FILM / Forgiven: For years, thinking people shunned his films. Now Clint Eastwood is one of the most revered public figures in America. As an actor, he has no direct rival. Unless you count Gary Cooper

SEE CLINT run. In his latest film, In the Line of Fire, Clint Eastwood plays a secret-service agent responsible for the protection of the President. There are scenes where he has to be one of the suits running alongside the presidential limousine. Then there are the scenes where he has to double-up the pace and go sprinting after John Malkovich, the fruitiest killer Hollywood has conjured since Norman Bates. Clint does this running himself. The shots may be kindly chosen and edited. But there are scenes where he's running with actors half his age, and there's no evident concession - as there was in Personal Best, say, where real Olympic athletes had to be absent-minded and short-striding so Mariel Hemingway could beat them. Clint can flat-out run still, and he's 63.

By that age, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Errol Flynn and Robert Taylor were resting, permanently. Henry Fonda took the desk-job in Madigan; Wayne offered a few very-careful trots in Rio Lobo; William Powell played the doctor in Mr Roberts; and Cary Grant had retired after the suggestively titled Walk, Don't Run.

Sixty-three can mean early retirement and anxious check-ups. It was the age at which Philip Larkin died (and lived). For those old enough to remember, 63 must be the approximate age now of Roger Bannister, P B H May and Nat Lofthouse. I offer such hallowed names to suggest the discipline of Eastwood, keeping himself in shape and sticking to so many forms of self-denial.

Moreover, Eastwood is far from just an anachronistic survivor. He is at his snow-capped peak in films; and he is one of the most admired, and least questioned, public figures in America. There's a moment in In the Line of Fire when his character is talking to a sympathetic female agent (well played by Rene Russo), and he tells her: 'You're looking at a living legend.' The line fits the character, for Eastwood plays an agent famous for failing to save J F K in Dallas in November 1963. But Russo knows, and we are meant to know, and Clint certainly knows, that this is also the actor nodding to us in the dark, congratulating us on our loyalty. Not that the line is boastful. Clint has always had the knack of kidding himself. He has an ease and authority now that may be the last demonstration of what star glamour used to mean. It is a presence besides which Ronald Reagan could seem shifty.

Eastwood has no American rival (Sean Connery is the only man his age, working so hard and still robust). There is a group of actors some seven years younger than Clint - Beatty, Redford, Nicholson, Hoffman. Of those, only Nicholson now has a career without question marks. And those younger fellows take elaborate care of themselves. By my count, Nicholson (who worked very hard as a beginner - 15 films before Easy Rider) has acted in 46 pictures; Redford has done 27; Hoffman 24; and Beatty 19. Eastwood has more than 50 film-acting credits; but he was also a lead actor in the television series Rawhide, which ran for seven years. In addition, Eastwood has directed 16 times; he has been the company boss and owner of most of his pictures for a couple of decades; he was a conscientious mayor of the city of Carmel, his chosen abode in northern California. And he and the actress Frances Fisher (one of the whores in Unforgiven) have just had a baby.

So how good an actor is Eastwood? My answer would begin with a reminder that Hollywood's classical stars were not valued as actors. Gary Cooper once took it upon himself to advise screenwriter Niven Busch, as Busch was struggling with the script of The Westerner: 'If you're in doubt, just make me the hero.' For a moment, Busch was dazzled by the apparent vanity. But then he heard the gentle wish to be helpful in Cooper, the matter-of-fact detachment] Cooper had a producer's appreciation of his own power, and he was right. Cooper was the hero, and as his presence grew older and his eyes more harrowed, the concept only gained in resonance. From High Noon onwards, Cooper was always on the edge of being a tragic hero.

The comparison with Cooper is appropriate, and challenging to Eastwood. From the outset in In the Line of Fire, you know you are watching a star made out of Cooper's rock. Clint has become gaunt in recent years. His voice moves from harsh to weary. He has not bothered to hide receding hair; blood vessels stand out in stark relief; his head is now a skull committed to fateful character.

