Clint Eastwood speaks during the final day of the Republican National Convention. (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )
Clint Eastwood stands alone in Hollywood as a man about whom no negative word is spoken.
Whether they agree or not with his politics, no matter how people feel about his films or the whole Dirty Harry thing, everyone loves Clint Eastwood. Actors love Clint, writers love Clint, other directors love Clint. In thousands of interviews across time and space he is held up as a model of what Hollywood can and should be — artistically ambitious, committed to craft, respectful of others, frank but polite, a man who hires good people and then gets out of their way.
He is the last of what was always a very rare breed, a man of conviction with an unassailable reputation.
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Which is why the organizers of the Republican National Convention felt perfectly safe putting Eastwood up on stage minutes before Mitt Romney was to accept his nomination. He's Clint Eastwood, for heaven's sake; what could go wrong?
FOR THE RECORD:
Clint Eastwood: An article in the Sept. 1 Calendar section about actor Clint Eastwood's performance at the Republican National Convention said that Eastwood did voiceover work on the animated feature "Rango." Actor Timothy Olyphant did an impression of Eastwood for the film. —
Well, now we know. He could come out, hair askew, and ramble his way through what was no doubt conceived as a bit of light comedy with political bite but played like the strangely hostile wanderings of a man not quite himself.
So not himself did Eastwood appear, as he put profanities in the mouth of the president (a man known mostly for never uttering profanities), that many wondered if the star was somehow promoting his new film, in which he plays a crusty old coot hacking his way through the disorienting forest of age.
Except that Eastwood isn't that kind of guy either; one of his most revered qualities has been his air of humility, his lack of self-promotion.
Then what exactly were we seeing? Clint just being Clint and not caring what anyone thought? A comedy bit that just needed a little editing? An 82-year-old man in need of a new prescription? Or the ultimate subversive act by a conservative who has secretly become an Obama supporter?
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Because no matter what your opinion of Eastwood's performance, the next-day result was a resounding "Mitt who?" (And if you think everyone in the convention center was laughing while Eastwood spoke, then you didn't see the look on Ann Romney's face.)
The fact that the day after Romney's big night, many more people appear concerned about Eastwood's mental state than Romney's political health says much about our obsession with sizzle over substance, but more about the iconic status of Clint Eastwood.
Presidents come and go, but Dirty Harry, we believed, remains ever the same.
There have been other worrisome indications that perhaps even Clint is not above the slings and arrows of our increasingly wild-eyed culture, or at least the simple erosion of time. When, during this year's Super Bowl, his narration of a Chrysler ad praising the rebirth of Detroit was construed by some as direct support for the president, he took to "The O'Reilly Factor" to assure everyone that he was not, nor had never been, a supporter of Obama. (Um, Clint, no one really thought Chrysler was putting out a political ad.)
Then his wife, Dina, launched a reality show. Although she repeatedly downplayed her husband's role in "Mrs. Eastwood & Company," which revolves around his family's life, he did appear on several episodes. Clint Eastwood! On a reality show! Sure, he looked OK and didn't, you know, throw furniture, but even the idea of him signing off on his family leveraging his name and inviting cameras into his home, gave everyone pause. What was Clint thinking?
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No doubt he was thinking that this was something his wife wanted to do and that he wanted to support her. Just as appearing at the Republican's convention was something his party wanted him to do and so he should support his party. The problem is that the image of Clint Eastwood as cultural superhero — he acts! he directs! he does voice work for "Rango!" he's a beloved Republican! in Hollywood! — is just that, an image. He has succeeded in his chosen field because he has worked there long and hard; on a movie set, he knows exactly what he's doing.
But all sets are not created equal, and what plays well in the hall doesn't always work for the folks at home. Which is one reason it's so hard to find a good Oscar host. (Memo to the academy: This is not Eastwood's year.) There is no way Clint Eastwood intended to steal the night from Mitt Romney, nor to spark a debate over his own state of mind or legacy. He is an entertainer; he was trying to entertain.
Unfortunately, when a nation decides that a person has achieved a state of glorified infallibility, this is the sort of thing that can happen. Turns out, even Clint Eastwood isn't above falling for his own PR.