Clint Eastwood has said that Gran Torino may signal an end to his acting career. We’ve marked the occasion with a look at some of his most memorable onscreen moments.
Eastwood’s veteran Secret Service agent, Frank Horrigan, painfully describes the worst moment of his life—JFK’s assassination—to fellow agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo) in In the Line of Fire (1993): “God, that was a beautiful day. The sun was out. Been raining all morning, the air was ... The first shot sounded like a firecracker. I looked over, and I saw him. I could tell he was hit. I don’t know why I didn’t react. I should have reacted. I should have been running flat-out. I just couldn’t believe it. If only I’d reacted, I could have taken that shot. That would have been all right with me.”
Eastwood’s Robert Kincaid tears up as he says, “I don’t want to need you, ’cause I can’t have you,” in The Bridges of Madison County (1995), easily the most nakedly honest moment in Eastwood’s acting canon.
Absolute Power (1997) isn’t a great Eastwood film, but it does have a fine example of the catalytic Eastwood moment, when his character realizes he can’t take another ounce of crap and will, against his better instincts, take action. Eastwood’s thief, Luther Whitney, disguised in an ugly hat, is in the airport, about to flee the president’s minions, when he catches the president (Gene Hackman) on TV, lying about the woman his agents have killed. The camera looks down on Eastwood as his face clouds and he murmurs, “You heartless whore! I’m not about to run from you.”
The life-hardened Frankie Dunn barks “Girlie, tough ain’t enough!” at the never-had-a-chance Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), reluctantly becomes the father she never had and finally has to make the ultimate sacrifice by euthanizing her in Million Dollar Baby (2004).
Eastwood’s greatest monologue ever? Probably. Early in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Eastwood sticks up for his mule, who’s being bullied by four thugs. They laugh when Eastwood asks for an apology. Then Eastwood gives ’em the stare: “You see, my mule don’t like people laughing. He gets the crazy idea you’re laughing at him. Now if you apologize—like I know you’re going to—I might convince him that you really didn’t mean it.” Now they know, thanks to Eastwood’s icy delivery, that they’re in a world of trouble. Then they’re dead.
“You see in this world, my friend, there are two kinds of people. Those with loaded weapons and those who dig. You dig.” So says Eastwood’s Blondie to Eli Wallach’s Tuco (aka the Good and the Ugly) at the masterful climax to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), following an epic three-way shootout at an epic grave site (where an epic hidden treasure lies)—in which Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes (the Bad) takes a bullet and Eastwood gets to showcase his full squinty-eyed, scowling, cheroot-smoking, straight-shooting badassness.
The fearless Harry Callahan guns down a cadre of criminals in Dirty Harry (1971), all while calmly wolfing down a hot dog. And so is born arguably cinema’s baddest badass.
The Preacher lays down the Old West smack on a group of toughs using only “a good piece of hickory” in Pale Rider (1985).
There’s a moment near the end of Unforgiven (1992): Eastwood’s character has admitted he’s William Munny out of Missouri—“I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another”—thus stripping away whatever veneer of outlaw romanticism the movie hadn’t already peeled off of the American gunfighter myth. Many men have just died. Gene Hackman, as sheriff Little Bill Dagget, who’s as ruthless as Munny but thinks he’s better because he’s on the right side of the law, is on the floor, wounded. Munny stands over him, rifle pointed at his head. “I don’t deserve this,” Little Bill croaks. “To die like this. I was building a house.” Now, many of Eastwood’s best lines are ironic nuggets of pop philosophy (“man’s got to know his limitations”). But his response to Little Bill is among the bleakest, least-ironic worldviews he expresses on film: “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” Then he pulls the trigger.
Decades before crooning in 1982’s Honkytonk Man, Eastwood warbles in the worst way possible as Pardner in Paint Your Wagon (1969), actually making history’s strongest case for dubbing.
Letting the tough-guy facade crack just a tad, Eastwood (as Philo Beddoe) stifles laughter and—gasp!—actually smiles when realizing some motorcycle thugs are wearing the worst wigs known to man in the orangutan-aided Any Which Way You Can (1980).
It seemed liked a good idea to team Eastwood and Burt Reynolds in a ’30s shoot-em-up called City Heat (1984). But the two have little chemistry—Eastwood works better alone. Somewhere in there there’s a big gunfight on the street, and Eastwood shows up and sits in his car for a whole minute before he gets out and starts shooting bad guys. It’s supposed to be funny, but it’s lifeless, and Eastwood with a gun should never be lifeless.
Playing an elderly, has-been astronaut in Space Cowboys (2000), Eastwood toasts with an Ensure meal-replacement drink and jokes about having a heart attack while training for a NASA old-timers mission. What’s next, Godzilla with dentures?