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Squinting for Equality: A Feminist's Appreciation of Clint Eastwood

If you had asked me five years ago what I thought of Clint Eastwood and his films, I probably would have shrugged my shoulders and said "Eh." I really liked Million Dollar Baby and a handful of his other movies, but I unjustifiably assumed those were flukes in an otherwise hyper masculine, conservative, and sexist career. I also never distinguished Clint Eastwood the actor from Clint Eastwood the director. As shameful as it is, I thought of him more like Chuck Norris than John Wayne and failed to appreciate both his deep emotional spectrum and wise humanism. His own films are, in fact, the very essence of humility and grace.

After reexamining Gran Torino (hated it the first time, really liked it the second time), I started reexamining my feelings about Clint Eastwood by watching and loving more of his movies. I soon found out that, as a director, Eastwood is unflinching in his desire to depict equality in his filmic universes. Actors love working with him and it's easy to see why. In a Clint Eastwood film, if you're black, gay, or womanly, you know that you're going to be represented as a multidimensional, intelligent person with real motives and development. It doesn't matter if you're the villain, the hero(ine), or the savior, Eastwood will make damn sure that you stay within gray territory and don't veer off into either the easily categorized black or white ways of thinking. I don't know if I'd ever call Eastwood a feminist, but he's certainly a humanist who excels in examining both male and female perspectives. There's not a lot of directors you can say that about these days.

After my rude awakening, I started paying close attention to the women in his movies and noticed they're all basically cut from the same kind of steel cloth. Whether they're prostitutes looking for justice (Frances Fisher and co. in Unforgiven, Sondra Locke in The Gauntlet), NASA Engineers at the top of their game (Marica Gay Harden in Space Cowboys), or unyielding women searching for children (Laura Dern in A Perfect World, Angelina Jolie in Changeling), the Eastwood femme is a pillar of strength, resourcefulness, and bravery. She might not be flashy or outspoken, but she'll always stand up and fight for what's right in the face of danger and isn't afraid to be the smartest person in the room.

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Best of all, Clint Eastwood's men, who are equally smart and assured, usually admire women for these qualities. For instance, in The Gauntlet, Eastwood's drunken cop is proven wrong time and time again by the tough-talking prostitute (Sondra Locke) he was sent to retrieve. When the narrative hit's the fan, she's the first person to realize what's going on and leads the way to victory while Eastwood struggles to keep up. Eventually, they meet in the middle of their power struggle and genuine love and respect is born between them. In The Gauntlet as well as his other films, this is achieved through a certain level of maturity felt between the characters. He makes "adult" movies that frequently cater to an older audience through their classic Hollywood sensibilities, simplistic, unsubtle storytelling, and actors in their prime. Most of the actors and actresses he casts are well into their thirties if not forties and fifties.

Sondra Locke is one of many actresses who frequent Clint Eastwood's films. Marica Gay Harden, Frances Fisher, and Diane Venora have all appeared in at least two of his films as well. He's directed four actresses to Academy Award nominations: Meryl Streep for the Bridges of Madison County, Marcia Gay Harden for Mystic River, Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby, and Angelina Jolie for Changeling. Swank rightfully walked away with the statue in 2004 for her earnest portrayal of boxer Maggie Fitzgerald. He probably won't beat Woody Allen in that department anytime soon (the comedian has directed his actresses to eleven nominations and five wins even though he's a complicated misogynist), but it's clear to see that Eastwood, who is making more movies than ever before, is that rare breed of contemporary filmmaker who champions breaking through the many panes of that dastardly glass ceiling with a well-meaning hammer. 

His next film, Hereafter, will be in theaters this December. If you love or hate Eastwood or plan on watching some of these flicks in the near future, I'd love to hear your thoughts about them.



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