If there was any doubt about the staying power of Clint Eastwood, it was washed away last week. Now 79, the actor-director was named America's favourite movie star in the annual Harris poll. Knocking Denzel Washington off the top spot, after the actor spent three successive years there, it placed Eastwood higher than Johnny Depp, George Clooney and Tom Hanks. A remarkable feat when you consider he's only acted in four films (all directed by himself) in the past decade, it's even more impressive given two of those – his ageing astronaut in Space Cowboys and his retired FBI profiler in Blood Work – were entirely forgettable.
Yet as shown by his most recent film, 2009's Gran Torino, Eastwood's popularity remains undiminished. Playing a bigoted Korean War veteran, Eastwood steered the film to a $269 million worldwide gross. Likewise, he's been fêted by the Academy this decade. Awarded seven Oscar nods, spread across three films, he claimed Best Director and Best Picture for his 2004 boxing melodrama Million Dollar Baby, repeating the two awards he scooped for his 1992 Western, Unforgiven (as well as the one loss he suffered, for Best Actor). Little wonder, in a 2008 tribute in Sight & Sound magazine, it ran the cover-line "The Greatest Living American Director?"
While you may ask why it even bothered with the question mark, what's beyond doubt is just how prolific he is. His latest film, Invictus, marks his 30th feature as director since making his debut with 1971's low-key thriller Play Misty for Me. Acting in many of them, when you consider that he also appeared in a further 12 films for other directors during this four-decade period, it becomes clear what a workhorse Eastwood is. You might wonder why, though. After all, aged 41 when he made the transition to director, he was already a huge star. One of his two iconic roles – that of the cheroot-chewing gunslinger the Man with No Name from Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy – had already been cemented in cinema-goers' minds. The other, rogue cop Dirty Harry, was to arrive that year.
But then Eastwood has always been driven by quiet ambition. Born in San Francisco, the son of a steel worker, 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. By 1959, he'd won the role of Rowdy Yates in the highly successful television series, Rawhide, a show that lasted six years, overlapping with his first collaboration with Leone, 1964's A Fistful of Dollars. It was at this point that he began to establish his taciturn tough- guy screen persona, one that seemed to be drawn from his own personality – at least in the minds of others. "Clint is a guy who in real life is absolutely like in his movies," said Sergio Donati, an uncredited writer on the first sequel, For a Few Dollars More. "You never know what he thinks."
While this brand of macho minimalism, a style his Where Eagles Dare co-star Richard Burton would later dub as "dynamic lethargy", has kept audiences intrigued over the years, Eastwood has also never been afraid to exploit his sexual allure on screen. Perhaps not the most handsome of actors – more weathered than rugged, you might say – he nevertheless exudes danger on screen. Think of his womanising DJ in Play Misty for Me, his SM-loving detective in Tightrope, or his soldier who cons his way into the hearts of the girls at a boarding school in The Beguiled. Now on his second marriage – to former journalist Dina Ruiz – and with seven children by five different women, it's no surprise he has an effect on women.
Even Angelina Jolie, who starred for Eastwood in Changeling, his 2008 true story of a mother who loses her child, went a little wobbly on the topic. "I tend to gush when I talk about him," she told me in Cannes that year. "He's everything you hope he would be. He's one of those people you hear so much about. He seems like this amazing alpha-male – he's so decisive, and he's so strong, and he's so cool. And you meet him and he's exactly that! And you just are in awe! And on top of it, I have never seen a director more kind to his crew, more appreciative of every single crew member. He's gracious. He's patient with them... he's the leader you'd hope for in any aspect of life."
Words that remind us he spent a two-year stint as Republican Mayor of Carmel, where he still lives, Eastwood may well be a natural-born leader, respected and beloved, but for years it didn't feel that way. "I do not think that the press [in America] thought I was accepted as an actor never mind as a director," he says. Admittedly, acting alongside an orang-utan named Clyde in 1978's action-comedy Every Which Way But Loose and its sequel, Any Which Way You Can, probably didn't help. And certainly the 1980s proved a largely barren spell, with City Heat alongside Burt Reynolds undoubtedly the nadir of his career. But think of his brave attempt at tackling the musical genre in Paint Your Wagon. Or his deeply credible turn as the romantic hero in his 1995 weepy, The Bridges of Madison Country, in which he more than held his own opposite Meryl Streep. No doubt, Eastwood can do more than cops and cowboys.
