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Commentary: When good actors go bad, the results can be ugly

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 6, 2012 - It is now safe to announce that Clint Eastwood has officially endorsed Mitt Romney for president — I think. His appearance at the Republican National Convention generated some decidedly mixed reviews ranging from “off-beat” to “bizarre,” depending on your point of view. As the adjectives “rambling” and “disjointed” appear in both favorable and unfavorable commentary, I suppose it’s at least theoretically possible that he’s secretly backing Obama.

I must confess that I did not see his performance live because I no longer tune into political conventions, including the Democrats where something equally bizarre may be happening. A wag once described politics as show business for ugly people. If that characterization is accurate, the modern convention is the equivalent of the Academy Awards Show — and I stopped watching that bloated extravaganza after “Titanic” beat out “LA Confidential” for best picture.

The dubious critical judgment behind that choice caused me to conclude that members of the Academy inhabit an alternate universe to the one I live in. Why should I blow an entire evening to watch their alien shenanigans? Similarly, the political nominees are now known before the nominating conventions are even convened, so I see no reason to suffer through hours of gasbag rhetoric when I already know how the show turns out.

I did, however, watch a video replay of Clint’s address. From this, I conclude that improv is not the venerable star’s forte. Despite that unsurprising discovery, I’m told the in-house audience reaction was generally favorable — with the notable exceptions of Mrs. Romney and the vice presidential couple, who looked as though they’d just politely eaten a serving of bad fish rather than risk offending their host.

The performance was apparently received differently by those who saw it in person than by those who viewed it on TV. That disparity is understandable because the former group was composed of people whose idea of a good time is a trip to south Florida in late August to sit inside an auditorium during a hurricane so they could listen to politicians talk. In short, the convention attendees may not have been representative of the nation as a whole.

I also found it ironic that Eastwood was introduced to the theme song from “The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” while a large photo of him from that film was displayed on the screen behind the stage. The Romney-Ryan ticket thus promoted their domestic jobs growth agenda by celebrating a movie about the American West that was made in Italy to save money. Oh, the humanity.

But one unorthodox political endorsement is not enough to dethrone a genuine cultural icon. In fact, for boomers like me, Clint’s always been there — like a distant, but admired, bachelor uncle whose exotic adventures were the stuff of family legend.

His filmography begins with an appearance as “Jennings” in “Revenge of the Creature.” Clint’s role in that one was so minor that he didn’t even earn a mention in the film-ending credits. But that long-forgotten B-movie yawner premiered in 1955. That’s 57 years ago. At the time, Elvis was still skinny and unknown.

Over the decades, Clint has compiled an impressive body of work as a producer, director and, of course, leading man. Some of his efforts were trenchantly brilliant (“Unforgiven,” “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot”), some bordered on the profound (“Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Invictus”), while others revealed a surprising sensitivity to the nuances of the human psyche (“Gran Torino,” “In the Line of Fire,” “Million Dollar Baby”). He even made a chick flick — “The Bridges of Madison County” — to which I was dragged kicking and screaming by an old girlfriend, only to exit the theater with an embarrassing lump in my throat.

But it was as an action hero that Clint etched his place into the public consciousness. Fittingly, his work in this genre can be categorized into the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Some of these portrayals were compelling (“Coogan’s Bluff,” “High Plains Drifter”), while most were merely good watching (“Hang ‘Em High,” “Where Eagles Dare”). Two of his characters — the previously cited Man-With-No-Name gunslinger from the spaghetti westerns and the eponymous Dirty Harry — transcended filmdom to become permanent fixtures of American culture.

Bad films were often watchable simply because he was in them (“Heartbreak Ridge,” “Firefox”). In an otherwise credible production of “The Eiger Sanction,” he was jarringly miscast as Dr. Jonathan Hemlock. Asking Eastwood to play Trevanian’s urbane, wickedly droll art professor-assassin was bit like casting John Wayne as a ballet instructor; yet the movie was still entertaining.;

Given the volume of his dossier, it’s not surprising that a few entries were just plain butt-ugly. Chief among these were “Any Which Way but Loose” and “Any Which Way You Can”; two lame efforts at comedy that one satirist collectively dubbed, “Any Old Movie You’ll Pay to See.” Humor’s tougher than it looks.

The controversial aspect of Clint’s appearance at the RNC involved an impromptu skit wherein he interviewed an empty chair in which President Obama was supposedly seated. At one point, the struggling comedian implied that the president wanted Mr. Romney to perform an anatomically improbable sex act on himself.

That kind of humor might elicit a chuckle at an athletic club smoker, but didn’t play particularly well with many of the born-again Christians and social conservatives who comprise the Republican base.

At the end of “Magnum Force,” Eastwood’s battered but triumphant police inspector, Harry Callahan, watches as his arch-nemesis, Lt. Briggs, is unwittingly blown to smithereens by a bomb of his own creation. As the resultant inferno consumes his adversary and the car in which he was seated, Harry wearily remarks, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

The next time Clint finds himself tempted to play standup comic, he’d do well to remember that line.