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Never mind all those years in fantasyland, Clint Eastwood is still shooting straight

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New York--He's been good, he's been bad, he's been ugly, but who would ever guess the man with no name is talky? In fact, despite his screen image as a taciturn and guarded presence, Clint Eastwood turns out to be a real magpie.

Talk, talk, talk, talk! The lanky movie star kicks back with a vengeance, takes a swig on a bottle of Perrier, and lets fly. Wait a minute? Eastwood? With an effete bubbly effervescence out of a delicate green bottle that looks like a Ming vase?

Yes indeed, that is the man's poison of choice, and when you say that, smile.

Actually, smiling in the Eastwood presence is not particularly difficult. The Big Guy, in conversation, turns out to be a gifted raconteur who, moreover, possesses one of those deadpan, self-deprecating senses of humor found rarely enough among normal people but almost never among world-class movie stars.

Asked if he ever considered giving up acting, Eastwood replies, "Yeah. Every time I do a movie." He laughs. "Sometimes I look at myself up there, and I think, 'Hey. Give it up.' "

But his fans the world over hope he'll never give it up. In fact, like no actor of his and few of any other generation, he's transcended performance until he's become an icon. He just is, somehow, like a force of nature or the north face of an unclimbed mountain.

At 62, he's still magnificent, 6 feet 2 of ropy muscle stretched tight over a frame of bones that looks like some kind of rack for drying pemmican. The thick hair is a tangle of gray barbs, the skin is as buttery as old leather, the jaw line is still taut, the thin-lipped mouth an enigmatic jot. He retains that string bean cowpoke's loungy posture and endless shank, still every inch the high plains drifter who observes the world through eyes that appear to be nuggets of double-ought buckshot behind gun-muzzle cheekbones. He's like an old hunting rifle, much carried, well-worn, burnished, the bluing worn off in places, plenty of dings on the stock, but the whole piece still, at an advanced age, a lethal weapon.

And, in fact, to compare Eastwood to a gun is not inappropriate. Unlike any actor before or since, much of his career has been taken up with the subject of violence in general and killing in specific and killing with a firearm in the ultra-specific. And now he returns to screens in a long and melancholy meditation on the subject, "Unforgiven," which opens Friday. It's almost a "western-noir," a bleak parable in which a reformed homicidal maniac gives in to the temptation of his profession one last time and learns that most tragic of all lessons, that American lesson, which is that once the killing begins it can't be stopped.

It is pointed out that years back, the Italian director Sergio Leone firmly established the then-second-billed actor on a failing TV series as a cynical man-killer in a trio of worldwide revisionist western hits called "A Fistful of Dollars," "For a Few Dollars More" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." He's asked if he's had any regrets.

'I'm not a killer'

"No. I'm fatalistic about it. Obviously, if you become famous playing a certain kind of role, then somebody believes you're that person. I'm not a killer in real life, but if somebody wants to believe that or believes you're not acting, then that's the greatest compliment."

He pauses for just a second, then says, "I know I do it well. There must be something in my soul that drives me to it." He laughs loudly. "Who knows? There are certain things you do better than others, and the thing is to build on that strength."

But he's quick to point out that his biggest grossing film -- "Every Which Way But Loose" -- was a non-killing film.

"I've done a lot of different pictures, so it's not as if I've done just one thing. I could have done genre films for 35 years. If you just want to make some dough, there's plenty of ways to do it. But it wouldn't have been interesting."

And "being interesting" is one of the things Eastwood has insisted upon. In fact his career as both actor and director is filled with eccentricities of taste and intellect that not even a Steven Spielberg can boast. After all, he made "Bronco Billy," about a washed-up rodeo star, and "Honkytonk Man," about a washed-up country-western star, and "White Hunter, Black Heart," about a washed-up movie director. And "Bird," about jazz great Charlie Bird, in which he didn't even appear.

"I knew some of these films had a limited appeal, but if you've got to do it, you've got to do it. It's worthy. I'm a strong proponent of doing the best you can. If my interest in cinema was limited to westerns, I could have stayed in Italy and made a lot of money."

