AUSTIN, TEX. -- He cries in his new movie.
He stands by a window, looking out. The girl is behind him, staring at the nape of his neck, where his silver hair is still dark brown. He talks to her -- whispers, really -- and starts crying. His teeth are clenched. His mole is stretched tight. It's the same grimace he uses when he squeezes a trigger, the same pain and wincing and spectacular squinting that exist in all of his many performances. He has simply added another dimension -- tears -- and he makes the move with coolness and grace.
Vulnerability: According to test screenings of "In the Line of Fire," this is something he should have done 20 years ago. Women loved it. Women ... the half of the population that doesn't regularly attend his movies ... loved it.
But what, frankly, does Clint Eastwood need with them?
It broiled and rained and steamed, and then it broiled again. Down in a grassy meadow in the gorgeous middle of nowhere, sweating in a Texas sheriff's uniform circa 1960, Clint Eastwood saunters around with his ice-cube face and his silence. He knows when not to say anything, which is quite often. His new film, "In the Line of Fire" -- a thriller set in Washington -- opened on Friday, but he is already directing another picture, and acting in it. His blue eyes bore into people's mouths while they gab on and on.
He seems like a stud, but also like a guy behind an airline ticket counter, an insurance agent, a beautiful milkman. When he breaks for lunch, he turns up at the chow line next to the catering truck, and stands there, waiting his turn like everybody else (except Kevin Costner, who has lunch brought to him in his trailer), holding his empty plastic cafeteria tray out in front of him.
"I don't know what there is in life to be vain about," he says. "I mean, taking your work seriously is nice, but don't take yourself seriously."
He's been seriously working -- for 22 months straight now -- and so has his faithful crew. Some of them have been with Eastwood for decades, a few since his early '60s TV show "Rawhide," even more since he was Harry Callahan in "Dirty Harry" a decade later, and it's a family of sorts. Two years ago August, they began shooting "Unforgiven" in western Canada, then went to Washington last fall for "In the Line of Fire," in which Eastwood plays a burned-out Secret Service agent, then reunited in Texas for this one -- "A Perfect World" -- costarring Costner as an escaped convict and Laura Dern and some young boy, a child actor, who keeps Eastwood from shooting every scene in one or two easy takes, the way he likes.
Things are done without agony, and with intense interest in economy. Everything is as sparse as the dialogue. There's almost a feeling of moral purity in the no-frills attitude. Eastwood says he enjoys watching special effects movies like "Jurassic Park" ("I sat there with a half-tub of popcorn like everybody else, and loved it"), but wouldn't have the patience to make one. He likes things simpler: stories, conflicts, character development. "Small pictures," he says. He's a lifelong Republican -- and one-term mayor of Carmel, Calif. -- but admits to voting for Ross Perot last time around, which makes intuitive sense: Eastwood hates waste, red tape, excess. He is directing his 17th movie now (his company, Malpaso, has produced even more), and every one has come in under schedule and under budget.
"Sure, movies are an art," he says, "but so is plumbing."
His sets are legendarily quiet, but it's a quiet without tension. "I've worked on 25 or 30 movies," says one assistant director, a young woman wearing raggedy Bermuda shorts and a headset. "And this is the best set I've been on, best crew, best atmosphere. Everybody's so relaxed."
Eastwood is, clearly, no prima donna -- he likes collaborating, likes surrounding himself with smart people and letting them do their jobs. He has an unhurried presence even though he's famous for quickness: Two takes and he moves on to the next shot. He drives himself around and is known to do his own laundry ("Send it out," he's said, "and it tends to get lost"). He never spontaneously takes a day off and disrupts the shooting schedule. By way of comparison, somebody on the set mentions Robert Redford, that other actor-director who was originally offered the script for "In the Line of Fire," and who has also been looking at playing the lead in "The Bridges of Madison County," as has Eastwood.
So? What about Redford?
"Bob," a crew member says, "couldn't open a drawer by himself."
That his new movie might bring the girls around to Eastwood, at age 63, is the sort of move -- expansion -- that he's famous for. Long ago, Middle America -- his loyal followers of every "fast-action" thriller and western of the past 30 years -- had to start sharing Eastwood with everybody else. His directorial debut, "Play Misty for Me," became a cult classic with teenagers way back in 1971. Film school intellectuals started noticing his elegance, his existential quiet and his film noir talent, around the time of "Broncho Billy" in 1980 and then, certainly, with "Bird," the ambitious story of jazzman Charlie Parker's life, in 1988.
