Eastwood’s remarkable career has now spanned five decades. In that time he has reinvented himself constantly while never appearing, to the naked eye, to change at all. After roles in a handful of low-budget feature films during the 1950s, Eastwood sidled into unpretentious television stardom over seven years of RAWHIDE. He then went to Italy to act in a trilogy of stylish, revisionist westerns for Sergio Leone: A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965), and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966). It didn’t seem like a very smart move at the time, but when the dust had cleared, Clint Eastwood had become the world’s most popular movie star, the heir apparent to laconic American icons like John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper.
Eastwood, however, charted his own course. The screen characters of Wayne, Fonda, and Cooper, no matter how complex or shaded, were always defined by a code of behavior. They fought fairly and always gave the bad guy an even chance. Eastwood’s Man With No Name in the Leone films had no such scruples. He was a loner with no past and no future; a man of few words who cared for no one, trusted no one, and was capable of as much violence as circumstances required.
Working with his mentor, Don Siegel, Eastwood sometimes played more conventional heroes, but he always imbued their personalities with darker, more complex shadings. He may be the “good guy” in films like HANG ‘EM HIGH (1967) or DIRTY HARRY (1971) but only because the bad guys are much, much worse. Just as he had seemingly achieved movie stardom when no one was looking, so did Eastwood quietly go about becoming one of the American cinema’s most interesting and challenging directors. Beginning with that superbly edgy suspense thriller PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971), Eastwood set about creating a uniquely personal vision made up of cinematic virtuosity (THE GAUNTLET; 1977), gentle humor (BRONCO BILLY; 1980); spiritual and psychological danger (TIGHTROPE; 1984); allegory (PALE RIDER; 1985), and themes of revenge and redemption (UNFORGIVEN; 1992). It would have been easy for Eastwood the director to place Eastwood the actor in roles that would only enhance his considerable star image; instead he has continued to dig deeper, searching for larger truths no matter how unsettling. For an actor with such a stoic, sometimes impassive demeanor, Eastwood has consistently, often pitilessly, revealed himself through his work.
Not many filmmakers have equaled Eastwood’s singular achievement: he has appealed powerfully and continuously to a wide and enthusiastic audience even while creating a body of work that is personal and idiosyncratic. Realizing one goal or the other is more than most artists can hope for. But Eastwood makes it seem as if there’s nothing to it. As an actor he doesn’t waste words; as a director he doesn’t waste images. Cool, charismatic, wry, and deadly, he makes his point and moves on. Cinematically at least, Clint Eastwood is the Man With No Limits. For these reasons, the American Film Institute has selected Clint Eastwood to receive this prestigious award.