Chris Kyle is a stand-in for Clint: The author of Eastwood's controversial biography on his new edition, including "American Sniper" and more

Eastwood sued over 2002's "Clint, the Life and Legend," but a new edition came out this summer unscathed

Published August 10, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

 Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry (Warner Bros. Entertainment)
Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Patrick McGilligan’s “Clint, The Life and Legend” has inspired, over the years, almost as much controversy as its subject. Originally published in Britain in 1999, Clint floated around for a while in the U.S. looking for a publisher — according to rumors, threats from Eastwood’s lawyers scared most away. As the back cover correctly states, although "Clint" was “nearly sued out of existence by Clint himself, this biography was nonetheless critically acclaimed.” The Washington Post called it “A damning indictment of the man and the culture that lionizes him.”

After a lot of litigation and some minor reworking, St. Martin’s Press released it in the U.S. in 2002. Writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, I called it “perhaps the most thoroughly demythologizing book yet written on modern Hollywood":

"McGilligan reveals, step by step, how an actor with such limited resources — his director in the so-called spaghetti westerns, Sergio Leone, felt that Eastwood had only two expressions, ‘with or without a hat’ — built an image not only as an actor but also as an auteur.”

“Over the years, Eastwood fashioned a press corps perfectly willing to leave out discussions of his private life, including incessant womanizing, out-of-wedlock children, the neglect of his first wife, Maggie, and, eventually, their messy on-going divorce. McGilligan’s account of the demonization of Sondra Locke, Eastwood’s leading lady for six films and live-in companion for a decade and a half, by Eastwood and his devoted press is practically a book within this book. Thus did Eastwood gain a reputation as a star who ‘rarely gives interviews and hardly ever makes public appearances while at the same time being perhaps the most interviewed and successful (to his coterie) of stars’.”

The current edition (released late last month by OR Books in New York and London) takes the Eastwood story over the last 13 years and includes the controversy over “American Sniper.”

McGilligan, who has also written well-received biographies of Jack Nicholson, George Cukor, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock (his next book is on the young Orson Welles), spoke to me about Clint and Clint from his home in Milwaukee.

Practically the first thing one sees when opening Clint is “This book is not authorized by Clint Eastwood.” How tough was it to write an unauthorized biography of Clint Eastwood in comparison to an unauthorized bio of Jack Nicholson?

I write about how cooperative the people and their circle were in the afterword notes to both of these books, since I think the process is revealing of the result.

Jack was diffident, not controlling.  He didn't really care that a book was being written about him.  He told people who asked him about the book that it was up to them whether or not they wanted to participate.  Some didn't anyway, out of typical Hollywood anxiety. Some did, just to prove themselves on equal footing with Jack.  Some never gave interviews anyway, much less to me. But almost to a person, the people I spoke to loved and admired Jack and acted protectively about him, no matter what they said about him (not always simplistically positive). No one that I recall went off the record. It was more "let it all hang out" as it is with Jack in real life and on the screen.

People around Clint, those that work for him, won't talk without his permission. Even many people who had known him for years — or hadn't seen him in years — wouldn't talk to me without his permission. They did not get that permission. He has been the master of his own image and publicity. He is a very different kind of actor than Jack, and a different kind of person — and people feared his reaction in a way that was not true of Jack. On the other hand, Clint has left many people behind in his career — personally and professionally — in problematic ways; and many people had never been approached before for their views of and experiences with him. More than one key person left behind told me that I was the first person who had ever asked for an interview about Clint. And for the first time, in any of my books, many people asked to speak to me "off the record" or went "off the record" during their interviews. I tended not to use what was off the record, but what I heard informed my portrait.

What were some of the things Clint took issue with?

I can't tell you what was taken out of the book without flirting with another lawsuit. But you can go back to news accounts, not entirely accurate, that say the three major claims against the book were my assertion that Clint got into a physical altercation with his first wife; that interesting context kept him from active duty in the Korean War; and that he was not known to subscribe to any organized religion. There were a handful of other claims against the book quickly dismissed by the judge in the case out of hand as beneath the notice of the law.

The judge later mandated mediation after my eyewitness to the physical altercation signed an affidavit attesting he had never spoken to me, even although I had it on tape.

However, there was a point at which Clint made it clear that he was going to sue and sue regardless, and St. Martin's Press, which had been very supportive, was eager to settle and get rid of the case, which was a financial drain. We agreed to take out or modify the parts of the book relating to the three major claims, and then we agreed to take out or modify a half-dozen more small things just to satisfy Clint and get it over with. The changes amount to less than two pages in the 600-page book.

We got the right to continue to sell the book. We paid no penalty and admitted no wrongdoing.  I myself didn't pay a penny, although holstered bailiffs rang the doorbell off and on for months, nervously fingering their warrants. To be honest, then and now the lawsuit is a badge of pride.

Would it be fair to say that litigation figures in Eastwood’s life and career?

