It's hard to imagine a world without Clint Eastwood. To say he's an icon is an understatement, because the actor-producer-director has become a cultural catchphrase from everything to cigars to law enforcement. John Wayne is a legend, but Wayne didn't wind up with legislation named after one of Harry Callahan's catchphrases. (It's the "Make My Day" law here in Colorado, if you're curious. Sounds so much more hardy and American than "the castle doctrine," doesn't it?)
Eastwood's career has been a curious one, and his origins are hardly the stuff of Hollywood legend. He didn't grow up around the studio system or spend his teens as a starry-eyed gopher in Hollywood's golden era. He worked odd jobs in logging camps and gas stations. He played piano for pizza and beer, and cherished vague ambitions in music. One day, he decided to be an actor. He pursued it with the dogged and quiet ethic that has been the characteristic of his entire career. His natural reticence was the foundation of his imperturbable characters, not a calculated effort by himself or his directors. "We called him 'Mumbles.' He didn't speak his words very loud," recalled Rawhide co-star Sheb Wooley. "The soundman was always saying, 'Kid, speak up!' But he mumbled his way to a fortune."
While fans can remember a time when he was a lot more brash, perhaps even arrogant, he's mellowed into an "aw, shucks" figure who is curiously at odds with the clench-jawed cowboys and cops. Eastwood stubbornly refuses to engage in introspection (any question about Hereafter reflecting his own age was met with a shrug), and he smilingly refuses to dwell on his cinematic past. (He won't knock Firefox no matter how many times you ask him to.) In an age of endless tinkering and rereleasing of ultimate and definitive director cuts, there's something refreshing about his refusal to look back over his shoulder or redo Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Is anyone ever going to match his impressive and celebrated career? The glib answer would be "No, never, not in a million years, crazy to think it." No one can set out to be a legend. Iconography is an unpredictable thing. To land one memorable moment ("I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" "Here's looking at you, kid." "This! Is! Sparta!") is the actor's equivalent of a Golden Ticket. To land as many as Eastwood has is astonishing, and that's just in discussing him as an actor. Dismissing his directorial work is en vogue right now, but he's going to wind up having racked up many a classic moment behind the camera as well as in front.
There's also the hard trivia of his early life -- A Depression-era childhood, the plane crash that got him out of serving in Korea, the close call of a forest fire -- that make him the last of a lost breed. I'm convinced his place in American pop culture isn't because of his serape or 44 Magnum (though they help) but because of his gruff working-class charisma. It should be laughable (the man hasn't been blue collar since he signed a contract with CBS) but it's not. It's admirable and reminiscent of your uncle, dad, or grandfather. He's not a strong actor, but that ordinary quality made him believable as a soldier, a National Geographic photographer, or a gunslinger. It's what makes him difficult to pin down as a director. He just sort of blends in, mumbling his way to a fortune again. It's that hard charisma that subsequent generations lack. But hope isn't lost. There are candidates out there to succeed him.
The most obvious would be George Clooney, who also got his big break on television and became one of the most successful actors, producers, and directors of the past decade. It could even be said he took harder professional knocks than Eastwood. No one belittled Eastwood for moving from Rawhide to feature films (at least not to my knowledge), but Clooney was mocked relentlessly. Nothing makes a best supporting actor win sweeter than the memory of critics who believed he should beg for his ER job back after bombing in Batman & Robin. Clooney also shares Eastwood's flair for politics. Neither is shy about airing their views on presidents or foreign affairs, and Clooney has lent his support to numerous charitable causes. He's brought a lot of his celebrity friends along for the ride, and incurred quite a bit of controversy from his trademark sarcasm. He's also a late bloomer like Eastwood, earning much of his success and accolades after he hit 40. The drawback is that Clooney lacks that ordinary charm. He's connected to old Hollywood, he's ridiculously handsome, and he relishes his wealth. He's cool and charismatic, but there's a discernable gulf between you and him. Eastwood has the vibe of being the local mechanic; Clooney is a man you'd never see in your neck of the woods. Clooney's work is also a lot more divisive. Though he's done plenty of excellent movies, few of his acting or directorial efforts cater to a general audience. That's not a bad thing (intelligent movies never are), but there's something so pristine about everything he does that you ache for him to get a little down and dirty with a genre exercise or two. At 49 years old, Clooney still needs his iconic moment, the line or scene that a million people will automatically recognize and quote. If he nabs that, he might just be the Bizarro Eastwood, the suave version that speaks to a new generation
But as far as rugged charm goes, Ben Affleck may wind up being the real heir to the throne. He's good-looking, but in that sort of older brother or best friend way, and he doesn't strike you as particularly wealthy or elegant. He seems like he waited tables or drove trucks for money before becoming famous. (Nothing in his biography says he did, but we're talking about quick impressions.) What he lacks in actual grimy experience, he may have made up for in the critical drubbing he received from the press and public. He crashed and burned pretty spectacularly, and he's shown Eastwood's gritty determination for career reinvention. Unlike Clooney, his films skew more toward a broad audience, and his directorial work is intelligent without being as alienating. Both Gone Baby Gone and The Town are reminiscent of Eastwood's best genre work, and Affleck's fondness for Boston equals the former's affair with San Francisco. What Affleck lacks is an iconic and exploitable acting role, though at 38, he's exactly where Eastwood was when he found his. Oh, and he's just as politically oriented, often teasing that he'd like to run for office. A stint as mayor of Boston, perhaps?
