One of the great pleasures of yesteryear filmmaking was Hollywood's unshakable belief in the power of movie stars. This was especially true in the 1960s when Baby Boomers came of age and clamored for films that reflected their rambunctious, rock-and-roll taste. The studios, run by aging/dying moguls, were caught flat-footed. To stay afloat, they leaned on old favorites and newcomers who cut a classically dashing figure. Method acting might've been all the rage, but viewed on a big, flickering screen, process practitioners like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Warren Beatty looked the matinee-idol part.
Clint Eastwood was a breed apart. He was familiar to U.S. moviegoers due to his portrayal of Rowdy Yates on the CBS TV Western "Rawhide," but that familiarity cut both ways. His lean build, chiseled facial features, and labored emoting belonged to a different era. It wasn't until he teamed up with Sergio Leone for the "Dollars Trilogy" that he established, kinda-sorta invented a modern take on the laconic John Wayne cowboy. Eastwood's Man with No Name was practically a parody of the Duke's stolid persona: he said less and killed with straight-faced elan. Emotionally, he had more in common with Bengt Ekerot's Death in "The Seventh Seal" than any of Wayne's chronically perturbed heroes.
But Eastwood's films made money. Lots of money. So when he returned to the U.S. and knocked out hits like "Where Eagles Dare" and "Kelly's Heroes," the studios wanted every part of him, however he wanted to express it. This is why Universal greenlit the moody, Civil War gothic "The Beguiled."
A Less-Than-Beguilling Moviegoing Option
Siegel had directed Eastwood to a non-Western hit in "Coogan's Bluff" in 1968 for Universal, so the studio had good reason to keep the duo in-house. Was Thomas P. Cullinan's "The Beguiled," in which Eastwood's wounded, caddish Union soldier romances a seminary full of young women, the obvious follow-up for Siegel and Eastwood? Not at all.
Eastwood was hot on the property initially but had to be talked into the production by Siegel. He'd just set up Malpaso Productions and understood that the audience for "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" might be disinclined to watch him play victimized men. He fretted about going forward with "The Beguiled," but Siegel wisely told him he might never have the opportunity to take on a role like this if he became a big-screen icon. Siegel was right. While Eastwood didn't completely shy away from difficult material in the years to come (see "Tightrope"), the one-two victimized punch of "The Beguiled" and "Play Misty for Me" (his directorial debut) didn't go down well with his fans.
In a 1971 interview with Patrick McGilligan, Eastwood shrugged off his good critical notices, and lamented that Universal botched the marketing of "The Beguiled." Per Eastwood:
"It was a disaster at the box office, very poorly distributed and very poorly advertised. That had a lot to do with its lack of success but the fact is they sold it to the Man with No Name audience — it would do good the first few days and then fade out terrifically. Because they never sold it to the audience who would like that kind of film."
Eastwood The Enigma
Eastwood's willingness to futz with his persona was worthy of plaudits, but what, really, could Universal have done to market a Gothic downer like "The Beguiled"? If sold on its own merits, the folks who lined up for the men-on-a-mission antics of "Kelly's Heroes" would've kept their distance. People who loved him as The Man with No Name wanted no part of this. Eastwood made an artistic sacrifice. But several months prior to the release of his third collaboration with Siegel, "Dirty Harry," he had zero interest in owning it.
Eastwood's portrayal of loose-cannon San Francisco detective Harry Callahan built a box-office bridge from Westerns to urban police thrillers. It's the thing Wayne couldn't do as he stared down 70, and it revolutionized studio filmmaking. Peter Yates' "Bullitt" might've turned the car chase into an obligatory bit of action-movie business, but "Dirty Harry" offered up a gun-toting remedy to the long-haired lawlessness of the hippie generation. Eastwood's Hollywood legacy begins here, and his fans never fully abandoned him.
Reckoning with Eastwood's iconography is far more fascinating than picking through the largely obvious, obdurate oeuvre of John Wayne. Clint knows what he is and what he represents, and should be above embarrassing stunts like the one he inexplicably agreed to at the 2012 Republican National Convention. He loves jazz. He loves making movies. And when he's being Clint, we love him. It's impossible to not be in awe of him, but it's just as easy to detest him for being intellectually lazy. He knows better.
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