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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Clint Eastwood's 'Gran Torino' is Hollywood's coolest car

January 12, 2009 |  5:22 pm

Marketing consultant Terry Press had her 9-year-old son Ethan in the car when she heard the news that Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" had made $29 million to win this past weekend's box-office derby, easily outdistancing movies like "Bride Wars" and "The Unborn" that are populated with actors less than half Clint's age. When Press got off the phone, Ethan, apparently having seen a host of "Torino" TV spots, did his best Eastwood impression, barking, "Get off my lawn!" In Hollywood, whether you're 9 or 89, everybody is a Clint Eastwood fan. It's pretty clear that when it comes to living legends, there's Clint and there's everybody else.

Clinteastwood_2 At 78, when most filmmakers have lost their fastball, been put out to pasture or are racking up posthumous awards, Clint isn't just still making great movies, he's still a big-enough movie star to open them all by himself too. It should be a good lesson for age-obsessed studio executives who'd rather toss their Crackberrys in the ocean than greenlight a picture with a grizzled old actor--or God forbid, a middle-aged actress-- in a starring role. Kudos to Warners, which not only released "Gran Torino" but at this same time last year bankrolled "The Bucket List," which starred Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, two 70-year-olds who are still considered cool cats, not just by older audiences but younger ones too. Studios seem to forget that when it comes to hipness, younger moviegoers are age-blind: When I asked the teenagers who make up my Summer Movie Posse last summer which actors they thought were especially cool, Freeman (who was in both "The Dark Knight" and "Wanted") got a helluva lot more votes than Brendan Fraser or Jessica Alba.

Actors love to go to acting classes. You only wish Clint would offer a class for today's movie stars in career management. Perhaps because he's old and wise, perhaps because he's one of the last actors to start his career as a studio contract player, Eastwood is one of the rare movie stars who knows what people want to see him do and what they don't. Press, who worked with Eastwood on several films in recent years, says "Gran Torino" offers a double lesson, not just about the perils of ageism but the benefits of actors knowing their strengths.

"Clint learns from his mistakes," she says. "After 'Paint Your Wagon,' you didn't see him do any more musicals. If you think about it, his character in 'Gran Torino' has a lot in common with his character in 'Million Dollar Baby.' He's a gruff, unreachable guy who resists getting involved--he just wants to be left alone. But then he meets someone who touches him, who gets under his skin and he's willing to re-engage in the world. And you get involved with the story because his character demands respect."

Why has "Gran Torino" struck a chord with audiences right now? Keep reading:   

As many critics have noted, in "Gran Torino" Eastwood plays a revisionist--or evolutionist--version of his "Dirty Harry" character, a character that feels timeless in its thematic simplicity. For all the hand-wringing by critics when "Dirty Harry" first surfaced (as I mentioned in a previous post, even the sainted Pauline Kael managed to misread the movie as some sort of fascist wish-fulfillment fantasy), the movie has endured because it captures the appeal of the old adage: If you believe in something, you stand up for your beliefs, even if they are unpopular by the standards of the moment.

"What people love about the character Clint plays is that he's a guy who says 'Go [screw] yourself' to all these nasty little thugs in the film," says Press. "I think the fact that he demands respect really resonates with moviegoers today. People are tired of living in such a disrespectful culture, a culture that has such a lack of manners and boundaries. Clint's character upholds tradition. You have to believe that's timely after we just had an election where people felt that we needed to go back and show a respect for simple, traditional values. Clint may not have a badge but when you look at him in the movie, sitting on his porch, he's the sheriff of his property and the neighborhood."

But if you want to speculate about why the film speaks to a mass audience, there's one other key ingredient in the equation. Once Clint's character in "Gran Torino" is moved to action, he no longer thinks about his own needs. He's a selfless hero in an era in which we're surrounded by the poison of selfishness, from entitled parents who only care about their own kids to greedy Wall Street bankers and investors who only cared about making a killing, no matter at what price for their investors, much less the larger society.

I think what Eastwood saw in "Gran Torino" was a story that had the compelling moral force of his favorite old westerns. (You could argue that his "homestead" in "Gran Torino" feels as if it's on the edge of the frontier, the frontier in "Gran Torino's" run-down Detroit simply being a more urban version of the Old West.) Once again, Eastwood gets to play the part of a man following his own moral code, much as he and his heroes have in westerns of earlier eras. The great Western heroes, from the John Wayne of "The Searchers" to the Jimmy Stewart of "Bend of the River" to the Eastwood of "The Outlaw Josey Wales," were the kind of intense, revenge-filled zealots who would've never made it past the studio development softening process, which would've filed away all their rough, often unlikable edges.  But, like the curmudgeonly old cuss Eastwood plays in "Gran Torino," they were real American men, full of as much anger and resentment as stoicism and steadfast sacrifice. They were reluctant heroes who, by willing to risk their lives for a greater good, found redemption. It's a quality you don't find in many movies today, but it's all there for the taking in "Gran Torino." 

Photo of Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino" by Anthony Michael Rivetti / Warner Bros.

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