400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
I suppose everyone knows by now that Gran Torino (218 screens) was Clint Eastwood's final screen appearance as an actor, and that he plans to concentrate on directing from now on -- though the film's nearly $150 million gross and a spot at #77 on the IMDB All-Time Top 250 will probably result in many phone calls begging him to reconsider. But this raises an interesting question: was it Eastwood's appearance onscreen make the movie such a popular favorite? Does he still have all the right stuff, 40 years later, to rank as one of the all-time great movie stars? Or was it his skill as a director that paid off?
Any actor who also decides to direct must eventually face the choice of whether or not to direct his or her own performance. There's a long list of people who chose one side or the other with varied results. But though it's probably the more difficult choice, I think any actor would agree that it's easier to sell the film with his or her face onscreen. Even Spike Lee admitted to this when he acted in his first three films, up to and including his masterpiece Do the Right Thing. And certainly when someone like Woody Allen initially decided not to appear in his films, his fans did not take it well.
As for Eastwood, he understood how to use himself onscreen better than almost anyone. I don't think anyone would argue that he's a great actor, but he's capable of very intense, specific performances using only a very limited palette. He learned long ago that less works better than more, and he has become his own best director. He understands his screen persona so well that he sometimes doesn't even need light. He can park his character in half-shadow and still get an emotion across. Over 40 years he has refined the Clint Eastwood character and adapted it to a remarkable number of movies, even if the degrees between are small.
But as a director, he has made leaps and bounds, improving in new and unexpected ways over the years. In his earlier films, he had little use for any other characters besides his own. He also occasionally succumbed to a very broad, primitive sense of humor, including some cluelessly cross-cultural jokes, and as a result some of them have not dated very well. But in the 1990s he discovered the power of women, directing Meryl Streep, Marcia Gay Harden, Hilary Swank and Angelina Jolie to Oscar-nominated performances. He also developed a tenderness toward other cultures, as seen in Bird or Letters from Iwo Jima. He has become comfortable in either urban or rural settings, and in different time periods. And best of all, he has stopped trying to be so funny, and instead has allowed humor to spring naturally, in its own space. Overall, he has found a very easy, natural pace of the type that the best old-time Hollywood directors like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh developed. In short, he has slowly become one of the very best living American film directors.
But I for one will miss his face on screen. Like any movie fan, I love to watch him work, assessing a situation and responding with both disgust and confidence. (He's one of the rare actors who makes you want to be like him.) But I think another, more elusive pleasure of Eastwood's films is watching the inherent clash between the limited-range performance and the wide-range director, like a beautiful rock stoically sitting in the middle of a scene filled with drama and changing images. Hopefully the great director can continue to find ways to make it all work without the great movie star.