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Calendar Goes To The Oscars : Clint, Closing In on El Dorado : Ask Clint Eastwood how he feels about his chances for a statuette, and his eyes drift off. You get the sense he might have preferred a question about his golf game

March 28, 1993|JACK MATHEWS | Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday.

LAS VEGAS — Clint Eastwood's latest schedule breakdown occurs the moment he steps out of his limousine at the side entrance to Bally's Grand Hotel.

After having his afternoon plans thrown off by a luncheon that went on an hour longer than expected, the idea had been to find a quiet place to finish an interview before the start of the National Assn. of Theater Owners' annual awards dinner, at which he is being honored as director of the year for "Unforgiven."

But suddenly he's being schmoozed by one of the hotel managers, then hustled off to a reception he knew nothing about.

Eastwood glances at his longtime publicist, Marco Barla, and at Joe Hyams, the Warner Bros. executive who looks after Eastwood's Malpaso Productions, and their eyes all seem to shrug in midair. What reception? But there are no complaints as the slick hotel man in the white dinner jacket whisks Eastwood's entourage down a long hallway and into a room filled with Hollywood bigwigs (Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, "Patriot Games" producer Robert Rehme), stars (Mel Gibson, Whoopi Goldberg) and a few star-struck high-rollers who are presumably guests of Bally's.

Before he can get a drink in his hand, the Instamatics are drawn from their holsters and Eastwood is gunned down in a hail of flashing bulbs. Women materialize at his side, seemingly out of nowhere, smiling out at a friend with a cocked camera while the star, trying to lubricate eyes turned pink by an afternoon in the bright desert sun, squints, grins and bears it.

"I really can't," he says, rubbing his eyes with the back of his right hand, as yet another lady in an evening dress moves in. "I can barely see."

"Just this one?" she pleads, hooking an arm around his waist and pointing to a friend training a camera on them.

Eastwood straightens, smiles and takes another direct hit.

"Let's make a run for it," one of Eastwood's associates says, and soon they're heading back down the hall toward the casino, past startled gamblers, and to a quiet corner of a restaurant there.

"I hate to disappoint people," says Eastwood, who is being honored for a movie in which he plays William Munny, out of Missouri, "a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition." "But those flashes were making me blurry."

Other than the surprise photo op, this kitschy convention of theater operators is friendly business for Eastwood. He has attended many of them before, and was honored as the association's "Star of the Decade" almost 10 years before returning as its director of the year. At the Warner Bros. lunch earlier in the day, Eastwood thanked the exhibitors for supporting him when few critics did, and their loud standing ovation suggested that they took both his thanks and his success personally.

It is a contagious feeling these days. Suddenly, everyone's a Clint Eastwood fan.

The rangy star seems to have arrived at a moment of high emotional drama rare even for Hollywood. Whether he wins any Academy Awards Monday night, he has already been to the mountain. After 30 years of box-office stardom, after 23 years of directing and producing, after three decades of being ignored or overlooked in America as a serious filmmaker, he has dazzled them all.

"Unforgiven," his revisionist Western about alcoholism, violence and the romantic Outlaw Myth, was a hit with critics, moviegoers and the film Establishment, three groups who often seem to have little in common. Eastwood and "Unforgiven" were named director and picture of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the National Society of Film Critics, and before heading over to Las Vegas for the NATO award, he picked up the prestigious feature directing award from the Directors Guild of America.

The DGA award makes Eastwood the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for best director as well, and he could take home second and third statuettes as producer and star of "Unforgiven." In a competition where strained analysis is the rule, the case for Eastwood makes itself.

A more enduring star than either Gary Cooper or John Wayne, he has never been nominated before, or even been given one of those dubious career achievement "thank you" plaques.

He is the last of the great Western heroes, and the only modern director to attempt to keep that most American of all movie genres alive. He's respected by the film Establishment for his budget restraint and business sense, and by other filmmakers for his independence.

Eastwood's only known enemy, in a business where enmity is a by-product of success, is Sondra Locke, the plaintiff in an angry palimony suit a few years back. And despite all those steely, tough-talking killing machines he has portrayed on screen, he has the reputation of being one of the industry's gentlest and most respected figures.

"Anybody who has ever worked with him knows he is a total professional and a decent man," says Robert Daly, chairman of Warner Bros. Inc. "When you work with him, you walk away feeling good about it."

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