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Eastwood At Ease Screen Icon Enjoys Autumn Of His Life And Career

Edward Guthmann San Francisco Chronicle

Clint Eastwood is late. Not by 10 or 20 minutes, but late by 5-1/2 hours. It’s the sort of behavior that drives mere mortals over the edge, but somehow becomes acceptable when a man of Eastwood’s stature is the culprit.

But let’s be fair: If it weren’t for Morgan, Eastwood’s 6-week-old daughter, the star and his wife, newscaster Dina Ruiz of Salinas, Calif., probably wouldn’t have overslept two hours.

And if it weren’t for Eastwood’s casual, what’s-the-rush attitude, and his habit of taking far more than his allotted 30 minutes each with a series of reporters, then 2:30 wouldn’t have turned into 8 p.m.

Nobody bosses Eastwood, of course, and on this press day at the Mission Ranch, a beautiful resort he renovated and still owns at the southern end of Carmel, the Oscar-winning actor-director - a veteran of 50 films and probably the closest thing to a legend currently active in Hollywood - presides with easy, effortless authority.

His latest movie, “Absolute Power,” the suspense thriller he directed and stars in, opened Friday. But you get the sense that the movie is far from paramount in his mind.

He’s glowing, in fact: obviously in love with Ruiz, 31, whom he met when she interviewed him four years ago and married last March, and thrilled with baby Morgan, who has her mother’s big brown eyes and olive complexion, and is sleeping in another room at the Mission Ranch.

At 66, Eastwood says he’s better equipped for fatherhood than he was in his 30s or 40s. When Kyle and Alison, children from his first marriage, were small, he says, “I was working all the time, in Europe or Mexico. I was doing films back-to-back in those days so I didn’t really get to spend the time that, in hindsight, I would have liked to have spent.

“And now it’s tremendous because I’m extremely happy and I’ve had a career. (Family) can be primary and I can put the career into its proper place.”

Morgan is Eastwood’s sixth child. Kyle and Alison, whose mother is Maggie Johnson, are 28 and 24; his two children from former Carmel resident Jacelyn Reeves are 13 and 11; and daughter Francesca, from actress Frances Fisher, is 3-1/2.

Eastwood still plans to make films, he says, but not as intensely or as frequently as before. As for the possibility that he won’t be around for a good portion of Morgan and Francesca’s lives, Eastwood says he’s not worried. “It’ll give me something to hang in there for.”

Contrary to the expectations generated by his screen image, Eastwood doesn’t create tension when he walks into a room and takes a stranger’s hand. There’s no sense of intimidation, no need for a special compass to divine or negotiate his mood. Instead, he sits on a wicker sofa, drinks a beer and speaks in a soft, scratchy, surprisingly gentle voice.

He even does two things unheard of in big-celebrity interviews: He asks questions and listens well.

“There’s something that happens when you work with someone whose celebrity is that great, who’s bigger than life, who’s a legend,” says Laura Linney, who plays Eastwood’s daughter in “Absolute Power.” “You meet them and it takes awhile for that projection you have on them to sort of disappear, and then you really get to know the person.”

It’s clear Eastwood’s priorities changed when he fell in love with Ruiz - after long-term relationships with actress Sondra Locke and Fisher, who many say was a Locke look-alike. Asked if she is the love he was always meant to have, Eastwood answers yes, without the hesitation that typically precedes his responses.

Does the difference in their ages trouble him? “Not really,” he says, “because if I was back closer to her age, I wouldn’t be half as pleasant to be around as I am now. I was a volatile character (then). I’m a better deal for her now.

“You have to take fate the way it falls. She’s mature for her age, I’m juvenile for mine, so somewhere in the mix of all that it all comes out OK.”

Aside from Locke, who sued Eastwood for palimony and allegedly attempting to sabotage her directing career, it’s hard to find anyone with less-than-glowing reports on Eastwood. Meryl Streep, his co-star in “The Bridges of Madison County,” described her experience on that film as “one of my favorite things I’ve ever done in my life.”

Linney, who starred in “Tales of the City” before “Absolute Power,” describes him as a “steady, solid” director who keeps the same crew from film to film, shoots economically in one or two takes and managed to wrap “Power” 3-1/2 weeks ahead of schedule.

