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The squint, the sigh, and the soul of a loner

Clint Eastwood by Richard Schickel, Cape, pounds 17.99; Graham McCann follows the fortunes of a shifting star
Clint Eastwood is one movie star who seems to have grown bigger as the pictures have grown smaller. Over a career that spans four decades, he has graduated from bland bit-part player in 13-movies ("Nice guy - zip personality, zip talent", read his first studio report), to television star (as Rowdy Yates, "idiot of the plains", in Rawhide), to Hollywood outsider (the "Man With No Name" of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns), to Hollywood anti-hero (Dirty Harry), to Hollywood auteur (Bird, Unforgiven), to Hollywood institution, a latter-day Gary Cooper, the Good American.

If, as Emerson warned us, we all come eventually to "cloy of the honey of each peculiar greatness", then Eastwood's slow and subtle evolution has helped preserve and enhance the novelty of his appeal far beyond the first flush of stardom.

Richard Schickel's major new biography - written with Eastwood's co-operation chronicles the development of this extraordinary career. The life is, for the most part, treated to the kind of politely discreet once-over that is customary with (semi) authorised studies - at times, indeed, one senses the author pulling back, perhaps fearing a repetition of that famously threatening utterance, "Go ahead, make my day" - but the career is subjected to admirably rigorous scrutiny.

It divides, broadly, into three parts: first, the early years, and the invention of a distinctive screen image - the strong, silent American, with the squint, the sigh and the soul of the loner, the man who expresses the problems men have in making connections (with other men, with women, with communities, even - or especially - with their best selves); second, a time of reflection on the stardom this image attracted, and a period of ironic commentary; and third, a mature acceptance of the extent to which the image has now become the man.

It is the second of these parts that Schickel suggests, convincingly, holds the key to Eastwood's enduring success. A Fistful of Dollars and its two sequels made Eastwood a curiosity, and Dirty Harry made him a star, but, as Schickel notes, it was the series of lighter movies in the second half of the Seventies that brought depth to that stardom: "In every great star career", writes Schickel, "there comes a time to signal in some completely obvious way that whatever the joke about you is, you're in on it." Such self-satire, if it comes too soon in a career, can come over as cynicism, while if it comes too late it can seem like desperation, but, in Eastwood's case (with movies such as Bronco Billy), it came at just the right time.

That Eastwood was able to act on such good judgment owed much to the effective manner in which he had exploited what Schickel terms his rage both "for and against" order. His rage for order showed itself in the formulation at the start of the Seventies of Malpaso, his independent production company, and his subsequent second career as his own director and producer.

His rage against order has shown itself, says Schickel, in the way he has used this hard-won independence to celebrate those characters who symbolise that stubborn resistance to order. This complex rage, argues Schickel, is the thing that engages us: "in a time when public figures are forever trying to ingratiate themselves with us, you can see something exemplary in his on-screen refusal to be easily liked, and in his off- screen refusal to be easily understood."

Schickel's biography is, by some way, the best so far of this most self- conscious of stars, but, at over 500 pages in length, it is perhaps a little too indulgent for its, and its subject's, own good. At a time when there are too many writers straining to write big books, and too few striving to write brilliant essays, it is a pity that Richard Schickel, who is a brilliant essayist, should have been badgered or bullied into compiling a book quite as big as this. With fewer laboured summaries of the star's lesser movies, and more of the author's typically incisive and humane insights into the star's life and image, it would have been a shorter but more accomplished discussion.

As it is, this is still a very welcome and often rather enlightening account of an intriguing man and a slyly inventive star.