Good grief, Clint, have you gone soft on us? ESSAY


Entire forests have been wiped out so that film critics could explain the evolution of Clint Eastwood characters from laconic, hard-bitten misanthropes to sensitive, vulnerable lugs. But say this about the old characters: At least you knew where they stood.

In the 1976 western "The Outlaw Josey Wales," the Eastwood character kills a couple of ornery bounty hunters and grimaces as his young sidekick expresses the desire to see the bodies receive a decent burial.

Eastwood's answer is to send a stream of tobacco juice splattering onto the forehead of one of the corpses.

Then with eyes narrowed to twin slits, he grunts: "Buzzards gotta eat, same as worms."

What, then, are we to make of Eastwood's latest role in "The

Bridges of Madison County," Robert James Waller's gooey tale of a bored Iowa farm wife's four-day fling with a mystical photographer?

As lone-wolf Robert Kincaid, Eastwood actually plays a . . . God, this is so hard to write . . . a touchy-feely dude who does everything but roll up the sleeves on his sportcoat and weep at beautiful sunsets.

Thirty minutes into this baby, die-hard Clint Eastwood fans may well be asking: Who is this guy? Especially when they see Kincaid doing such un-Dirty-Harry-like things as:

* Offering to set the dinner table at soon-to-be-lover Francesca's Johnson's house.

* Peeling carrots and sniffing scallions. (No, no, he doesn't wear an apron. That would be heresy.)

* Smugly explaining that he explored a town in Italy just "because it was pretty."

* Clinking brandy glasses with Francesca (Meryl Streep) and offering this Planet Klingonish toast: "To ancient evenings and distant music."

* Reeling off this astounding bit of New Agey gibberish when Francesca attempts to explain her loneliness: "I scribbled something down the other day. I often do that when I'm on the road. It kinda goes like this: 'The old dreams were good dreams. They didn't work out, but I'm glad I had them.' I don't know what all that means. I just thought I'd use it some day. Anyway, I think I know how you feel."

Ohhhhh-kay. Let's face it: Josey Wales would have pulled out his six-shooter and plugged a man like that. And Dirty Harry, Eastwood's most famous character from the 1971 classic of the same name, would have snarled: "I know where we can dump the body."

The fact is, though, that the role of Robert Kincaid continues the softening and emotional maturity of recent Eastwood characters.

Which I . . . I guess is a good thing. Although every once in a while, when a man's having a bad day, it's nice to see him handle things with a snarl and 20 sticks of dynamite -- at least on the big screen.

Nevertheless, in the 1992 film "Unforgiven," Eastwood, 65, played a conflicted former outlaw torn between his desire to reform and the urge to get drunk and waste about 20 bad guys, just for giggles.

The total effect is two hours of the Eastwood character walking around the troubled town of Big Whiskey thinking: "I don't know . . . should I shoot this guy? Maybe we should just talk this whole thing out. It's all about feelings, isn't it?"

Then there was 1993's "In the Line of Fire," where he played an over-the-hill Secret Service agent toting around a middle-aged gut and a bundle of insecurities.

Somehow he managed to prevent everyone's favorite psycho, John Malkovich, from assassinating the president. But until the climactic scene, it was touch-and-go as to whether agent Frank Horrigan would get it together, push aside his mid-life crisis and actually do something.

Some 50ish men lose 20 pounds and buy candy apple-red Corvette's and take up with Bunny, their secretary with the big chest. Frank Horrigan, who, the story goes, may or may not have frozen when JFK was shot, sat there anguishing (anguishing!) over whether he'd take a bullet for the new president.

Still, Robert Kincaid in "Bridges" is Eastwood's most sensitive character by far. And also his most . . . God, this is even harder to write . . . well-adjusted character, too.

Consider, for example, Robert Kincaid's easy relationship with women in this film.

From his gentle banter with Francesca and tender love-making, to the kindness he displays to a woman scorned by the rest of the town for an adulterous affair, Kincaid comes across as a man who not only appreciates, but celebrates women.

Whereas past Eastwood characters tended to be real knuckle-draggers when it came to the opposite sex, usually displaying the same emotional reach as a Louisville Slugger.

There is another classic scene in "The Outlaw Josey Wales," in which this Cherokee woman is speaking animatedly about how she was beaten and starved and shot and left for dead by a rival tribe.

And you know what the Clint Eastwood character does?

He doesn't pull a Bill Clinton and say: "I feel your pain."

He doesn't offer to get her counseling. He doesn't drape an arm around her and tell her he'll "be there" for her.

Instead, he turns to this other Indian and says: "Can't you get her to shut up?"

And they said he couldn't "communicate."

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