He seldom wears make-up; he makes no fuss about acting. In one respect only is Eastwood less than Cooper - but it is the most important. He has eyes of Magnum severity and bleakness, the eyes of a certain winner. These are Dirty Harry's eyes, still, fit to out-stare any hoodlum, eyes that know how many bullets are left in the gun, and eyes that sit up all night, thinking up such lines as 'Make my day]' or 'Smith & Wesson, and me]'

Something odd happens when Clint smiles (not that smiling is one of his first options). He has so often played intimidating men, or fatalists who stay poker-faced amid the considerable irony or absurdity of their situation. But in In the Line of Fire, Clint smiles quite a lot: he has a nice little love-story sub-plot with the Rene Russo character, and I'd guess that Clint and Ms Russo got along. When he smiles at her, 20 years fall away and you see how thorough Eastwood's conditioning is. He's still young inside. Which is terrific for him, and for the new baby. But Gary Cooper had seen doom ahead, some time in the mid-1940s, and it gave him grandeur. Eastwood wants to suffer in his recent films - but it's still a reach, just a little beyond his experience or imagination.

The producer in Eastwood always knows the right moves for Clint the actor. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, one of his favourite directors, Don Siegel, observed that Eastwood had an uncanny urge to make heroic figures into anti-heroes. In other words, the actor refused to be ingratiating, to seek our love or sympathy. He wondered, instead, just how far he could stretch the audience's support. That's the secret to movies like Coogan's Bluff, The Beguiled and Dirty Harry (all directed by Siegel), as well as Play Misty for Me (Eastwood's debut as a director). In those films, he played resolute loners, men who used women, and - with Detective Harry Callahan - an alleged peace-keeper who provoked liberals to cry 'foul]' or 'fascist]'

Of course, such cries came from a minority: those saved by the social revolutions of the 1960s were only ever a few. Eastwood guessed, or knew in his bones, that Harry's 'dirtiness' was a refreshing reclaiming of common sense and direct action as far as middle America was concerned. The Harry pictures were huge box-office hits. They affirmed the vital bond between Eastwood the star and all those expanses of working and provincial America that were not New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco or university towns.

For years, most critics looked down on Eastwood. 'Thinking' people shunned his films. The enlightened regarded Harry as a rogue deserving of national shame. As for those films with the orang-utan (Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can) . . . well, didn't they sound as crude as country music? And so the elite missed their knockabout fun, the development of an Eastwood not always on top of his world, and a man turned inside-out by the cunning of women played by the foxy, uppity Sondra Locke.

Eastwood was far from versatile or searching as an actor. He did the job, with scant patience for lasting emotional trouble. Whenever he directed, economy and efficiency impressed him more than an auteur's signature. He said he found directing a chore; he talked of doing less, and of doing it only because it had to be done. He ended up directing The Outlaw Josey Wales because writer-director Philip Kaufman began to ask for more takes. 'Why?' asked Clint. 'What do you want me to do different?' And Kaufman said he wasn't sure, but he felt repetition would take them deeper. For Clint, repetition sounded like indecision, wasted time, and going over budget. So he fired Kaufman, and made one of his best pictures himself.

Josey Wales had its cake, and ate it: this is the way producers believe life should be - and Eastwood is a devout producer, as well as a conservative man. Wales was a man of arms on a mission of vengeance, in direct descent from that impassive angel of death Eastwood had been for Sergio Leone in Italy (where Eastwood learned the insolence of knowing how little he needed to do - as long as anything he did was decisive and lethal). At the same time, Wales picks up a ragged band of followers - an elderly Indian, an old lady, and Sondra Locke - who variously nag, badger, out-think and out-talk the immaculate man of the West. Wales killed everyone he needed to (and that we wanted him to), yet he was also put in his place, left spluttering for words.

The marriage of vulnerability and magnificence was as adroit as John Kennedy's line in self-deprecating jokes.

As America swayed away from liberalism, so Eastwood came into his own. The Dirty Harry films could serve today as police training pictures. By nature guarded, self-sufficient and penny-pinching, Eastwood is a natural model for right-wing America - which is really another name for America. More intriguingly, he is one of those conservatives who are practical enough to see room for change.

By the early 1980s, Eastwood was as rich as anyone in Hollywood. He owned his pictures. His company, Malpaso, hired cheaply and worked quickly - largely because Clint was not in doubt about what he wanted. It was estimated around 1984 that his movies had earned dollars 800m for Warner Brothers, his distributor. When Clint was a boy, his father had felt himself lucky to get work pumping gas at the filling station on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and the Pacific Coast Highway. Eastwood never 'went Hollywood', and has never been extravagant personally. He dresses like his heartland fans.

