As you have probably already figured out the late 1960’s at least in our world had a lot to do with “being cool”. This was not a new thought; think James Dean or Brando in the 50’s; for another generation, think Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart. All legitimately made it into that rarified space reserved for those talents that personified “cool”. And I know I left out a lot of examples: Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, Steve McQueen in anything, Michael Caine in Get Carter…the list is considerable, but not when you think of the thousands of actors, that though having great talent, you wouldn’t quite think of as cool. Cagney yes, Robinson maybe not. Hell, we even had to this day the coolest President there ever was. Look at a picture of JFK rocking those Raybans, and that’s all you need to know about being cool. You either were or you weren’t. JFK was. Every other President wasn’t. Simple.
We as kids of course, aspired to coolness. It was an everyday pursuit, and let’s face it, more often than not, we failed. But the thought that you could maybe one day say one thing, be in a situation and turn a phrase just the right way at just the right time – like James Bond did habitually thanks to his writers- that was the Holy Grail. And it was more than the words. There have been many that have uttered the lines “Bond, James Bond” but only two perfected the perfect coolness of the intent: Connery and Craig- everyone else was just speaking their lines.
Ok, so we have a pretty high bar for two kids growing up in the city, with issues of insecurity and doubt. And then along comes Sergio Leone, the brilliant director and Clint Eastwood.
And coolness gets re-defined.
The first film to feature the Man with No Name was A Fistful of Dollars in 1964. The anti-hero for our generation. A hero who while tangentially doing good and helping others, really was in it for himself; the money. We see him riding a small and somewhat sad mule into a inhospitable small town. He is shamed by a group of thugs – thugs are all the same no matter what age they exist in – and he is seemingly ridden off in fear. But later, he walks back up to the bullies and has the great line paraphrased here: “I don’t think it’s nice you insulting my mule”. Needless to say the bad guys have a moment of doubt before they are dispatched to the afterlife. A new kind of hero indeed.
He even apologizes to the coffin maker that he miscalculated the number of coffins that were going to be needed in a few minutes time..,”My mistake…four coffins”.
My little mind blew.
I so wanted to be that man. Totally secure; confident and deadly. For a kid who was constantly picked on because I was told never to fight, it was like the clouds in the heavens had parted and the light of personal empowerment shined through. You mean you could really stand up for yourself, and fight back against the bullies?? I was breathless. I was transformed.
Now of course circumstances were different besides the glaringly obvious one that one was a fictional character in a well done though low budget film soon to revolutionize film making and I was a dorky little kid with no real power except that which I could dig up from inside my nervous self. This of course was going to become a theme of the three Sergio Leone Clint Eastwood collaborations, and indeed for Clint’s career. It didn’t just hit a nerve with me, as it gave birth to a whole load of impersonators and copy cats (not the same thing by the way).
But I was so taken with the character that I begged Mom to make me a poncho like the one Clint characteristically wore in all three films. And being Mom, she did. And I wore it, a pencil stub stuck into my mouth in place of the cheroot that Clint smoked. And yes I got laughed at; a lot. But it didn’t bother me a bit. I was channeling Clint and Clint was God. And even though the way in which I connected was well let us say a bit childish –hell I was only nine or ten years old, the confidence it instilled in me was very real.
Years later I actually wrote a screenplay for an NYU student film to be submitted at Cannes of all places, and send the script to Clint via his agent. A polite letter came back saying he only read pieces from other agents and I understood; I thought it was great that I had a communication back at all, and from Clint’s own agent!! Big time baby!!
So, once again the power, the healing power of movies; of media of any kind was so real.. Of course there are the dark sides of it as exemplified by someone thinking himself the Joker shooting up a theater showing a Batman film, but for every one of those misguided and truly in need of help, sick individuals, there were hundreds of us that were made better by what we saw up there on the glittering screen.
I don’t have the poncho anymore (though I still have a pillow with Clint as the sheriff in Hang Him High), and now I can smoke whatever the hell I want. But the lessons of self determination, of the power of the individual stayed. Of course Clint would crystallize it with the Don Siegel film Dirty Harry (“Do you feel lucky punk?”) which was called fascist by a certain New York reviewer who I will not mention here, but she missed the point entirely. This wasn’t political bullshit, this was a real hearkening back to when one man could make a difference, stand for something (even if it was to make a buck), be victorious over lesser men, and not be afraid of the world.
For a kid growing up with no friends in a city like New York, that was powerful stuff.
And still is.
I watch those films often – yes I watch a lot of stuff often – and it still helps. There have been many times in my business career when I said things in a more acceptable manner but in my head was thinking…”My mule doesn’t really appreciate you laughing at him” and you would be amazed at how the reaction to my words earned a respect no one in the room would have thought warranted, because somehow they sensed…maybe we shouldn’t fuck with this guy…maybe he is right, maybe we should listen to him.
Thanks Clint. I owe you big time.