Alex Cox rips into Clint Eastwood…but why?

Posted by · 9:58 am · August 13th, 2008

Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of DollarsWhen I was in London over the summer, a friend landed a position at New Statesman magazine, so I became familiar with the periodical. I enjoyed it’s dry, slightly askew view of the world (and it fit my friend’s outlook like a glove). It also seems a perfect fit for this somewhat lifeless op-ed from multi-hyphenate Alex Cox regarding Clint Eastwood’s debt to filmmakers Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.

A wandering, seemingly aimless swath of prose that eventually comes to the conclusion that Eastwood has become an uninteresting filmmaker, Cox spends much of his word count praising Leone’s work in The Man with No Name trilogy. He’s on board for Eastwood when discussing the actor’s shrewd decision to pare down much of his dialogue in the films, but he jumps ship immediately when Eastwood’s falling out with the director is discussed.

Here’s a taste:

Resisting the usual actor’s temptation to expand his role and to increase his share of the dialogue, Eastwood took a red pencil to the script. Something like 90 per cent of his scripted dialogue was eliminated. What remained counted: “Now, if you’ll just apologise to my mule . . . like I know you’re gonna . . .”

But the shoots for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) were longer, and – at times – dangerous, as when Leone wanted Eastwood and Eli Wallach to crouch near a bridge that was to be blown up.

Originally Leone had planned to have Volontè appear in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but he fell heavily for Wallach’s charms and cast him instead. Wallach’s character, Tuco, dominates the film to such an extent that both Eastwood and Van Cleef tend to become his foils. Eastwood wasn’t interested in this development. It was the last time he and Leone worked together.

And then the divorce:

The falling-out between the actor and the director was perhaps inevitable. Eastwood owed Leone everything. He’s good in A Fistful of Dollars – very good – but Lee Marvin would have been excellent, and Charles Bronson or James Coburn equally fine, in the same role. Eastwood was lucky to be cast.

Would Bronson or Coburn have been so wise as to eliminate “90 percent” of their lines, Mr. Cox? I’m not so sure. And when Bronson does finally show up in a role originally offered to Eastwood in “Once Upon a time in the West,” you can bet the modest philosophy behind the character owed plenty to Eastwood’s Man with No Name, so maybe a little more respect is in order?

But there’s more:

Since parting company with [director Don] Siegel, Eastwood has acted in numerous films, none of them very memorable, usually portraying vengeful cowboys or the oldest officer in the San Francisco Police Department. Like Ronald Reagan, he has co-starred with apes. And, like many restless actors, Eastwood has decided he is also a director, though he has yet to develop an individual or interesting style. To me, all his directorial chops seem borrowed either from Leone or from his other mentor, Siegel.

I’m not sure if you caught the dedication on the screen during Eastwood’s inarguable masterpiece, “Unforgiven,” but the director clearly indicates this touching debt: “For Sergio and Don.”

In any case, I am the first to criticize Eastwood for being incredibly uneven behind the camera. For every artistic success there are five or six clunkers…the ratio is that intense. And find fault with the politics of his psyche if you wish (indeed, I think it would be a valuable exercise and certainly an interesting one), but this attempt at backhanding a director with nothing in your arsenal beyond childhood memories doesn’t hold…at all.

Where’s the appreciation for Eastwood’s epic abilities seen in “The Outlaw Josey Wales?” His spin on the supernatural with “High Plains Drifter?” The only shabby entry he offered in the western genre was “Pale Rider,” which borrows heavily from “Shane,” but is an interesting homage nonetheless.

And moving beyond the dusters and ponchos of the west, what of the delicate power of “Bird,” Eastwood guiding Forest Whitaker to his greatest performance ever? Though the film misses the noble mark for which it aims, how can one discredit Eastwood’s brave portrayal in “White Hunter Black Heart?” The deeply haunting simplicity of “A Perfect World” and the unabashed ambition of “Letters from Iwo Jima?”

I find it odd to be defending Eastwood given how often I find myself against a wall regarding how overrated his films have a tendency to become as of late. I despise “Million Dollar Baby” and still find myself losing touch with “Mystic River” the further I spin away from it, but he doesn’t deserve the imprecise badgering of Mr. Cox. If the writer had put forth something int he way of an argument, maybe I wouldn’t go on about it.

And ultimately, perhaps authors like Christopher Frayling and Richard Schickel will want to look into how much of this piece has been gleaned from their exhaustive research.

In any case, and circling back to the point, Eastwood does owe everything to the ambition of Leone and the simplicity of Siegel. And he’d be the first to tell you. His is a story, I’m sure our own John Foote would agree, of the whippersnapper learning the lessons of masters and applying them throughout a successful career. You, Mr. Cox, indeed no one, can take that away from him.

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4 responses so far

  • 1 8-13-2008 at 5:22 pm

    John Foote said...

    Right on Kris, the man learned from the two of them and admits and celebrates that. I found the Cox piece to be vicious and uneven, ill-informed and mean spirited. Not to like Eastwood’s work is one thing, but to have no basic grasp of the career you are bashing is another. He attacks his performances between Seigel, performances that include Bronco Billy and Honky Tonk Man, two of his finest. Yep, he knows what he’s talking about…sure…uh-huh…not!

  • 2 8-13-2008 at 5:48 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’d expect a more novel approach – or at the very least a more thorough one – from Cox. It’s difficult to make anything of an argument that doesn’t even mention his most significant directorial achievements. My guess is that it’s an unacknowledged rebuttal to the gushing piece in Sight and Sound this month.

  • 3 8-16-2008 at 2:42 pm

    BurmaShave said...

    The director of WALKER is going to presume to lecture Clint Eastwood?