This year, he brought the Hollywood establishment to his feet -- his two Oscars for "Unforgiven" came years after Eastwood had giving up hope of getting the Academy's respect. He prides himself on being an outsider, a loner, on running his own career -- not letting the Hollywood experts keep putting him in movies, as they did in the 1969 musical (!) "Paint Your Wagon," where he sung off-key.
"I never felt I was in the award business," Eastwood says. "But I must say, once the speculation was high that 'Unforgiven' would win Best Picture, I wanted that. I really wanted that. I mean, I wasn't blase. I never said, 'Yeah, who cares?' " Referring, perhaps, to a certain New York filmmaker with recent well-publicized domestic difficulties, he adds, "I wasn't going to refuse to go, not pick it up, play my clarinet somewhere instead."
At the same time, interestingly, Eastwood claims that "Unforgiven" isn't any better than his 1976 film, "The Outlaw Josey Wales." He says dryly: "People just seem to be in the mood for westerns now -- or maybe for using that period to address topical subject matter. I don't know. I'm not really objective about the work. I suppose if you believed in astrology -- which I don't -- you could say the stars lined up right."
His contrary nature, this Outsider thing, has always worked for Eastwood -- and translates well on screen. His act is not an act. He's a hero, but usually has more in common with the villain than anybody else in his movies. He exudes, in the same way that Harrison Ford and Redford and Costner do, a feeling that's hard to fake, a feeling that he could take it or leave it, that acting is silly, that movies are silly. He communicates, with his saunter and dominating reserve, that he wants to run his own show, live far away from his fans. In any given scene, you aren't sure that he might not walk out of the picture forever. It's this funny ambivalence -- not trying too hard -- that gives him grace and power. And it's his calm, of course, that gives him depth, signaling looming, lurking pain. Drop the penny in the old well and ... it seems that you have to wait a long time before you hear it hit bottom.
How long has he been a leading man?
"About 30 years," he says.
Why haven't people gotten sick of you?
"Maybe they have," he says.
Well, no, clearly they haven't.
"I have no idea," he says. "It's, ahhhhhh ... I just make the movies."
Later, after his last scene with Costner is shot, after it had rained and steamed again -- and Costner had stood in the middle of the green meadow for hours while two helicopters kept circling his head and scores of old Dodge Darts and Ford Fairlanes painted creamy white like old Texas Rangers' cars were lined up on a hillside -- Eastwood ambles back to his big trailer. His head nearly touches the ceiling (he's 6-foot-4). He washes the makeup off his face, the tan off, the sunburn off. His hair stands on end. He changes into clean, unsweaty clothes, into some baggy cotton pants and a T-shirt so white it has to be brand-new.
It's hard not to notice his biceps. When he sits down and puts his hands behind his head, well, there they are: fresh and tight and smooth. Questions arise in your head -- the ones you ask yourself, not him: How come even his real voice sounds dubbed? How many times, in pictures, has he taken two fingers of his right hand and closed the eyes of a dead man? How many women have called his name to his back as he rode off? How come his (ex-)wife of 31 years (Maggie Johnson) and his two subsequent steady girlfriends (Sondra Locke, Frances Fisher) all look like the same woman?
How can he possibly be 63?
"Some people long for retirement," he says. "I don't. I don't think in terms of yesterday. I look forward to doing my best work in the present, or the future. My father told me, 'You gotta keep progressing or you decay.' So rather than atrophy mentally and physically, I just kinda keep forging ahead."
He does the vitamin thing, twice a day. He meditates. He works out 90 minutes every night after shooting. Does three sets of 12: Lifts 160 pounds on the seated rowing pull, 150 pounds on the lateral pull-down, 175 pounds on the seated shoulder press. On curls, he starts at 100 pounds and winds up at 125.
Eastwood admits that he's "sort of addicted to work," but he usually takes two to six months off between projects. His two kids with his ex-wife are in their twenties now, and Frances Fisher is expecting a child with him in the fall. When he's home in Carmel, he plays golf ("I'm nuts about it") with friends -- obscure, non-movie people. When he heads down to Los Angeles to meet with his longtime producer, David Valdes, to look over possible projects, his flies himself there in his own helicopter. ("I don't like people fussing over me too much.") He's on the board of the San Francisco Heart Institute and conjures new ways of enhancing the music program at Carmel High School. Sometimes he writes the theme music to his movies too -- tinkering around at the piano.
