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Clint and the empty chair

Clint et la Chaise vide
Patrick McGilligan

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1The performance of the year 2012 came from a movie star who is more often lauded for his persona than for his subtlety or genius as an actor. But it wasn’t acting in a movie. The performance was shown on television and now and forever after plays on the Internet.

2 This star’s persona is as beloved by many critics and scholars as by the general public, yet it is often simplified and misunderstood. That is one reason why Clint Eastwood’s performance before the Republican National Convention startled America, stirring debate, ridicule, and condemnation. Some faint praise came from conservative quarters.

3 There were rumors a big celebrity might openly endorse the candidacy of Mitt Romney in Tampa in August, 2012 but it was hard to believe the big celebrity was Clint until the moment he ambled out on the stage of the convention. Clint is known (at least in America) for his conservative politics, but not for his public speeches.

4 Some thought obviously had been given to the stage design. A huge poster of Clint from the Sergio Leone days flashed behind the star as he took the stage: the Man With No Name in poncho, sombrero, guns crossing his chest. For this event the celebrity endorser was costumed in a gunmetal blue suit offset by a light cerulean tie whose thin white stripes were edged in black. The small- and unthreatening-looking, smiling octogenarian stood in contrast to the huge images of the young, iconic Clint. The aging star’s hair is frizzy white now, like snow on the Eiger slope of his forehead ; deep furrows streak his jaw.

5 The staging included an inspired piece of furniture that confused viewers at first. It was an empty chair-stool set up next to the podium. Clint started talking to the large audience (auditorium and television) but also to the chair. What was up with that? Who was Clint talking to? It might help to think of the empty chair as a barstool like so many barstools Clint finds himself standing next to in one of his films. Sitting on that barstool, often, is an obnoxious character Clint finally has to punch out. That’s Clint’s persona, so moviegoers expect and relish it.

6 At first the audience and television commentators, taken aback by the empty chair, didn’t realize an “invisible man” was sitting there named Barack Obama. Clint was pretending to lecture the U.S. President. People soon got the point. Perhaps they remembered Clint often seems to be speaking to empty chairs in his films. He looms over the villains in his films. Except for Scorpio in Dirty Harry and John Malkovich in In the Line of Fire, his nemeses may as well be empty chairs. The casting makes sure Clint towers over them in height; the script makes sure he has the moral advantage.

7 Speaking to a chair on which the first African-American President is perched is not far from Dirty Harry pointing his gun down at a wounded African-American bank robber squirming on the sidewalk. But Clint’s Republican National Convention performance – like the one in Dirty Harry – mitigated the possible offense. He played it loose and humorous – grin flashing – less like Dirty Harry and more like Clint peering down incredulously at stubby-limbed Clyde, his pet orangutan in the highly popular Every Which Way But Loose and its sequel Any Which Way He Can.

8 Clint’s blocking with the chair took liberties with reality that reinforced and heightened his familiar persona. My Internet research tells me Obama is 6’1” in height while Clint is about one inch taller. (Nowadays, Clint looks a little shrunken.) If Obama actually sat in the empty chair – the high stool – Clint would have been meeting the President’s gaze eye to eye, and the staring -down, the visual condescension, the looming would have been lost.

9 Clint’s voice was so fluttery at first I thought it struck an unintended note of old age or dotage. Not until later did I learn Clint was speaking without a script, or prompter; hence the stammer and quaver as he appeared to ramble, fumbling for the words inside his head.

10 Working without a script is so rare in Clint’s career as to be unique. He’s not much of an improviser. In Dirty Harry mode, he favors terse dialogue, spitting words out of his mouth like bullets. His persona has been formed by short snappy phrases that have cropped up on the Republican side of politics before. (Ronald Reagan in 1985: “I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers – Go ahead, make my day!”) Lengthy monologues are less likely to come out of the mouths of his characters than puffs of marijuana. Tense silences and stars are more his thing.

11 In Tampa, though, the star extemporized for nearly twelve minutes before a rapt nation. I remain a little skeptical of the widespread claim he was operating without any script at all, however. Starting his speech with a line from Dirty Harry (“I know what you’re thinking …”) and ending with the staple “Make my day…!” from Sudden Impact, suggests someone gave forethought to the symmetry of his talk. (Sudden Impact is the fourth picture in the Dirty Harry series, the one where Sondra Locke is the deranged killer and Harry punches out a lesbian.) No red-blooded writer could resist such symmetry.

12 This doesn’t detract from the achievement of holding character for nearly twelve minutes without a script. Perhaps Clint rehearsed the script in his mind. But actual rehearsal - of his own performance or that of other actors when he is directing them - is not Clint’s reputation. He’s a quick-draw as a director known for speed, efficiency, and the fewest possible takes.

13 His Republican National Convention script was obviously fluid, a working draft of a script one might say. As I report at length in my book, published in France as Clint\: Une Legend, Clint’s approach to scripts is unusual for a supposed auteur. He often shoots first or submitted drafts, without extensive revising or polishing, sometimes to the dismay of the scriptwriters.

14 The rhetoric of the script – Clint’s speech – was old-fashioned and right-wing in the context of American politics. Clint strained to offer the names of other Hollywood stars who like him weren’t “left of Lenin,” a strange anti-Communist phrase reminding us he started out as an actor way back in the blacklist era of the 1950s. He finally came up with the example of Jon Voight. “Terrific guy,” he opined, adding, “An Oscar-winner.” Calling Vice-President Joseph Biden, a champion of Democrats and a bogeyman of Republicans, “kind of a grin with a body behind it,” was a weak potshot that needed rewriting.

