what appeals to him.

“The life you have is the only possession you’re given and that’s the hand you’re dealt, and you play it out. If you’re worrying about the end of it all, you can’t really live the present of it all.

“My perspective on life is that whatever is out there, is out there. I don’t think too much about the hereafter, because I feel you’re given one opportunity to live in this world. Whether you believe in God or nature or whatever, you have to take advantage of that and do the best you can, whatever your profession may be.”

I ask: if he had a say in his reincarnation, what animal might he choose to return as?

“Well, if it was in New York, I’d be a bedbug. At least that way, you’d never miss a meal,” he says laughing. “There used to be a calypso song about a guy who wanted to be a bedbug, because he wanted to bite certain people. I remember finding it very amusing when I was younger.”
He hums a tune for a few seconds, trying to remember the name of the song, then he exclaims, smiling.

“‘The Bedbug!’ The Mighty Zebra was the guy who sang it. It was kind of a crazy song.”

Eastwood made his movie Hereafter (2010) not because he was thinking about death or because the once most macho man on screen is secretly obsessed with psychic phenomena and the afterlife. He made it because Steven Spielberg had read Peter Morgan’s script, liked it and passed it along. End of story. Almost.

“I haven’t had a near death experience, if that’s what you’re asking. I was just going by what people of many different religions think. Most people want to feel there is something after death. I’m interested in it to a degree. I once watched Uri Geller bend keys by looking at them. I believe there is some sort of energy there other than manhandling the keys, which you couldn’t do because they were too thick.

“But it’s not like a religion with me, where I think about it all the time. But I’m open. There are a lot of things that we don’t know in this world and will not know in our lifetimes.”

Having starred in and directed such an enormous array of movies during his long career, he has formed a close bond with the actor Matt Damon, with whom he has collaborated on two of his more recent movies, Invictus and Hereafter. He pays Damon a compliment that suggests Eastwood believes he’s cut from a similar cloth as himself.

“What I like about Matt is that he’s an actor who’s not actorish. You don’t get the feeling he’s performing, and there’s no particular gimmick to him. He’s just a guy who wants to expand. He’s been successful as a writer and as an actor, and I assume he’ll be successful as a director in his life, too.”

Despite the breadth and range of the work Eastwood has brought to the screen, is he now feeling pressure to start making movies in 3D? Hardly.
“I’ve lived through a lot of phases of 3D, from Bwana Devil to The House of Wax – all the various times 3D has come into popularity and then left again. I think it would be interesting to make a movie in 3D, but I’ve yet to find a project that would lend itself to that. I would find it distracting with certain types of subjects.

“I haven’t seen Avatar, so you’ll have to excuse me on that. I hear it’s wonderful. I’m probably the only person who hasn’t seen it. The reason I’ve been postponing it is because I want to see it in an IMAX Theatre in all its glory.

“I think most people who are making films are trying to do things that are new. I mean, I could have been satisfied to stick with the genres I’d become well known for years ago. But in the last decade, I’ve been doing a lot of films that were certainly different for me. I don’t think it’s insecurity, I think it’s more just encompassing more in your life, learning more and experimenting with more subject matter.”

Our time is up and the publicists start to swarm towards us, but Eastwood does not bolt off into their clutches. Instead, he politely ignores them, chatting with me as he buttons his jacket about the Irish actors he’s worked with, remaining very present until he’s ready to leave. Did I feel lucky? You betcha. Did he make my day? And then some.

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