One of the themes of this biography is how the real life intersects with the films. Dirty Harry, who excoriates lawyers and judges in those films, their sequels and other Clint cop movies, is big on lawyers and lawsuits in real life. In fact, I often say I might not have been sued if I had ended the book with a sentence declaring that I could not help but love Clint and his films. But I find that his personal life and behind the camera activity is reflected in the morality, the themes and the motifs — and all facets of his persona — in his films. In that sense, the book is completely auteurist, and that is one reason why the book is also liked by many people who adore Clint and his work, because they learn so much about him that the more fawning critics and journalists never bother to question or investigate.

I can’t think of any actor or filmmaker who has been so adept at public relations as Clint Eastwood. If a film star of known left-wing sentiments had fathered so many children with so many different women, the conservative press would make him a target of their wrath. Yet Eastwood is a keynote speaker at the convention of the party of family values. How does he do it?

To be fair, other big movie stars have fathered a lot of "illegitimate" children (a word that seems outdated). Jack Nicholson, whom I've also written about, has a bunch too. But I prefer Jack's values, even towards those children, but you'll have to read the two books and compare what I've written to see what I mean. In any case, Jack is hardly left-wing, although he is definitely left-liberal enough on plenty of issues. Mostly, you find that people who admire Clint Eastwood belong to one fan club, while Jack's is separate. A big fan of both is more rare.

Be that as it may, Clint has been Republican since he donated and campaigned (appearing on a poster with Wilt Chamberlain, etc.) for Nixon. People don't think through what he stands for and what his movies are about. My book might help them do that. They respond to him emotionally and like his persona, again, without thinking it through in many instances where it might stand for something they don't like politically.

But most of the people who love him and his movies are in accord with his values, on and beneath the surface.  If you think the Republican Party is the party of family values, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I will sell to you!

Mostly, people either like him or don't, and a significant percentage of people do like him and his movies. However, a significant percentage don't. Think of America as a red state/blue state nation, and we know how closely it is divided. He is really a red state movie star who crosses over regularly with movies that shrewdly appeal to more than one constituency. Films like “Trouble With the Curve” or “Jersey Boys,” for example, only have politics if you consider anything "retro" or traditional to be conservative. On the other hand, I'd bet the audiences for those movies are still largely Republican or people who consider themselves apolitical.

I'm not sure his speech at the Republican National Convention wasn't the highlight of a boring convention, and savored by his fans in the crowd. I note in my book that Romney called on him for robo-calls across the nation, saying we should fire Obama! I had one on my own answering machine.

Most film critics are male (sad but it's always been true) and most of them are invested in Clint's ideas about masculinity, America and Hollywood, even if they occasionally give him a bad review. Again, I don't believe they want to confront their own legacy of adoring him. There are things about him that are admirable and likable, but the vast majority of his films are of a piece.

The politics of “American Sniper” seem to me to be pretty straightforward: Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle sees the World Trade Towers attacked and rushes to military service to fight in Iraq. I have trouble seeing that as anything but an endorsement of Bush’s Iraq policy. I’m amazed by the number of critics who see something more complex. If you think I’m wrong, feel free to straighten me out.

Clint has made almost as many war movies as Steven Spielberg. He refought Korea in “Heartbreak Ridge” and “Gran Torino.” He saluted World War II twice with “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.”  And back in his salad days as a star, he took pointers from “Where Eagles Dare” and “Kelly's Heroes.” He knows how to stage exciting battle scenes, even if his scripts (he never writes them and often inherits them) are prosaic. The quality exception is “Letters from Iwo Jima,” which is a pretty great film.  But my opinion is the more Clint takes himself out of a film — as the star or surrogate hero — the better film it has a chance of being.

Critics ooh and aah over the battle sequences and the staging of “American Sniper,” and miss the larger points, some of which are cleverly embedded anyway.  But the ones who said the character of Chris Kyle is one that Clint would have played in his prime are right.  Kyle is a stand-in for Clint. What his character does in the film is little different than what William Munny does at the end of “Unforgiven,” strolling into a saloon and engaging in a gun battle with half a dozen bad guys, killing them all, and afterward riding into the sunset with nary a scratch.

Gail Collins in the New York Times got it right: She said “American Sniper” was ultimately a pro-gun film. Clint's career has been a pro-gun career. He pioneered the huge body count and death toll in cop vigilante films, and his war movies do the same exponentially. The not-deep idea is that Americans —Men With No Name or Chris Kyle's name — have to use their guns and military hardware to save the town or the world, because other people aren't up to the task, and yes, innocent people die in the crossfire, but that's the price to pay for being America.

I don't think film critics paid much attention to all the factual attacks on the film, much less the political ones from the left, all of which are worth reading. (Michael Moore was totally right!) Film critics (mostly male) love guns in movies almost as much as audiences have been conditioned to. The film's success is a sad commentary on how little has been learned from Iraq. But not everyone who went to see it thought it was a good or wise film either. I know Republicans as well as progressives who went out of curiosity and were appalled.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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American Sniper Biography Clint Clint Eastwood Patrick Mcgilligan The Life And Legend