Clint Eastwood - the stardust cowboy

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The 78-year-old Clint Eastwood is being honoured by a major retrospective at London's BFI. No wonder, says James Mottram, as this is a career that shows no sign of slowing down

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. When David Thomson wrote about Clint Eastwood in his seminal Biographical Dictionary of Film, he concluded: "As time passes, I suspect, Clint will seem merely a success, a classic producer, a pragmatist who could never muster enough interest in his own work."

It's a might strange view of an actor/director whose work in front of, and behind, the camera seems to grow ever more compelling. The four films released since Blood Work have garnered him seven Oscar nominations and two wins (Best Director and Best Picture) for his boxing saga Million Dollar Baby.

"The recent films that I've done are the ones that I remember the most, because I'm doing more of a variety now," he said recently. "I'm not hung up on a particular genre, or notorious for a particular genre, like maybe I was 40 years ago... so I'm happy now. I guess I'm living in the present more than the past."

This month begins a two-month Eastwood retrospective at the BFI on London's South Bank. Spanning his days on the TV show Rawhide (where he became a household name as Rowdy Yates) right through to his recent Second World War double-bill Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, it underlines the astounding evolution of a bit-part player into one of Hollywood's most revered film-makers.

This year, when he arrived in Cannes to present his latest film, Changeling, Eastwood was also there to help light the candles for the 85th anniversary celebrations for Warner Brothers, the studio that he has largely been associated with since signing on for Don Siegel's 1971 classic Dirty Harry. With this amoral tale of the Magnum-wielding rogue cop receiving a special open-air screening, introduced by a white-haired Eastwood, it was as if the festival was paying tribute to both sides of his career – the actor and the film-maker – in equal measure.

Raised in California, the son of a steel-worker, he has always had a special relationship with Europe and, particularly, France, where he was made a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He also presided over the 1994 Cannes jury.

"I don't consider myself an intellectual, but I appreciate that my work was looked at seriously here in Europe," he once told me. "I do not think that the press over there [in America] thought I was accepted as an actor, never mind as a director."

Eastwood has always wrestled with this, ever since – after a short-lived spell in the military – he dropped out of a business degree to become a contract player for Universal in 1950s B-movies like Tarantula. If gaining respect was a distant dream then, it became just as elusive after he shot to international fame in Sergio Leone's "Dollars" trilogy in the mid-1960s. Playing the cheroot-chewing Man With No Name, most notably in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, it is little wonder the US media barely acknowledged his acting skills. His cowboy was a masterclass in macho minimalism, a style his Where Eagles Dare co-star Richard Burton would later dub Eastwood's "dynamic lethargy".

Yet Eastwood was always canny: after returning home from his Leone experience in the Sixties, he created his own production company, Malpaso, to help him realise his desire to direct. Shortly afterwards, he was united with Don Siegel, when looking for a director for 1968's Coogan's Bluff. They went on to make another four films, most notably Dirty Harry, which marked out the third phase of Eastwood's career, following his stretch on Rawhide and his transition to film.

"It showed a tenacious police officer who wanted to fight against a political bureaucracy, all from the defence of the victim," says Eastwood, now. "At that particular time, there weren't too many pictures being made that concerned the victims of violent crime."

Dividing critics, with the influential Pauline Kael accusing it of being fascist, it was a box-office hit and spawned four sequels, including the Eastwood-directed Sudden Impact. While Dirty Harry did not signify the end of his affair with the Western – for starters, he made High Plains Drifter the following year – Eastwood was suddenly propelled into an altogether more contemporary sphere. In the same year as Dirty Harry, Eastwood directed for the very first time. He'd always been fascinated by film-making, even on Rawhide, when he used to help cut trailers together. Encouraged by Siegel, he made Play Misty For Me, playing a womanising DJ with a love of jazz (not unlike the real Eastwood, who went onto direct the Charlie Parker biopic Bird).

"When I approached the studio to make Play Misty For Me, they said, 'Fine', very briskly. Then they said, 'We don't want to pay you, though. You work for whatever your guild minimum is and if the picture does well, maybe we'll give you a few bucks.'"

Eastwood has gone on to direct 28 films in total – though it wasn't until 1992's bleak Western Unforgiven that he was recognised by the Academy. Winning the same two Oscars he would pick up for Million Dollar Baby, it was quite fitting that he dedicated the film to his mentors, "Don and Sergio".

Yet to dismiss his earlier work as director is to forget his diversity. While there were misfires, like the Cold War thriller Firefox, these were far outweighed by the successes, like 1976's elegiac Western The Outlaw Josey Wales. Always delivering films under budget, he was given the freedom by Warners to surprise us, such as with his gentle road movies, Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man.

What is disappointing is that as he has got older he has almost given up on acting. Suffering from a paucity of roles in the 1980s (his woeful double act with Burt Reynolds, City Heat, being a perfect example), it didn't help that his two-year stint as the Republican mayor of Carmel, where he still lives, took him out of the loop. Since then, while he has directed himself 10 times over the past 20 years – with his work in Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby garnering him the only Best Actor Oscar nominations of his career – it has become a distant second to his directorial career.

"An inevitability," as he puts it. "I'm gradually working my way around to spending more time behind the camera than in front."

In the same two decades, he has only acted three times for other directors. This includes two performances for his former stunt double Buddy Van Horn, who directed him on final Dirty Harry film The Dead Pool and the uninspiring Pink Cadillac in what is a typical example of Eastwood looking after his friends. The third was as the ageing secret service agent in Wolfgang Petersen's 1993 thriller In the Line of Fire (sadly absent from the BFI season) in which Eastwood – 62 when he shot it – bid farewell to his action-hero status with a brilliant turn. "Ironically they asked me to direct In the Line of Fire," he recalls, "but I'd just come off Unforgiven and I was tired and didn't want to."

While he continued this desire to act his age with the silly astronaut adventure Space Cowboys, Eastwood is not above moments of vanity – such as crawling into bed with the much younger Laila Robins in his 1999 death-row drama True Crime. Still, it's not as if he hasn't done it in real life. Sondra Locke, his sometime co-star and partner for 13 years until their relationship ended in a very bitter court case, is 17 years younger than him.

Now he is 12 years into his second marriage, to former journalist Dina Ruiz, some 35 years his junior. And with seven children by five different women, it's no surprise that he says: "I still feel film-making is the second most fun thing to do."

With Changeling, which stars Angelina Jolie as a true-life mother fighting against corruption in the LAPD, due out in the UK in January, Eastwood is already planning his next movie, Gran Torino, in which he is set to play a disgruntled Korean war veteran. Retirement is not an option. He may own the exclusive Tehama Golf Club in Carmel, but seeing out his days on the links is not the way forward.

"I still like work," he says. "I'm involved. Things challenge me." It is spoken like a man who, even now, musters a keen interest in his work.

The Clint Eastwood Season runs at the BFI Southbank, London SE1 (020-7928 3232), to 30 September; 'Dirty Harry Ultimate Collector's Edition' is out now on Warner Home Video, price £39.99

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