Happy Birthday Clint Eastwood!

The beloved movie star turns 80 today.

Questions:

1. A tough guy (hero, antihero, vigilante…) fighting against all odds is the integral part of American culture. Clint Eastwood played the similar characters many times in his career. What kind of influence has his interpretation of such characters on the society?

2. Hollywood is predominantly pro-Democratic but we can say Clint Eastwood is a GOP leaning. Do you think with the background and selection of his movie characters is Eastwood more suited to support the Republican Party then Democrats, and why?

Answers:

Leo Braudy, Professor in English and American Literature, University of Southern California

1. The individual hero fighting against overwhelming odds is certainly a common figure in American culture, particularly in films. But Eastwood has given that figure his own stamp, compared, for example, to the way that figure was embodied by John Wayne. Some of Wayne’s films–such as Red River and the Searchers–show the soul-destroying aspect of revenge and the loss involved in going it alone. But films that Eastwood has starred in as well as directed–such Unforgiven–much more clearly show the downside of violence and revenge. As he has aged, Eastwood in particular has mounted a wide critique of the kind of assertive individualist masculinity and the emptiness of traditional concepts of heroism. Gran Torino for example meditates on that kind of solipsistic, violent man but in old age, and what happens to him when he has to face the violence of a newer, younger world.

2. Eastwood I would say is less traditionally Republican than he is perhaps a kind of libertarian. At least on the evidence of his films he is hardly Republican in any corporate, knee-jerk pro-business sense. He is for law and order, but his definitions of law and order are a lot more subtle than those of many Republican politicians. The important thing to remember about the kind of Western movie individualist hero he often plays is that it is an image that appeals to both the left and the right, Democrats as well as Republicans, in America. To be anti-institutional an anti-authoritarian is part of the frontier mentality that shaped both parties and American culture in general: trust yourself; you can make it; throw off the traditions and inhibitions of the past. One of the most interesting things about Eastwood’s movies is how, over the years, as I say above, he has managed to both continue that tradition and criticize it as well.

Paul Smith, Professor, Cultural Studies, George Mason University

1. You’re right…the ‘against-the-odds’ loner hero is a common theme in US popular culture, especially in the shape of the gunslinger hero. In many different movies, as actor or director, Eastwood has reconfigured the theme. Some of his re-interpretations have resonated particularly well with the times–like his Dirty Harry persona that fitted a moment of general anxiety about crime and the law. But in the end I’d say CE’s career has had less influence on the society itself but rather more on the culture. He remains a model professional in terms of his filmmaking career and much of his work has taken its place at the heart of pop-culture history.

2. Obviously the politics of CE’s films and the politics of CE the man are not the same thing (they might be, but we don’t know that!). But the signs over the years have been that CE the man leans somewhat Republican. However, I think he’s likely to be a more socially and culturally liberal form of Republican than we’re currently used to over here. My sense (and this is somewhat apparent in his recent films as well as his public persona) is that he is somewhat liberal in terms of race and ethnicity and in other culturally relevant ways.

And that might make sense in the context of his films too. The loner hero in the US tradtion was always supposed to be on the side of the underdog or the downtrodden, was always supposed to want justice for the ‘little man.’ So it’s not a stretch to see a strand of social liberalism in the films themselves–even though I wouldn’t want to argue the case too strongly!

Leonard Engel, Professor of English, Quinnipiac University

1.  CE’s tough guy hero fighting against odds, I would say, is part of American Pop Culture; when you say Amer Culture in general—that’s a big generalization.  Yes, CE has played the vigilante, etc., many times and has certainly influenced popular culture—other movies, novels stories, etc, but society as a whole—I doubt it!

If we compare CE’s characters with John Wayne’s interpretation for the most part, Wayne’s western characters represented the positive ideal of American expansionism, rugged individualism, independence, resourcefulness, and, of course, violence.  As you probably know, these characteristics are part of Fred J. Turner’s famous essay on the closing of the frontier in 1890-93.  But they have been written about by a number of people: Henry Nash Smith, Richard Slotkin, Leo Marx, among others.

CE’s characters have similar traits (especially emphasizing violence), but they add a wonderfully ironic twist–they appear to be out for themselves exclusively, so they first appear to turn the Wayne character upside down (think of the Spagetti Westerns and then Josie Wales, Unforgiven, A Perfect World, and Gran Torino.  I believe and argue in my papers on CE that they are much deeper and more complex than that, and that’s one reason they interest me so much.

2.  I don’t know that much about his personal life, and he’s fairly circumspect about it.  I’ve heard he’s more libertarian than anything else, but he doesn’t broadcast his political views. He’s pretty independent, and he hates to be categorized and to be asked questions like that.

Leger Grindon, Professor of Film and Media Culture, Middlebury College

Eastwood served as major of Carmel, California and I believe he identified himself as a member of the Republican Party.  I think he is generally associated with the Republican Party but in rather loose ways.  He is not a party regular like Gov. Arnold S. for instance.

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