We end this year's Oscar run with Million Dollar Baby, the latest in a long line of films to split critics between the Clintistas and the Paulettes. (You think I'm kidding about the Paulettes? I just typed "eastwood paulettes" into Google and got 324 hits. At this point, if you complain about a Clint Eastwood film, you're accused of being a Paulette even if you don't know what one is.) I suppose I'm a Paulette, but I've always liked Clint Eastwood more than did Kael. Which doesn't mean she was wrong about him.
Clint Eastwood directs the same way he acts: he makes room for whatever someone else has given him. As an actor, he's more iconic than anything else, funny when his dialogue is funny, heroic when the script calls for it, limited but, as he said in Magnum Force, "a man's gotta know his limitations," and Clint's a man if anyone is. Given how many actors have no idea of their limitations, you can see why audiences like Eastwood. Imagine Brando at his best, or his worst ... say, Streetcar Named Desire and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Clint Eastwood would never be good enough to play Stanley Kowalski, but neither is he an imaginative enough actor to be Dr. Moreau, at least as Brando played him. Clint Eastwood isn't great or awful, he just is, an actor who knows his limitations.
And that's how he directs. He makes room for the script, he lets his actors do what they are good at, he brings the films in on time and on budget, and after directing almost 30 films, does anyone, even his greatest champions, have any idea what constitutes the style of Clint Eastwood, director, other than that he knows his limitations and doesn't get in the way?
There's a value in such an approach ... I've ranted on more than one occasion about directors who are so taken with their style that their movies become self-referential messes. Give Clint Eastwood good scripts and good actors (and give him a good role, himself ... Eastwood the actor is the perfect match for Eastwood the director) and he'll give you a good film. Bad script, bad actor, bad film. (You'll note that Clint's fans rarely bring up the formulaic tripe that makes up a good portion of his career as a director, Absolute Power, say, or Space Cowboys ... but not Bronco Billy, I love Bronco Billy!) He's like a modern version of the studio system director.
Million Dollar Baby is one of his good movies. The plot, while not always predictable, is a bit canned, but the dialogue rings true even when it turns poetic. Morgan Freeman never gave a bad performance in his life, and Hilary Swank continues to show greatness in a variety of roles, whether it's Oscar bids like this one or nothing parts that she elevates, as in Insomnia. The montage of fights where Swank kicks ass in one-round mismatches is delightful ... if you're thinking to yourself "I can't believe Hilary Swank as a fighter," well, this is the movies, and she's very believable kicking ass, and it's fun to watch. On the other hand, the film tries a bit too hard for its PG-13 rating ... the violence of the boxing matches is too often like a pulled punch, and the absence of R-rated cursing is noticeable.
Here's the thing. I am not the biggest fan of Raging Bull, but there's no question who made that film. It's lunacy and pulp power could only come from Martin Scorsese. Clint Eastwood will never make a movie as personal and stylish as Raging Bull. Which means Million Dollar Baby is a 7 on a scale of 10, which means Eastwood will never direct a 10, and that's no knock on Eastwood the director, in fact, coming from a Paulette it's massive praise indeed. But the idea that Clint Eastwood is an Oscar-winning director is as sure a sign as any that the golden age of American films is long past.