“I’m extremely fond of him,” Linney says. “It was like a shock the first couple of weeks,” says Ed Harris, who plays a homicide detective in “Absolute Power.” “There’s no anxiety or tension on the set. I never saw him get angry at anybody, never heard a voice raised. … It’s a little spooky.”

In “Absolute Power,” Eastwood plays Luther Whitney, a veteran cat burglar who witnesses a murder involving the president of the United States and simultaneously tries to heal a damaged relationship with his daughter, a prosecuting attorney.

The movie, his 19th as director, forms a solid link with Eastwood’s recent efforts on “Unforgiven,” “In the Line of Fire” and “The Bridges of Madison County”: works that stand apart from the bang-bang genre films that established him as an international star - and offer proof of a talent that’s grown finer, subtler and deeper with age.

Asked if Luther doesn’t follow a pattern with his recent characters - an aging loner whose craggy face and lanky frame are etched with pride, regret and fear of mortality - he agrees. “Maybe (it’s) the seeking of redemption,” he says, “or some sort of conclusion.”

Eastwood describes “Absolute Power” as “old-fashioned, maybe” - meaning its emphasis on plot and character are out of synch with the MTV standard that seems to rule Hollywood: the fast cutting, the showy camera angles, the visual effects and adrenaline-pumping action.

“I’ve done the shoot-‘em-ups,” Eastwood says in his quiet, unemphatic voice. “But there are a lot of younger guys who can go ahead and do that. I like effects movies, too, but not without a story. It’s those little human aspects that are fun to play with.”

In his next movie, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” Eastwood dips into a more exotic, flavorful and socially diverse world than he’s ever explored on the screen. Based on John Berendt’s nonfiction best-seller about a slaying in Savannah, Ga., “Midnight” will begin shooting in April, with Eastwood directing but not acting.

For the film, he says, the Berendt character, who functions as both narrator and reporter, is “being written as a younger man, not as knowing. He’s not an unhip guy - he’s got to be shrewd - but we’re seeing it through his eyes, and if the audience is too knowing it all becomes not as outrageous as it is.”

Eastwood plans to screen test Lady Chablis, the wickedly funny drag queen who appears in the book, with an eye to letting her play herself in the movie. And he’s offered the part of Jim Williams, the imperious antique dealer charged with murdering a young male hustler, to Kevin Spacey.

“I met Lady Chablis,” he says. “She came on the set of ‘Absolute Power.’ She’s such a character that it’s very hard to imagine anyone else doing her.” (When the film rights were first sold, Berendt related, Chablis suggested either Diana Ross or Whitney Houston for the role, if she couldn’t play herself. It never occurred to her that she had to be played by a male actor.)

Eastwood also wants to avoid the “Crying Game” effect. Unlike most patrons of that film, who believed that transvestite actor Jaye Davidson was actually a woman, he says, “I was never fooled by that. The neck was the first telltale sign. And the hands. He had huge hands.”

Looking back on his 40 years as an actor - to his eight years as a greenhorn cowhand on TV’s “Rawhide” to his breakthrough role as the Man With No Name in three Italian-made Westerns - Eastwood says he’s embarrassed by some of his work, but not a lot.

“They had a retrospective at Lincoln Center recently,” he says, “and they were running clips from “Le Streghe” (The Witches), this thing I did with Vittorio De Sica in Italy. It’s crazy, it’s laughable, but it was fun.

“I was glad I did it, because where would you go, in any kind of work, if you didn’t take these steps? Where’s your sense of reference in life?”

The acting profession is “so precarious,” he adds, that he never felt the need to regret the films he made early in his career - before the critics stopped trashing him, reevaluated his work and started calling him a screen icon on the level of Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper.

“It’s kind of hard for me to really look at my career objectively,” he says, “and I must confess I don’t think about it too much. I guess I’m suspicious and feel you can’t start analyzing anything.

“I feel so lucky about it. Fate sort of drives you in a certain direction and … careers in theater and movies are so whimsical. You get a brass ring and you might have it for a time, and then all of a sudden you’re trying to live up to or imitate yourself, which is about the worst thing you can do.”

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