Likewise, he's not afraid to try different genres as a director, whether it be the music biopic (jazz musician Charlie Parker story Bird), the road movie (Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man) or the Second World War film (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima). "It's true I'm probably more influenced by that older tradition when people made a greater variety of films," he admits. "Nowadays, so many decisions about making films are about what's been out there – the fad of the moment." Not one for that, he's a risk-taker at heart. When Warner Brothers, his regular studio home for the last 35 years, was uncertain about making Million Dollar Baby, he offered to waive his fee up front and only take money if it went into profit – the same deal he effectively struck when he made Play Misty for Me.
If Eastwood's work – notably his 2003 adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel of child abuse, Mystic River – has taken a turn for the harrowing of late, there was probably little studio uncertainty over Invictus. Based on the book Playing the Enemy by John Carlin, it tells the rousing story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, when the host nation – led by team captain François Pienaar (Matt Damon) – won the trophy against all the odds. As the plot shows, with the newly elected president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) viewing the tournament as a way to help heal a still racially divided country, it's his initial encouragement that inspires the Springboks to a remarkable run of victories, including overcoming the much-favoured New Zealand in the final.
Originally dubbed "The Human Factor", it's a risky proposition for a film. Not just that viewers in the US domestic market have no interest or understanding of rugby (reflected by the lacklustre $35 million haul in cinemas there), but recent South African-set films such as County of My Skull and Catch a Fire have flopped at the box office. What's more, with its obligatory cast of plucky underdogs, the sports movie genre practically insists on being powered by cliché. Yet Eastwood embraces conventions here – safe in the knowledge that the film is primarily a character study of one of the modern era's most extraordinary political leaders. It's also a thought-provoking examination of reconciliation – the polar-opposite to the theme of vengeance that's dominated his oeuvre, from Dirty Harry to The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, Unforgiven and Mystic River.
In truth, while it's a solid piece, Invictus is some way from his best work. Still, it proves yet again, whether the material is provocative or pedestrian, what a consummate storyteller Eastwood is. Like a latter-day Howard Hawks or John Ford, he keeps thing simple, tight and swift. Complicated camera setups or numerous retakes are not his thing. Rather, he comes from the old school of Hollywood film-making: print it and move on. Matt Damon seconds this, calling him "decisive and fast" on set, before adding that Eastwood once told him that he still "learns something on every movie"; proof that – even knocking on 80 – he feels he's yet to master his craft.
Remarkably, he's already part way through his next film, Hereafter, again starring Damon. Once again produced by Malpaso, the company he formed four decades ago, it's scripted by British writer Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen). What little is known about the story hints it's a supernatural thriller, partly set in London, that sees Damon play a spiritual medium able to talk to the dead. When recently asked by LA Weekly whether he believed in the afterlife, he simply shrugged. "I don't have the answer. Maybe there is a hereafter, but I don't know, so I approach it by not knowing. I just tell the story." A maxim that he's spent much of his career living by, it might just explain why he's still America's favourite movie star.
Invictus opens on 5 February. Watch scenes from the film at independent.co.uk/film.
Feel the force: The best of Clint
With a tip of the Stetson to John Ford's 'The Searchers', Eastwood's story of a former hired killer seeking vengeance on behalf of a maimed prostitute drew career-best performances not only from himself, but also Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman. Fittingly, the last Western of his career (to date at least), it's up there with the best of the genre.
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
A post-Civil War story of a peaceful Missouri farmer who sets out to avenge the brutal murder of his family, the popularity of this revisionist Western has not faded over time. While the production was initially troubled – Eastwood replaced screenwriter Philip Kaufman as director – the actor has come to regard the film as "one of the high points of my career".
Dirty Harry, above (1971)
Spawning four sequels – including 1983's Eastwood-directed 'Sudden Impact' – Don Siegel's original remains the best. Allegedly inspired by real-life San Francisco police inspector Dave Toschi, one of the investigators on the infamous Zodiac murders, Eastwood's .44 Magnum-carrying cop ushered in a whole new era of Hollywood law-enforcers with the emphasis on "force".
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
The final part of Sergio Leone's 'Dollars' trilogy, Eastwood's Man with No Name – or "Blondie" as he's known here – may only be one-third of this most operatic of horse operas. But at his taciturn best, his ability to emote with minimal dialogue goes to indicate just how commanding his physical presence could be.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Eastwood's second double-Oscar triumph, this story of a wannabe female boxer (Hilary Swank) who suffers a crippling accident in the ring proved to be a tearjerker as unexpected as it was devastating. Studiously avoiding both 'Rocky' clichés and 'Raging Bull' misogyny, Eastwood's soulful turn as a religiously conflicted trainer adds a level of depth to the piece.