Midlife Crisis of An Alpha male

In 1975 I was working at a TV station when The Eiger Sanction was released.  We aired a series of advertisements for this Clint Eastwood (as actor and director) movie that attracted a great deal of attention from the women in the office.  I still remember one co-worker gushing like a teenager: “Oh, he’s so good-looking!”

I didn’t say so but I agreed with her.  Hell, it was obvious.  At age 45 Clint Eastwood was tall and lean with a thick mane of hair.  His famous squint had resulted in crow’s feet which only served to make him look more imposing.  His soft-spoken personality was a perfect fit, as there was no reason for him to be a self-promoting loudmouth.  In addition to his physical assets, he was world-famous and wealthy.  He was truly an alpha male, but that term was not in common parlance then except in zoological circles.

In the late 1960’s Eastwood was in his late 30’s and sitting on top of the world – more specifically, at the top of the box office world.  He was hardly an overnight success, however.  After appearing in bit parts in numerous movies and TV shows as a contract player for Universal in the 1950’s, he became a TV star on Rawhide, a long-running (1959-1965) western series on CBS.

Towards the end of the Rawhide run he traveled to Europe to appear as the Man With No Name (he was MGTOW before MGOW was cool) in A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, worldwide hits directed by Italy’s Sergio Leone.  Returning to America, Eastwood continued his run of flinty loners in Hang ‘Em High, Coogan’s Bluff, and Where Eagles Dare.  The body count in his movies was extraordinary, much to the consternation of the late 60’s versions of Mrs. Grundy.

But then things changed.

In 1969, Eastwood appeared in, of all things, a musical, Paint Your Wagon.  His co-star was an equally improbable Lee Marvin.  Next he did Kelly’s Heroes, a war movie but essentially a comedy.  He appeared in these movies but one couldn’t in good conscience call them Clint Eastwood movies.   They seemed to be nothing more than bald-faced attempts to break away from his ice-cold tough-guy image.  Fortunately for him, he kept in touch with Don Siegel, who had directed him in Coogan’s Bluff.  It was not apparent at the time, but it appears that Eastwood was having a midlife crisis.  Or maybe he simply realized that one day he would be too old for action films and he needed to be more versatile.

Siegel was a seasoned professional who had worked his way up under the old studio system till he started directing (The Verdict) in 1946.  In Hollywood he was renowned for his ability to bring in movies on time and within budget, so he worked steadily in episode TV and TV movies as well as low-budget features.  Though hardly a household word, he had attracted the attention of cinephiles thanks to Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Line-Up (1958), Hell Is for Heroes (1962), and Madigan (1968), among others.

In 1970, Siegel directed Eastwood (then 40 years old) in Two Mules for Sister Sara, in which the latter had kind of a relationship with Shirley MacLaine.  I say “kind of” because she played a prostitute masquerading as a nun (can the  wisecracks, you dirty Protestants), so there is no sex in the movie.  Not far removed from his Man With No Name character, he mostly did his MGTOW thing and blew away a lot of people, so his hard-ass persona was in no danger of being compromised.   But it was the first of three straight movies with Siegel in which one could actually use the word “relationship.”  In each case, Eastwood played a dominant, self-sufficient male forced to come to terms with women.  Two Mules was the mildest of the bunch.

Eastwood and Siegel’s next venture was The Beguiled, a Civil War tale based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan.  Eastwood played Corporal John McBurney, a badly wounded Yankee taken in by the founder and headmistress (Geraldine Page) of Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, a Southern finishing school that is just barely hanging on amidst the conflict.

To say that the women, ranging in age from 12 to middle-age, are starved for male attention is a gross understatement. This is, after all, the Civil War, and all able-bodied men are in uniform.  Even so, the women are somehow making do with no male assistance.  Rumors of Union soldier depredations have them on edge, however.  “If the Yankees win, they’ll rape every one of us,” says one of the girls.  Then Clint Eastwood shows up.

With rebel soldiers canvassing the area, McBurney must ingratiate himself with the females lest they turn him over to a Confederate patrol, who would take him to a prison camp where he would likely die.  So he sweettalks all the females (the headmistress, the students, and even a slave).  His flirtation with a 12-year-old student is borderline creepy, but his main squeeze is Edwina, a timid, troubled young woman convincingly played by Elizabeth Hartman.  (It is worth pausing to note that she gave up acting due to depression and committed suicide by jumping out of her fifth-floor apartment in 1987.)

Needless to say, complications ensue.  The girls find out that McBurney is not as nice a guy as he pretends to be, and he finds out the females aren’t as easy to manipulate as he thought.  After the headmistress amputates his leg (a questionable medical decision), the symbolic castration is all too obvious.  At the end of the movie, one must ask who are the beguiled?  McBurney, the females, or both?  Clearly, a devious male is no match for females.  He is overcome, as one wag put it, by “a fistful of dollies.”  Siegel remarked that “[The Beguiled] is a woman’s picture – not for women but about them.”  They win this round of the battle of the sexes but it is not a flattering portrait of girl power.

If Eastwood was hoping to broaden his range as an actor, he succeeded.  Unfortunately, the film bombed at the box office because it was so out of keeping with his previous films.  A departure for Siegel as well as Eastwood, The Beguiled was definitely art house cinema.  It was praised in Europe, however, as an outstanding example of Southern Gothic, and comparisons to Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote were made.  The film was remade in 2017 (can’t comment on it as the prospect of director Sofia Coppola taking on the story didn’t evoke my curiosity).

