For much of Clint Eastwood's career, critics used the impassive actor as a punching bag when describing his populist appeal.
But the one-time contract player stuck around long enough to allow critical knee-jerkers to give his work a second, more thoughtful look.
The stack of accolades keeps growing for the star who rose to fame as "the man with no name" in a trio of classic spaghetti Westerns.
The 70-year-old actor-director won the Venice Film Festival's lifetime achievement award earlier this year. He was given the Cesar award, the French version of the Oscar, in Paris two years ago for his film direction. The American Film Institute gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. A year earlier, he accepted the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, an honorary Oscar that joined his best director statuette for 1992's "Unforgiven."
Mr. Eastwood's Kennedy Center Honors award this weekend represents more than just another hunk of bric-a-brac for his bulging mantle. It pays homage to a career that has influenced our modern ideals of masculinity as assuredly as it has the motion picture industry. Richard Schickel, a Los Angeles-based film critic for Time magazine and author of "Clint Eastwood: A Biography," says the honor represents the last major award for Mr. Eastwood to collect.
"That's a remarkable achievement, considering the contempt he was held in at the beginning of his career," Mr. Schickel says.
"He's built a portrait of a handsome, physically capable American assaulted by all sorts of doubts," he says of Mr. Eastwood's career arc. "He's really toyed with all the masculine issues of the last 30 years."
By his own admission, Mr. Eastwood is a simple storyteller who began as a dispensable actor, the kind who would walk into the frame, mumble a forgettable line, then skulk back out of camera range.
"He probably came from farther back in the pack than anybody," Mr. Schickel says. Broadway-seasoned actors like Paul Newman were expected to scale the cinematic heights. Not Mr. Eastwood.
"Clint's relationships with the critics was very dicey, especially in the early going," says Mr. Schickel, Mr. Eastwood's official biographer.
He believes Mr. Eastwood began a "slow accretion" of respect following 1976's "The Outlaw Josey Wales." Others would argue that the critical tide officially turned during the 1993 Academy Awards festivities, with his revisionist Western "Unforgiven" earning four Academy Awards.
Holding a moviegoer's attention for more than 90 minutes proves to be too much for many of today's stars. Mr. Eastwood does it seemingly without blinking his trademark squinted eyelids.
Richard Burton once dubbed his acting style "dynamic lethargy."
Mr. Eastwood's minimalist approach has proved as powerful as the reams of dialogue other, more studied actors might speak.
The San Francisco native came of age in a Depression-tinged childhood that left an indelible stamp on his work ethic, enabling him to commune with the common man more than 30 years after staking a claim to superstar status.
He followed up an unremarkable academic career with a stint in the Army as a swimming instructor. A scout with Universal Studios tapped the lanky lad for parts as a contract player. He earned a living with such outlandish films as "Tarantula" and "Revenge of the Creature."
Regular, more respectable work came later in the guise of Rowdy Yates, the quiet sidekick in television's "Rawhide."
But a Western shot in Spain by an obscure Italian director was what forged Mr. Eastwood's career into its shatterproof state.
His three "spaghetti Westerns" with Sergio Leone, kicked off by "A Fistful of Dollars" in 1964, cemented his laconic persona for the masses.
The actor quickly leveraged his overseas clout to stake a claim to stateside success, creating indelible roles such as "Dirty Harry" in 1971 and, in the same year, tackling his directorial debut, "Play Misty for Me. …