Film Studies: See the real Clint Eastwood for the first time - and weep

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The Independent Culture

We were sitting in a large, packed movie theatre in San Francisco, the day after New Year's day. I had waited to see Million Dollar Baby in those circumstances because from the moment I first heard about it, only a few weeks ago, it was clear that this movie might be a sensation, and it promised a twist or a departure in its own narrative best experienced with the real thing - a large, raw audience, anxious to know what happened next.

This opening touches on many important general points that have little to do with Clint Eastwood's film, but which are worth addressing. Critics' screenings are the forum in which most "informed" opinions about your movies are arrived at. Such screenings are usually held in small rooms for between 20 and 40 people - a true but suspicious club, people who see all their movies together, in a spirit of edgy rivalry not inclined to give too much away. You can say that these are jaded victims of the system if only because they have to see just about every film made today. Can you imagine anyone under that duty staying sociable, let alone sane? And because their job is criticism, in a small knot of critics they are bound to keep their feelings secret. That restraint is not good for being an audience.

There's something else wrong with the critics' experience: they know too much about films in advance. There is too much talk on the internet. Too many stolen scripts are passed around. And then there is the modern way with trailers which reckon to deliver the big scenes and sometimes tell you what happens in the story. Again, that is not good for being an audience. After the dark and the size of the screen, nothing is more important to an audience than not knowing anything about the story they are about to see. And all too often these days, the critics and the public have a bored way of knowing in advance.

Clint Eastwood has always been one of the great producers in American film, and that was evident with Million Dollar Baby in his canny sleight of hand. The movie was made very quickly and quietly. No scripts got away. There were no early trailers, and no early screenings. Even now, in the first week of January, the film is playing on only seven screens in North America. Those screens are doing at least four times the business of any other screens and the word is spreading - what's this about Million Dollar Baby that I'm hearing? This is old-fashioned word-of-mouth, and the most modern thing about Clint Eastwood the producer is his faith in the old ways.

So there we were, my wife and I, at one of those seven screens, as Million Dollar Baby ended. We sat there as the credits unwound. We usually do, for a film writer needs to know the facts. But my wife looked around the theatre and murmured that about two thirds of the audience was also staying. "Really?" I said. "Why's that?" She looked again and she said, "They need time to recover". "Really?" I said. "Some of them are crying," she said. "Really?" I said. "Yes. You are," she said, looking at me. One of the best things about being in an audience is the kindness with which we look at each other.

Now, I am not going to tell you anything about Million Dollar Baby that isn't there in the first 10 minutes, except to say that Million Dollar Baby is a Clintishly clever title, one that makes you think of comedy and fun and high jinks. (It could be Steve Martin and Sandra Bullock having their life transformed when their kid becomes a star in commercials!) Clint plays a boxing trainer in a shabby gym where Morgan Freeman is his sidekick. Hilary Swank arrives and asks them to train her and make her a champion.

That's all I'm going to tell you beyond the fact that Million Dollar Baby is going to win Best Picture, and my tears were not just for its story but for the movies. Because at long last someone has said, "Look, this is how you do it", and made a film that hits you like one of Hilary Swank's punches.

Please don't assume that this is just an old Eastwood fan talking. Anyone who has read me over the years knows that I have had my reservations where Eastwood is concerned. A great producer - yes, and do not underestimate the rarity or the importance of that by falling into the orthodoxy that producers are hacks and scoundrels who get in the way of artists. Producers are often the showmen. I also felt and said that Eastwood was an actor of limited range and a rather modest, impersonal director. There were plenty of times when he settled for being Dirty Harry, when he was more intent on finishing his pictures than taking great care with them. I thought Unforgiven and Mystic River were both over-rated. But I think Million Dollar Baby is a great film.

And since I'm not going to do anything to spoil its story and its drama for you, I'm bound to concentrate on what has happened to Clinton Eastwood who will be 75 this May, and surely looks it, granted that he seems healthy still in the way of a man old and wise enough to walk, not run. What it amounts to, I think, is that at the age of 60 or so, he began to improve, no matter that he was rich and successful enough to do whatever he wanted. This is a very rare phenomenon in today's world of film where people of Eastwood's age either turn impossibly childish or senile, or stop. Instead, Eastwood has begun to search for better and better material and in the process he has enlarged himself as an actor and an artist.

The key to that is his performance in Million Dollar Baby: it is the first time, I feel, that Eastwood has decided not to be "Clint", but to find another character. And the magical bonus of that effort is that, in the process, I think we are getting our first glimpse of the real Eastwood. It has always been his code and perhaps his psychic need to seem tough, expert and in charge. Thus even in Unforgiven, he could not stop his fumbling gunslinger from reverting to the angel of death in the end. He settled for image and authority.

But in this picture he lets truth show - that of a rather harsh, emotionally shy man who may not always have been a sweetheart in life. The nearest I will come to talking about Million Dollar Baby is to say that it's close to a confession from a man who doubts that he has been an ideal father. That is art, and it is new in Eastwood. Yet the impact of his movie is enough to restore your faith in a medium that once knew to bring the lights up slowly as a film ended - to help the audience find its way back to reality.