What else is he good at?
"There are a lot of things I'd like to do better in life," he says.
As Frank Horrigan, the burned-out Secret Service agent in "In the Line of Fire," Eastwood is both deadpan and self-deprecating -- very close to his in-person persona. The movie, very charmingly, makes horrible fun of his age. Horrigan sweats and pants while trying to run beside the president's motorcade, then catches an unmanly cold on Air Force One. Eastwood's voice is so gravelly now that he's starting to sound a little like Jack Palance. (Maybe he always did.) And his face, at some angles, is starting to look like Henry Fonda's.
For a thriller, the emphasis of "In the Line of Fire" is more on psychological complications and character than on violence.
Eastwood himself doesn't want to be put in the position of either admonishing or condoning violence in the movies. While "Unforgiven" was hyped as an anti-violence movie last year -- this means the violence in it was deliberately ugly, not hypnotically beautiful, as in a Sam Peckinpah film -- Eastwood says he is "not doing penance" for "Dirty Harry" and all those other macho films. Millions of dollars made off bloodshed and ...
Is he uncomfortable with that?
"Ahhh, you know, I don't know," he says. "I'm not uncomfortable, I guess, because Tom Mix came before me, and Randolph Scott and John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Everybody did gunplay in westerns. And they did war movies and detective movies. Jimmy Cagney didn't cause society to crumble, and it's not crumbling now because of movies... .
"Politicians are always accusing television of promoting violence. Maybe it does. I am certainly not going to defend the tube. There's a lot of junk on it. But I don't think it's our biggest problem. Complacency is. Society has become so complacent -- everybody just walks around thinking about their own hide. We're always looking for somebody else to blame. I don't want this to sound like a 12-step program or anything, but ..."
"Can you imagine a bunch of politicians trying to regulate television?" he whispers. "That's a laugh, isn't it? They can't even finish what's on their plate now. This just seems like one more thing for them to screw up."
The movie trucks are sliding around in the Texas mud and Costner has left, having completed his last shot and played water polo the night before with some crew members. Laura Dern has disappeared too. The sun is going down, and the guys dressed like Texas Rangers are heading down to their trailers to change. They pass Eastwood in his car. He rolls down his window.
"Thanks, gents," he says.
It's been about 35 years since Eastwood got the part of Rowdy Yates in "Rawhide," when his face seemed much fuller. He was a blue-collar kid from Oakland, Calif., an Army vet looking for work. Universal Studios didn't want him because his Adam's apple was too big.
Even after "Rawhide," nobody in movies would have anything to do with him, or took him seriously, so he went to Spain to make three spaghetti westerns with Italian director Sergio Leone. He persuaded Leone to remove most of his character's dialogue, perfected a sort of squint-and-cigar act that made him a household name and -- by the time of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" in 1967 -- also a bit of a joke. On the credits, his character was called the "Man With No Name." Does it come as a surprise that he costumed himself for those movies, arriving at the Madrid airport with his own sweat-stained cowboy hat and poncho?
"I was just a guy on TV," says Eastwood, "and not even in a particularly great television series. You know, I wasn't from the thea-TAH. I didn't have the kind of background that I could even build up into a sort of pseudo-image. I just happened. I just came along. I just made films. Some of them made money. Maybe that's okay. Maybe not."
That's it? That's how he sums up his success?
"It's a combination of luck and maybe the ability to choose the material, being in sync with your material," he says, "and not being afraid to be flexible and make changes. Everybody should change. That's part of growing up. And eventually, you should be able to parlay your experience, your knowledge, into being better. Being a better person, being better at what you do -- whatever your vocation in life -- and maybe being a benefit to the world."
Valdes, the young producer of many Eastwood movies, turns up in the big trailer to talk a little shop -- buff to buff -- to talk about other people's movies, good and bad, and film schools, and film archives. Conversation swings to "In the Line of Fire," to the Secret Service and what kind of person would work there, to Washington and how beautiful it is in October, to the White House and how it always seems full of "bantamweights" (according to Eastwood), and then back to the movie. Pretty soon, it's time to go.
"Aren't you going to ask the obvious question?" Eastwood says.
"Would I take a bullet to save anybody's life?"
"Well, next of kin," he says. "Not for a president."