Still, Eastwood is forever associated with westerns and in a way is single-handedly keeping the genre alive. Other than the brat-pack goofs on the genre -- "Young Guns" and "Young Guns II" -- he's the only filmmaker who still attempts to keep the proud old tradition alive. He made the last big western, "Pale Rider." He made the last great western, "The Outlaw Josey Wales." And now he's making the only western of the year, "Unforgiven."

Good luck with westerns

"I've always had good luck with westerns, even if some other people haven't. I always attributed the fact that the western didn't do well because it wasn't made well. I've heard a lot of people say that the western disappeared because it was taken over by 'Star Wars.' Well, maybe now it's time to go back to it. Maybe it's just luck, but it seems to have become more relevant to today's realities. And I fell in love with this story. I've had it for about eight years, and I've been nurturing it along. I loved the complex morality of it and the way it de-mythicized the West." (Note to doubters: Yes, he actually used the word "de-mythicized"; I have it on tape.)

"Unforgiven" was actually written 18 years ago by David Webb Peoples. Eastwood was shown the script eight years ago as a sample of Peoples' work when it was owned by other producers. He liked it so much he bought it himself. He's since fiddled with it, but at one point told Peoples, "Every time I try and fix it, it goes out of kilter. So I think the way you had it originally is the best."

It's the story of William Munney, assassin, hog-farmer and dad. Set in Nebraska in the early 1870s, it follows as Munney, a widower with two kids who is failing as a pork merchant, takes up the challenge to kill two cowboys who have sliced up the face of a prostitute. In return, he is to get $1,000. With a young gunslinger and an old friend (Morgan Freeman), he heads up to do a job of murder. In the town he meets a brutal marshal, played by Gene Hackman, and the equation gets complicated.

In fact, what's most impressive about the film is the way it's set in the bleak zone of Stupidville: nobody in it is smart, the West is barren and lonely, and the morality is so complicated you need a scorecard to figure it out. People shoot people for the dumbest of reasons, and when they do, the wounded or dying men cry and scream and beg for mercy. Eastwood's character isn't even a hero: he's a small, mean-minded psycho whose one saving human grace is a kernel of loyalty. It's a far cry from "For a Fistful of Dollars" and its romance and operatic sensibility.

Concerns about violence

"It's funny, but entirely by accident, the longer I owned it, the more relevant and topical it became. It reflects my own concerns about violence and my concern as to how far public callousness had gone."

He says that he envisioned it almost as a film noir.

"I wanted it to look like a picture in black and white. I approached art direction that way. I wanted to make sure it didn't have that 'pop' to it that puts you in fantasyland. Like [classic black-and-white westerns] 'The Ox-Bow Incident' and 'My Darling Clementine' -- that's the kind of the look I wanted, only in color."

Asked if the brutal reality of the movie was in some way a penance for all the movies he'd done in which his character shot and killed dozens of anonymous men without suffering ill effects, Eastwood flashed that tight-lipped grimace that is his movie trademark (usually issued before he shoots someone) and said, "There is pain involved in this. But it's not really that I'm doing penance for those [other] pictures. They were operatic in nature and an interesting challenge at that time. Those films were not meant to be taken seriously. Now, I've moved on in life."

It's also Eastwood's 17th picture as director. Uniquely among the stars of his generation, he early on founded a production company and began directing himself. He understands how best to use his own ragged features, his dry wit, his raspy voice. Avoiding compromise

"It's kind of a habit by now. I started out directing years ago by just kind of being the only one for the job. The only way I could do it was to act in it. I stayed with it for a few times and eventually figured it out. So I guess after 16 or 17 times, I know what I want."

He also knows how hard it is to keep what you want.

"I never test screen. I've never jammed a house with people and said, 'Now tell me what this is all about.' And I've avoided pressures to commercialize or compromise the movie. An executive suggested that it would be nice if at the end, William Munney got together with the prostitute. Yeah, it would be nice. But that's another story. That's compromise. That shouldn't be."

That's Pure-D Eastwood: hell-bent on having it his own way, walking alone, the solitary man till the end. He still shoots fast and straight after all these years.

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