Clint Eastwood is the only actor to win the Oscar for directing twice, and his most recent victory, Million Dollar Baby, is just out on DVD. Eastwood stars as an old boxing trainer who reluctantly takes on a female boxer (Hilary Swank) and puts her on the road to a championship. Baby is one of the better sports films because it’s more of a human drama that turns in an unexpected direction and because Eastwood avoids the obvious clichés. Reaction to the film was a bit strange. Critics lauded it as a masterpiece, but right-wing pundits vilified it as liberal propaganda. Both views smack of overreaction. Baby is certainly a well-constructed and well-acted drama, but I just can’t see it as the best film of 2004. Perhaps if Hollywood hadn’t forgotten the fine art of making serious dramas, then more competition could have changed the landscape.
Eastwood has come a long way since his debut year in movies, in which he had uncredited roles in Revenge of the Creature and Tarantula, and he’d probably like to forget his credit for appearing in Francis in the Navy. His co-starring role in the TV series Rawhide led to his major breakthrough in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-Western trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Eastwood cited Leone as one of his main directorial influences, along with Don Siegel, who began Eastwood’s other legendary movie series as director of Dirty Harry (1971).
Eastwood’s long run as a major star has included numerous hits, but, as with any successful actor, some of his best work seems to have slipped by. When Eastwood unexpectedly ventured into comedy with the mediocre Every Which Way but Loose (1978) it became his biggest hit, but when he followed that with a good comedy, Bronco Billy (1980), audiences stayed away. Eastwood stars as a modern-day cowboy who runs a traveling Wild West show. Bronco Billy is basically a lazy slice-of-life comedy focusing on a quirky group of characters. In that respect it bears a slight resemblance to Million Dollar Baby.
Eastwood’s grizzled old-timer in Baby appeared earlier in another incarnation as a dying Depression-era country singer in Honkytonk Man (1982). Much like Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man is a road film in which Red Stovall (Eastwood) heads for Nashville for one last shot at stardom in the Grand Ole Opry. Some of the elements that made Baby a huge success are present in both films, which Eastwood also directed, and I would rank them among his best work. Eastwood will next direct, but not star in, Flags of Our Fathers, about the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima.
DVDs scheduled for release Tuesday (July 19): Constantine, Ice Princess, and Man of the House.