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Jeff Simon: Just how much film history can Clint Eastwood make?

Jeff Simon
The subject is Clint Eastwood.

Which means, at the moment, the subjects are numbers. The first number is $17.2 million. That's how many dollars constituted the opening weekend box office for "The Mule," the new Eastwood movie. It won't match the number for a family behemoth like this week's "Mary Poppins," but for the kind of film it is, it's stunning.

The second number is 88, which is Eastwood's age. For a long time now, it has made him the oldest functioning actor/director in Hollywood history. It is close to inconceivable that Eastwood will long continue to function in the same way, as either a major movie star or major movie director, much less both simultaneously.

But then Eastwood has, for a long time now, been a law unto himself.

Here are a few other numbers associated with "The Mule": It was the No. 2 film in last weekend's box office (No. 1 was a "Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse" throwaway for the family). Another is 2,588 which is the number of theaters in which Warner Bros. opened the film.

That is a heck of a lot of theaters. But then, for more than a month now, we've seen seeing saturation TV commercials for "The Mule," which Eastwood made for $50 million based on a Sunday New York Times piece about a real 90-year-old who found himself a very well-paid drug mule for the mob. ("The Mule" would be a godawful title for a movie if every TV watcher in America didn't already know the term for conscripts who smuggle illegal drugs over various borders.)

It's that 88 number that ought to stop us all in our tracks. Yes, George Burns was still functioning close to 100 ("I can't die; I'm booked."), but not in such an all-enveloping capacity, like Eastwood. Tony Bennett, incredibly, is still crooning popular ballads and selling the heck out of records at 92, but that, too, is far from the arduousness of simultaneously starring in and directing a movie.

And Eastwood is still a box-office behemoth in his ninth decade, despite the fact that even the TV trailers contain some close-ups in "The Mule" that are of a very old man.

The secret behind Eastwood's continuing geriatric success is that his films make enough money, on the whole, to continue being bankrolled and that they are made by almost a stock company the way John Ford's films were. In other words, he usually works with the same behind-the-camera people that he's had for decades. They're Eastwood pros who seldom need to be told what makes the boss happy.

That way actors (including Bradley Cooper in "The Mule," a guaranteed ringer of major Oscar nomination bells for his own version of "A Star is Born") can feel maximum respect while performing and minimum anxiety. Eastwood's output continually comes from a very well-oiled machine which is, in contemporary Hollywood, its own high-functioning duchy.

No matter how magnificent the Eastwood machine is, though, you still have to marvel at multimillion-dollar budgets that are dependent on the indefatigability of a box-office sultan with hair-raisingly good genes.

Veteran Clint-watchers remember all the stages he's gone through as a star and director – the sharp escalation of his reputation starting with the ambitious "White Hunter, Black Heart," the astral expansion of near-universal esteem that greeted "Unforgiven," a first-rate revisionist Western which I still felt was overrated, finally, because one of the great cinematic slaughterers of all time had, at long last, filmed a script which admitted out loud "it's a hell of a thing killing a man."

I was among those who saw previews of that film in New York and sat in during chamber-sized press conferences in hotel rooms. What I remember about that Eastwood event was the odd feeling that much of the creative intelligence of his films came from others, something that you could never say about the films of other actor/directors like Warren Beatty, Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Woody Allen and John Cassavetes. I had the uneasy feeling that some of the Eastwood credit was misplaced.

Movies are as collaborative as art forms get, but hearing Eastwood up close and personal made me wonder if we shouldn't be giving his historically proficient team far more credit than we usually do. The most memorable moment in the session was his then live-in life partner, actress Frances Fisher, interrupting the proceedings to remind Clint to take his vitamins.

It was one way that an Eastwood intimate all those years ago was trying to get across how much of what we all thought of as "Clint Eastwood" was a brilliant and solid construct.

None of that, course, changes the fact that the boss – the guy deciding what films to make and how to make them – is still a guy who, incredibly, was 88 on his last birthday in a new century where infantilism continues to expand daily.

As he ages, a lot of revisionism can't help happening. After addressing an empty chair at a political convention, he convinced a lot of people to stop being indifferent to his politics. The new gender understandings were bound to jostle tales of his private life. The recent death of one of his longest life-partners, Sondra Locke, was widely decried when a Hollywood Reporter obit seemed to slight Locke's very real talents as an actress and as a peculiar filmmaker, as if she were never more than a minor Eastwood footnote.

What can't be denied is that Eastwood is still the one who, not so long ago, made what I consider his best film, "Million Dollar Baby." He's the guy who got Sean Penn an Oscar for "Mystic River," and who can make $17.2 million in opening weekend box office for a movie about a 90-year-old drug mule.

He upended expectations about American movies decades ago. The "real story" about Eastwood will, no doubt, be fine tuned and even painfully tweaked until he finally ceases his stunning avoidance of age's consequences, much less mortality.

Yes, George Burns kept working to 100 but what Eastwood is doing at his age, is, much harder. No matter how closely it's considered and revised in our thinking, it's still a bit of a miracle happening before our eyes.

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