15 But potshots at liberals are consistent with his persona. The star has long been a hero of American conservatives who understand the messaging of his films better than some critics and scholars. The first Dirty Harry film explicitly attacked the 1966 Miranda vs. Arizona decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which assured criminal suspects they would receive a ‘Miranda warning’ of their constitutional rights before any interrogation by police. Conservatives despised this ruling, and Dirty Harry’s dialogue in the first film excoriated mushy academics, stupid prosecutors and judges, and inept government officials. Critics like Pauline Kael lambasted Dirty Harry as “a remarkably singled-minded attack on liberal values with each prejudicial detail in place,” but Clint didn’t back down. “I don’t give a shit” about labels, the star was quoted in the press, and future Dirty Harry and Clint Eastwood films trod a similar law-and-order path.

16 The recent death of former U.S. Senator George McGovern serves to remind us that 1972, the year of the presidential election in which Clint publicly supported Richard Nixon, was also the year Dirty Harry was released to theaters. (It is now a video game too.) The political divide then was as rancorous and the choices as stark as they are today in the U.S. Clint lent his name and money to Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes. As Mayor of Carmel – and in some court cases – Clint stood for business against environmentalists. Republicans see their values embedded in his persona and in his films.

17 We know at least two Clints on screen : the Dirty Harry Clint and the easy-going Clint. He tried for both at once with the national television audience – easy-going charm and tough talk. But most of it was Dirty Harry with a smile.

18 He echoed the character when he hurled a jibe at Obama the onetime-lawyer (“I never thought it was a good idea for attorneys to be President anyway”). He couldn’t really say “Fuck you, asshole!” on national television the way Dirty Harry might smote an obnoxious customer sitting on the barstool next to him; instead he cleverly replied to the invisible President Obama, as if Obama had just said something scatological to him. “He [Romney] can’t do that to himself!” exclaimed Clint with an astonished expression, after pretending to listen to the invisible man. Then later, he listened again, protesting, “I can’t do that to myself either!” This riff brilliantly transferred Dirty Harry’s explosions of invective to Obama; never mind you can’t imagine Obama, with his comparatively polite persona, telling anyone to eff-off.

19 In some ways the 2012 presidential election can be described as a contest between Clint and Morgan Freeman, his co-star in Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. Clint gave his name and face to Romney; if he gave any money, it hasn’t been reported. Freeman dug into his pockets and donated $ 1 million to President Obama and then lent his instantly identifiable voice to a 30-second Priorities USA Democratic SuperPac advertisement exhorting voters to choose Obama.

20 Clint, after the Republican National Convention, also made a pro-Romney advertisement for the American Crossroads SuperPac organization headed by Karl Rove, the former Senior Advisor and White House Deputy Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush. Clint even voiced “robo-calls” streamed to thousands of voters in battleground states, like Wisconsin, where at home I picked up the phone to hear the familiar raspy hiss urging voters to hold Obama accountable for his failures and fire him!

21 Freeman’s Obama advertisement was scripted more as emotional uplift (“The last thing we should do is turn back now…”), but the two advertisements were different in other respects. Despite Hollywood’s (and America’s) love for him, Freeman doesn’t have the same five-decade mystique as a bankable star whose name will open a film “big.” Also, Freeman is an African-American, and Obama was playing down racial polarities in his campaign. So his advertisement was entirely voiced, his recognizable face never glimpsed; Freeman was another invisible man.

22 But Clint always gets his close-up : And his advertisement ended with the camera trained on the I-mean-business face of Dirty Harry, avenging Westerners, and guys you can trust to handle themselves well in a bar fight. Here, when clearly scripted, Clint’s delivery was strong and firm – no quavering in the slightest.

23 Well, the nation re-elected Obama. Older white male voters flocked to Romney (88 % of his vote came from white Americans), and Obama received his edge from rainbow diversity. That can hardly be blamed on Clint, even if he embodied the old-white-man base and Freeman reflected the winning demographic shift.

24 Most people who go to Clint Eastwood movies are Clint Eastwood fans going in. Most Republicans at the convention were Clint Eastwood fans no matter what. They hooted and hollered during his speech, applauding wildly. This was the Clint they loved. The audience chanted “Make my day!” along with the star at the end of his speech; then he bowed deeply from the waist and left the podium chuckling.

25 In his mid-80s now, Clint has been gravitating to Walter Matthau-type grumpy-old-men roles like the one he played in his most recent film, Trouble With the Curve. His directing has been celebrated, perhaps over-celebrated. But his acting relies too heavily on his persona, one might say – the trademark squint, throbbing temples and twisted-mouth sarcasm. He recycles himself in a way that Stanislavski describes as “the despotism of acquired habits.” He has a couple of Best Directing Academy Awards, but Hollywood has stiffed him for an acting Oscar despite nominations for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby.

26 Many commentators saw Clint’s empty-chair act at the Republican National Convention as odd and off-putting. But others (including Romney himself) saw it as the highlight of a dull convention. Whichever it was, you couldn’t take your eyes off it. It may have been dubious politics, but it was great theater. “Terrific guy,” the cheering Republicans might have been saying to themselves, echoing Clint’s mention of Jon Voight, “An Oscar-winner.” But probably, as an actor, it is never to be.

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Patrick McGilligan, « Clint and the empty chair », Mise au point [En ligne], 6 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2014, consulté le 17 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/map/1802 ; DOI : 10.4000/map.1802

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Auteur

Patrick McGilligan

Well known to film enthusiasts as the author of the much-admired, and a finalist for the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 2003, “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light.” Other celebrated works include “Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast,” and “Cukor: A Double Life,” both New York Times Notable Books. Patrick’s other books include “Clint Eastwood: The Life and Legend,” “Jack’s Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson,” “Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff,” “Tender Comrades, A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist” (coauthor) and most recently, “Oscar Micheaux, The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker.” His latest book is “Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director.” Mr. McGilligan lives and works in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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Les contenus de la revue Mise au point sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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