Earlier this fall, much was made of the fact that Robert Redford, 82, was starring in “The Old Man & the Gun.” A lot of the attention focused on the fact that Redford had announced that it would be his last acting role.
Why retire from acting at a mere 82? On Friday, “The Mule” opens. It stars Clint Eastwood, 88. Age cannot wither nor custom stale the glint of that classic Clint squint. Eastwood also directed.
Like Redford, he’s been a star since the ’60s. Eighty-eight is about as old as a leading man can get and still be leading. Yet Clint, being Clint, has announced nothing about future plans. Why would he? The tersest movie star this side of the Silent Era, he is to announcements what empty chairs are to Republican conventions.
You’d have thought Eastwood’s starring days were behind him. His last lead role came six years ago, in “Trouble With the Curve.” His last classic-Clint role — meaning angry dude, age irrelevant, preferably armed — was four years before that, in “Gran Torino.”
He made his movie debut, uncredited, in “Revenge of the Creature” (1955). He became famous on TV, during his six seasons on “Rawhide,” as Rowdy Yates (has any Eastwood character had a better name?). He became an international star when Sergio Leone cast him as the Man With No Name in “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965), and “The Good, the Bad,and the Ugly” (1966). Forget Nehru jackets and miniskirts. The ’60s had no more iconic item of clothing than Eastwood’s serape in those spaghetti westerns.
Eastwood directed his first movie, “Play Misty for Me,” in 1971. “The Mule” is his 37th. It’s not the first Eastwood movie with that word in the title, or a version of it. “Two Mules for Sister Sara” came out in 1971, too. Eastwood didn’t direct it, though. Don Siegel did. It was one of five movies they did together, the most productive relationship Eastwood has had with a director — other than himself, of course.
“The Mule” is based on fact. This has become something of a filmmaking specialty for Eastwood the director: “Invictus,” about a famous South African rugby match (2009); “J. Edgar” (2011), about the FBI director; “American Sniper” (2014), about a much-decorated Navy SEAL marksman; “Sully,” about the Miracle on the Hudson crash landing (2016); and last winter’s “The 15:17 to Paris,” about the three young American travelers who foiled a 2015 terrorist attack.
In “The Mule,” Eastwood plays an octogenarian World War II veteran who becomes a courier for a Mexican drug cartel. Serious complications ensue. You decide whether they involve Clint acting his age.
The film boasts an impressive cast: Bradley Cooper, Diane Wiest, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Andy Garcia. This is one of the things that people often overlook about Eastwood the director. Yes, he’s a master of visual economy and screen action. But performers love to work for him.
Actors who’ve earned Oscar nominations under his direction include Gene Hackman (“Unforgiven,” 1992); Meryl Streep (“The Bridges of Madison County,” 1995); Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Marcia Gay Harden (“Mystic River,” 2003); Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman (2004, “Million Dollar Baby”); Angelina Jolie (“Changeling,” 2008); Matt Damon (“Invictus”); and Cooper (“American Sniper”). Hackman, Penn, Robbins, Swank, and Freeman all won. That’s a track record worthy of Elia Kazan.
It’s also worth noting that Eastwood directed himself to acting nominations, for “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby.”
Four of those 11 performers are women. People tend to forget that Eastwood, who’s spent more than half a century as a lean and mean monument to firing-range masculinity, can have a distinctly more sensitive side when behind the camera. It’s the same sort of duality that informed his unique back-to-back directorial effort on “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima” (2006), showing that battle from the US side, then the Japanese.
That may not be the most startling same-year Eastwood directorial pairing. “Jersey Boys,” the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons musical, came out six months after the release of “American Sniper.” The juxtaposition is a bit mind-bending, but Eastwood’s directing a musical isn’t. Himself a talented pianist, he’s composed the scores for seven of his films.
The great Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval did the music for “The Mule.” His participation is a nod to Eastwood’s love of jazz. His character in “Play Misty for Me” (which takes its title from Errol Garner’s classic number) is a jazz deejay. Eastwood’s directorial passion project was “Bird” (1988), with Forest Whitaker playing bebop legend Charlie Parker. The Secret Service agent he plays in “In the Line of Fire” (1993) finds the time to play some jazz standards on the piano and puts Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” on his record player. Eastwood’s one foray into nonfiction filmmaking, “Piano Blues,” was part of Martin Scorsese’s 2003 PBS documentary series, “The Blues.” Dermatologically, Eastwood has become positively ghostly. Musically, though, his hipness credentials are pretty impeccable.
So a man who starred in “Trouble With the Curve” has had no problem throwing them. Like any enduring star, he’s been impressively constant. Clint is Clint. Yet like any enduring artist, he’s been impressively unpredictable. Maybe “The Mule” won’t be Eastwood’s finale as a leading man. “Nobody runs forever” is the movie’s tagline. Fair enough. But Eastwood’s mother lived to be 97. She was with him at the Oscars, in 2004. Genes are on his side. Even if Eastwood weren’t famously efficient as a filmmaker, there’s still plenty of time for the Man With No Name to return as the Man With No Age. “The Good, the Bad, and the Elderly,” anyone?Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.