Film Studies: The author, the superstar, and a book on hold

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The Independent Culture
There's a new Clint Eastwood picture this week, True Crime. But the occasion allows me to get into another, curious matter - which is that Patrick McGilligan's Clint: The Life and Legend has just been published in Britain, while it shows no sign of coming out in the US, where McGilligan, and Clint, live.

I am not offering myself as a reviewer of the book, because I have enjoyed a friendship with the author that goes back over 20 years to the time when he was my editor (and teacher) on Boston's Real Paper. So read the book for yourself, and come to your own conclusions. There is only one point I would make - and it is generally agreed in the world of movie books: that McGilligan is the mongoose of researchers. He goes into school records, local paper archives, to the field of small acquaintanceship, secretaries, housekeepers and people usually neglected by celebrity biography. If you want the most reliable and detailed surveys of, say, Robert Altman, George Cukor, Jack Nicholson and Fritz Lang, go to McGilligan. That's not my praise; it's the consensus opinion.

Well, several years ago, in the way of these things, the American publisher W W Norton (they had done his Nicholson book) hired him to do Clinton Eastwood. McGilligan was a somewhat reluctant author in that he knew he was following in the footsteps of Richard Schickel, who was writing an authorised life of Eastwood for another publisher. Clint and Schickel were old acquaintances, and Clint was helping the writer, giving him the benefit of his excellent memory. When the book was published, Eastwood even made some public appearances to help promote it. Why not? Schickel had ended up with a book that Clint liked and appreciated - which he might have written if he'd had the time and patience, or if he was anywhere near the writer Schickel is. In other words, in Schickel's book the legend was not just left intact. It was delivered in polished bronze, for the ages. For those observers who had been impressed, and amused, by tracking the steady ways in which the supposedly above-it-all Clint had fostered eminence and respectability, the book was the coup de grace. This was a process in which the hunk, the co-star of TV's Rawhide, and icon of spaghetti Westerns became the Oscar-winner for best direction, the Irving Thalberg Award-winner, and a fellow of the British Film Institute.

Nevertheless, McGilligan pushed on. We crossed paths once when he came to San Francisco mongoosing - in search of Clint's school and army records. And Pat was beginning to find inconsistencies, interesting gaps between the legend and the record.

Well, why not, you might ask. Which of us doesn't have a past a little different from the one we like to describe? Hell, said Bill Clinton, without that, where'd be the fun in life?

On the other hand, there is now a level of existence - let's call it public life - in which some make a fortune, offer an ideology, and conduct local or national affairs (Clint was mayor of Carmel for a while) with a charm, confidence or atmosphere that is founded more on image than reality. All too often, we, the suckers, catch up with that gap too late. Eastwood rides on a notion, or perhaps a myth, of laconic, rugged independence, of the ordinary guy who has made it in America by virtue of realism, professionalism, candour, integrity and a shy, manly decency.

Clint: The Life and Legend is a thorough unpicking of that serape-like cover. You should read the book for yourself - don't rely on me - but I think you'll find a rather small-minded chiseller, a casual womaniser rarely candid about his record, a cheapskate producer inclined to use and abandon people, and a single-minded self-promoter.

None of which is necessarily outrageous or uncommon in Hollywood. Much less the subject of possible legal action. But Clint has looked after Clint, and McGilligan's book is the first substantial corrective that brings the legend down to a level of reality. Whereupon, as I understand it, W W Norton began to feel uncomfortable - the book was rather one-sided, they felt; it was too jaundiced over Clint; it would upset his fans - the people Norton regarded as buyers of the book. Might they also have feared that Eastwood might take legal action against the book?

Maybe, though McGilligan's method is careful, and leaves few openings. No one has taken legal action against his books. In the end, Norton are declining to publish. They know about the English edition. They have told McGilligan he can take the book elsewhere in America if he returns his advance. McGilligan has held his ground - no matter that he is close to broke - because he believes he delivered the book asked for, the right book, and the closest thing yet to a full picture. So Clint is being subtly protected by the American system and its preference for heroes - which is not a million miles from how Clinton got as far as he did.

`Clint: The Life and Legend' is published by HarperCollins at pounds 19.99.