Elevate Difference

Clint Eastwood and Issues of American Masculinity

It’s easy to confuse Clint Eastwood the actor with Clint Eastwood the director. Often concurrently inhabiting both roles, Eastwood’s prominence and skill as a director has garnered several Oscar nominations and wins for his thoughtful portrayals of men and women troubled by issues relating to gender, race, war, internal conflict, and psychic scars.

Eastwood’s pensive, rugged cowboy masculinity is worthy of its own analysis, but in Clint Eastwood and Issues of American Masculinity, Drucilla Cornell focuses on Eastwood as a director and producer. Dissecting such films as Play Misty for Me, Unforgiven, Mystic River, The Bridges of Madison County, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Million Dollar Baby, Cornell examines Eastwood’s delicate balance in directing himself, his portrayals of the West, and his repeated return to themes of failed fatherhood and militarized masculinity.

Eastwood’s characters—including those he portrays—are often solitary types, but are not without visible struggle. There seems to be a misconception that cowboys don’t experience or survive trauma. On the contrary, Eastwood shows that even lone, soulful male figures are more complex than usually perceived.

Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven, William Munny, is a perfect example of his directorial sensibilities about maleness, the West, failure, and redemption. In Eastwood’s West, the open plains represent opportunity for growth and a space for change. A reformed hired gunman, Munny consistently shows signs of haunting remorse and fatigue. The film is dedicated to Eastwood’s mentors Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) and Sergio Leone (The Man With No Name trilogy), and Eastwood’s advanced take on the Western genre is a welcome shift from that of his predecessors. Stoicism is overrated, and it should come as no surprise that Clint Eastwood is a better feminist than Sergio Leone.

As a director, Eastwood is able to bring issues of gender to the forefront without relying on clichés. In The Bridges of Madison County, Eastwood reverses the original book’s point of view, focusing on the female lead and her children. Female gaze is overwhelmingly ignored in Hollywood, yet Eastwood’s simple act of reorienting the story changes everything. Eastwood’s character is vulnerable, seeking a permanent relationship with a married Meryl Streep, and challenges most assumptions about sex and intimacy.

Cornell’s research and theory rests in part on the foundational work of scholars like Walter Benjamin and Jacques Lacan, but her work adds substantial media criticism—or in this case, praise—to the discipline. It is also highly accessible to lay audiences who have an interest in or knowledge about Eastwood’s directorial work. No doubt many fans of Eastwood’s directorial work will find additional reasons to examine his methods thanks to Cornell’s thoughtful, thorough analysis.

I’m already looking forward to an updated second edition, in which I hope Cornell will delve into portrayals of masculinity and race relations in recent releases like Gran Torino.

Written by: Brittany Shoot, August 9th 2009