But he was secure enough to venture further afield. After some 25 years of marriage (and two children), he managed a reasonably quiet divorce. For a while, he was with Sondra Locke, and he facilitated her directorial debut at Warners, Ratboy. In his own work, he took on more daring roles: a flakey Wild West-show operator in Bronco Billy; a dying failure in Honkytonk Man; and a cop with serious sexual problems in Tightrope. In none of those films was Eastwood carried away by the chance of greater depth. He could not lose the eyes of someone who had made it in life, and who was too shrewd to let go. His eyes could not see the failure that Gary Cooper had recognised, like darkness round the camp-fire of success.

Eastwood was winning a new audience. In 1982, the New York Review of Books ran a long piece analysing his screen personality. In 1983, Norman Mailer wrote a breathless essay for Parade which seemed to long for presidential aspirations in the actor. Eastwood himself began to cultivate prestigious recognition. He offered himself for interviews in serious movie magazines. He began to visit European film festivals, taking Pale Rider to Cannes in 1985, like someone launching a long-term campaign for honours. His deep love of jazz helped Bertrand Tavernier to make Round Midnight. It also led to the unquestioned bravery of Bird and to his sponsorship of the documentary, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser.

At the same time, in the 1980s Eastwood made some of his poorest pictures - Firefox; City Heat; Heartbreak Ridge; Pink Cadillac; The Rookie - so that many people wondered if his reaching the age of 60 would be the proper time to quit as an actor. After all, what more could Clint want? Wasn't Bird closer to his heart than Pink Cadillac?

Then, as 60 dawned, Eastwood felt fresh stirrings; he may have no interest in trying for president, but he has worked hard to be esteemed in his business. He chose to film White Hunter, Black Heart, based on Peter Viertel's novel about the making of The African Queen. In other words, Clint the actor elected to play John Huston. The result was not only his worst performance, but proof of his unbreakable limits as an actor. As he had never done before, he seemed unnatural, out of his element. It may tell us a lot about Eastwood to wonder whether he doesn't nurse an inner horror at the kind of pretending Huston called for. Eastwood will contribute presence, but no more. Needing to pretend is such an admission of personal deficiency. Most people agreed that White Hunter, Black Heart was a dud, but Clint got great credit for the attempt. Here was a sign of his new, untouchable status.

Unforgiven identified for everyone the eminence that Eastwood had achieved. It is the best of his Westerns - but, to these eyes, only the best, not actually a film in another league. Though Eastwood won the Oscar for directing it, Unforgiven was a producer's achievement - Best Picture was its real reward. Clint had the wit to rediscover the decade-old script by David Webb Peoples. He called for its drained, wintry look. He cast Gene Hackman and Richard Harris. And he remembered the trick of having your cake and eating it: thus, Will Munny is a beat-up old-timer who has lost his touch and his heart for killing - until he becomes again the magisterial deliverer of death that Sergio Leone cherished.

Munny was the kind of role that made Eastwood look like a good actor: it let him do what he's comfortable doing. Equally, In the Line of Fire is furnished to Clint's taste. He was not the producer on the picture, but with power like his now he hardly needs to be. So it's entirely Clint that the movie makes fun of his having to run so much; that it gives him a Bogart impersonation scene; and a moment when he guesses how many bullets are in a gun by its weight.

He is also beautifully supported. Malkovich and Eastwood dominate the film in telephone conversations, and Clint proves a still but seething listener. The real career breakthrough - the new chance for a 63-year-old - may be in the love story. Eastwood has often given good roles to unexpected actresses (Locke, Tyne Daly, Genevieve Bujold and Jessica Walter in Misty). But he has seldom risked real romance. Now, in his scenes with Russo, he yields a lot of his armour.

All right, I know the secret service wouldn't keep a 63-year-old on protective duty, and I know a man that age isn't going to do more than amuse Rene Russo. But Clint gets away with it; and the actresses who are his sort of age - Angie Dickinson, Janet Leigh - aren't box-office now. I recall Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon and I imagine Clint smitten with . . . Julia Roberts, with Sean Connery playing her disapproving father?

'In the Line of Fire' (15) opens at the Odeon Leicester Sq and across the country on Friday.

David Thomson is preparing a new edition of his 'Biographical Dictionary of Cinema'.

(Photographs omitted)

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