In a less complex age, the Thirties, say, when opinion polls first began, “free spirit” and “rugged individualist” could, on occasion, blend in the “little people” heroes of Frank Capra—a Mr. Deeds or a Mr. Smith. By the end of the Second World War, with the constant acceleration of events, the increasing theatricalization of issues and ideas, and the ubiquitous Soviet threat, these ideal types, the irreverence of the free spirit and the ruthlessness of the rugged individualist, appear more and more as polar types, become now truly larger than life, and thus, in cyclic fashion, tend to comment on themselves and the country as well.
One knows to what extent, and how explosively, the rock generation influenced recent American history. Less well known, perhaps, as a barometer of current taste, has been the career of Clint Eastwood. Though little has been written about him, though I suspect there are millions of Americans who’ve never even seen an Eastwood movie, to whom he’s simply a name in the way Newman and Redford are not, nevertheless he has been, for quite a while now, the most consistently profitable star both here and abroad. The Eastwood phenomenon, I think, lends itself to an examination of the “soft” and “hard” aspects of the American scene, of how the “convictions” of free spirit and rugged individualist, which found root in our soil long before the industrialization of America, continue to fascinate, despite their archaic air.
Lawrence wrote of the Leatherstocking hero of the Fenimore Cooper novels, “Patient and gentle as he is, he is a slayer.” The saint with a gun. And this has been pretty much the Eastwood persona, whether as cowboy or cop, in Old West or corporate underworld, running to ground all manner of wild thing—and a bit of a wild animal himself. Yet if the nativism is traditional—an essential guilelessness touched with a mean streak—what’s most distinctive about Eastwood, a latecomer to the ranks of rugged individualists, is how effectively he struggles against absorption into mere genre, mere style, even while appearing, with his long-boned casualness and hypnotic presence, to be nothing but style.
Compare the raunchy nonchalance of Burt Reynolds, his rival and contemporary: blow-dried hair and mustache, bomber jacket and jeans, boozing and guffawing and busting ass, constantly playing up to audiences as Eastwood almost never does. Reynolds seems largely a synthetic creation, Gable in Test Pilot hedonistically retreaded for the demands of disco culture. Eastwood’s qualities, though also a mass of clichés, nevertheless go much deeper, are more obscure. For the true flavor of popular culture, whether in its debunking form as in the Sixties or as a salvaging operation as in the Seventies, comes from a sense of the elemental, a particular attitude, a particular mood as primordial as is currently fashionable—that is to say, topical. For many of the Sixties free spirits the topical referent had…
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