The celebration of Clint Eastwood and his film "Unforgiven" at the 1993 Academy Awards ceremony at one level seems merely about the Hollywood industry finally paying homage to one of its tried-and-true moneymakers, just as Al Pacino's long-overdue Best Actor award (for a performance certainly not his best) seems about Hollywood's guilty conscience. At the same time, however, there are those moments when these belated tributes and the recognition of an original happily coincide. The Eastwood Oscars represent one such instance.
When Sergio Leone was looking for his "Man with No Name," the brutal, enigmatic central figure of most of his legendary "spaghetti westerns," he recounted the tale of Michelangelo creating his statue of David. Leone said, "Michelangelo saw a block of marble and said, |That's my David!'; I saw Clint and said, |That's my block of marble!'" Thus began the rise to superstardom of one who some argue to be the last genuine screen icon, the last movie star.
Eastwood was around before Leone's epiphany, co-starring in the TV western "Rawhide" and appearing in grade-B sci-fi pictures such as "Tarantula" and "Revenge of the Creature." By the early 1960s, his luck was running out. Along with a number of second-string players (including Lex Barker, one of the later Tarzans), Eastwood hightailed it to Rome, where the Cinecitta studios seemed to have an appetite for American beefcake and kitsch. Nevertheless, it was Leone who discovered something in Eastwood and allowed the man to re,invent himself.
The Man with No Name persona created for Eastwood (who in person is still an affable, shy, midwestern boy even in his 60s) with the squinting eyes, laconic style, occasional werewolf snarl, and consummate skill with a revolver, really was a caricature of the American male created by Hollywood genre films. Similarly, Leone's "Dollar" trilogy was a deconstruction of the western and its assumptions about the American frontier experience. That Eastwood could make this persona transcend caricature, and carry it into most of his major roles after his work in Italy, is a comment on both his genuis and the susceptibilities of the public.
The final credit to "Unforgiven" is a dedication to "Sergio and Don." The latter refers to Don Siegel, the man responsible in large part for Eastwood's image after his return to the U.S., primarily in "Coogan's Bluff" and, most importantly, "Dirty Harry." That picture launched a series as responsible for Eastwood's box office longevity as the James Bond films were to Sean Connery. In the Dirty Harry pictures, Eastwood reworked the Man with No Name character to make it respond to a changing political and social climate in the America of the 1970s and 1980s.
Siegel's original "Dirty Harry" is a latter-day "High Noon," debunking elected authority in favor of a strong man armed (particularly underscored in Harry's massive . …