For their next effort, Eastwood and Siegel swapped roles.  Eastwood became the director and Siegel the actor; more to the point, Eastwood both acted and directed while Siegel appeared in a a bit part in Play Misty for Me, another foray into sexual politics.

Eastwood, in his first directorial effort, plays Dave Garver, a small-town radio DJ who mixes smooth talk and soft jazz and is something of a local celebrity.  He has an on-again, off-again relationship with a local girl when he encounters Evelyn (Jessica Walter), alluringly clad in a leather miniskirt, at his favorite hangout.  After a one-night stand with her, he assumes it’s one and done, but Evelyn has other ideas.  As is the case with many a man, his libido has led him astray.  As Eastwood himself once observed, “A man’s brain has a way of lowering itself down out of the cranium, down into the lower extremities.”

Dave Garver appears to be a classic example of a man unwilling to commit – but with good reason.  He is a celebrity in a picturesque seaside resort (Carmel, Eastwood’s home at the time; he would later serve as the town’s mayor), makes a decent enough living to afford a sports car, a hip apartment, and other trappings of the good life.  Also, he has the prospect of moving up to the big leagues, as he interviews for a DJ position at a San Francisco radio station.  One could almost see him as the subject of the iconic “What sort of man reads Playboy?” promos featured in the magazine in those days.

Life is good except for that pesky Evelyn.  Unable to shake her, Dave realizes that she is the listener who regularly calls in to his show and requests “Misty,” an old Erroll Garner standard; then he realizes, too late, that she is not just a fan; she is batshit crazy.  Today she would be described as a stalker.

The release dates of The Beguiled and Misty coincided with the cresting of second wave feminism so the comments from that quarter were predictable.  Siegel didn’t help matters any when he noted:

Women are capable of deceit, larceny, murder, anything.  Behind that mask of innocence lurks just as much evil as you’ll ever find in members of the Mafia.  Any young girl, who looks perfectly harmless is capable of murder.

Interesting to note that the original story for Misty was penned by Jo Heims, a screenwriter acquaintance of Eastwood.  She had an Evelyn-like friend and thought she could use her as raw material for a movie character.

Unlike The Beguiled, Play Misty for Me was a hit.  Eastwood didn’t shoot anybody in this movie but at least he wasn’t a cripple, as in The Beguiled.  Misty was something of a role reversal for him in that he was the prey, not the hunter.  In most of his previous movies, he was a goal-directed man in search of something…a bounty, buried treasure, an escaped criminal.  In Misty, he was as tall, tan and handsome as ever, but he was no longer in control.  A predatory female had him in her crosshairs.  In both Misty and The Beguiled, Eastwood shows that confidence, the alpha male’s stock in trade, can also be his Achilles heel.

Misty was something of a forerunner of slasher films (indeed, Evelyn slashes her wrists, Eastwood’s cleaning lady, and a portrait of him painted by his old girlfriend).  Comparisons to Hitchcock (particularly Psycho) were unavoidable.  More erudite filmgoers likened Misty to Repulsion (1965), directed by a then unknown Roman Polanski.

Having successfully displayed his acting range in The Beguiled and Misty, Eastwood did an about-face and went back to being a hard-ass.  Siegel directed him in Dirty Harry (1971), a violent police thriller that had hands wringing off the hook concerning police brutality and fascism.  Fun fact: In one scene in Dirty Harry, Play Misty for Me is spelled out on a movie marquee.

After Dirty Harry, Eastwood appeared to have exited his midlife crisis and returned to his traditional image in Joe Kidd (1972) and High Plains Drifter (1973), yet another variation on his western MGTOW man.  Yet his next film, Breezy, was a May-September romance with William Holden as a well-to-do businessman falling in love with a 17-year-old hippie chick.  Another Jo Heims story, it was the first film Eastwood directed in which he did not appear.  It was a very unlikely Eastwood film – more so than The Beguiled and Play Misty for Me – but given his status in Hollywood, he could do whatever he wanted.

Breezy was both a relationship movie and a midlife crisis movie.  One wonders if there was not a tad of wish fulfillment in it.  Then a 43-year-old man, Eastwood might have entertained some Pygmalion-like fantasies about adolescent females.  Well, as the saying goes, there’s no fool like an old fool.  Against all odds, though the protagonist is arguably a dirty old man (Holden was 55 at the time), the movie has a happy ending.

It is interesting to speculate on whether Eastwood was suffering from his own midlife crisis in those days.  By all accounts, Eastwood was very active sexually.  Tellingly, his Wikipedia biography says that he has fathered “at least 8” children.  In more enlightened times he probably would have had a harem.

His various woes with his wives and consorts (notably Sondra Locke) have been well-chronicled.  It’s useless to indulge in moral posturing, as few men will ever know what it’s like to be a chick magnet.  On the other hand, such a man would be worth listening to when he has something to say about the opposite sex (if that phrase still has any meaning), and lesser men might gain from his experiences.

It has now been half a century since Eastwood went through his midlife crisis.  His most recent movie, Cry Macho (2021) was released when he was 91.  Given the sheer physical rigors of directing and acting in a movie, his stamina is remarkable.  At an age when most men are dead, on life support, or in a nursing home, he still qualifies as an alpha male.

Between his midlife crisis films and Cry Macho, his movies have been a varied lot but are almost always worth watching.  Yeah, it’s always cool to watch him kick ass, but his midlife crisis films should not be overlooked.

Curiously, Eastwood once said, “Respect your efforts, respect yourself.  Self-respect leads to self-discipline.  When you have both firmly under your belt, that’s real power.”

Unlike the films that made him famous, his midlife crisis films show men deluding themselves about their “power.”  It is a lesson worth learning.

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