Many a Hereafter article named Matt Damon as Eastwood's parallel, though Damon has yet to direct a major feature. He promises it's in his future though, and cites his two-time director as his major inspiration. (Having a best friend like Affleck has to help too.) Like Eastwood, Damon has that affable and ordinary charm that translates easily to a lot of roles; he's certainly the sort of man who could be your neighbor, your dentist, or a Delta Force killer. Whether or not Jason Bourne is equal to Harry Callahan on the icon scale is up for debate, though. The amnesiac assassin seems more like an idea than a firm characterization, and he also has a disadvantage of being played by a number of actors. But Damon is young, and plenty of meaty roles lie in his future. Who knows? He may even direct that iconic part himself.
A real dark horse candidate is Gerard Butler, whose fledgling production company is making surprising leaps in deals and distribution. Eastwood's directorial career is so indelibly stamped that it's easy to forget that he began it all with a little production company named Malpaso. He was a producer first, and his debut was the uninspiring (but entertaining) Hang 'Em High. As a new producer, Butler was wildly enthusiastic about all the script and production work he put into Law Abiding Citizen (a film that plays like a gorier Hang 'Em High) and it made enough money to keep Evil Twins a valid contender. Could directing be in the future? Perhaps. If it is, he'd have a shot at being an Eastwood. As far as his star power goes, he's got a rough appeal that's similar to Clint's, and has the childhood trauma to give him the edgy sympathy. Whatever you think of 300 as a film, there's no denying that his bombastic King Leonidas has won a spot in the pop culture collective. I imagine he'll get along fine with Blondie.
There's no reason the successor has to be a male. It's the 21st century, and while women directors may be scarce, there's no reason an actress can't step up and rival Clint behind the camera. Angelina Jolie may very well be his feminine side come to life. She has his star power -- though it's decidedly more unearthly than his -- and she seems equally keen to reinvent herself as a multi-hyphenate. She's currently directing her first feature, and knowing Jolie, it's difficult to believe it will be her last. Like Eastwood, Jolie has the kind of armor that encourages critics and fans to ignore her flops and concentrate purely on her glittery successes. While her Tomb Raider movies won't ever be as cool as Clint's canon, there's no doubt the character is iconic and part of Jolie's daunting mythology. And let's not forget her political clout. Like her one-time director, she can speak candidly about a president or disaster relief, and everyone notices.
Jodie Foster is a fading possibility these days, though at one time she boasted a lot of promising buzz. She could surprise us all in her middle age, and turn to directing with an Eastwood efficiency, becoming his female equal on and off screen. But considering the poison surrounding The Beaver and its blacklisted star, Mel Gibson, she may go down with her cinematic ship. It would be a shame, especially for someone who has notched her share of memorable screen moments. Foster is an icon in her own quiet way, and she could either stride proudly into legend, or fade away into someone who might have been.
Impossible as it seems, Drew Barrymore may actually be a better contender than Foster. She's been a producer for years, and she's iconic simply for what she has overcome in her personal and professional life. She's not the strongest actress but, like Eastwood, she can slip into ordinary characters and make them relatable. She can be that girl next door or a Charlie's Angel, and it works. To be average without affectation is a special skill, particularly if you come from a lineage as royal as the Barrymores, and Drew has mastered it. As for her directing, Whip It showed a lot of promise. It could be her Play Misty For Me, a campy little beginning to a remarkable resume. If she makes strong work on both sides of the camera, it would be an all-American success story that was equal to Eastwood's.
To throw in a female wild card, I'll offer up Natalie Portman, who is also setting out on a steady path of production. She's already racked up a few good credits, and a hot option in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. She also has two tiny directorial jobs to her name (Eve and New York, I Love You), both of which were well-received. She's made no secret of trying to line up more directorial gigs. Like Barrymore, she has an every-girl quality, and undoubtedly has her best and most memorable work ahead of her. (I'm hesitant to give Amidala a stamp of iconic permanency. Merchandising and crazy costuming doesn't make a character beloved by the masses.) Will her future include a bigger directorial chapter? Could she be the one we see, 40 odd years from now, reminiscing about her long life in front of and behind the camera?
Well, time will tell. My fear is that Eastwood is the last of a bygone era, the type of actor and director who could simply dream it and do it, marketability be damned. But my hope is that he carved out a template for a lot of Hollywood stars eager to make more of an artistic mark on the industry. He remains a good example no matter what you hope to do. He's one of a kind, never to be repeated, but I certainly hope some man or woman out there manages to give him a run for his body of work.