I argue for the timelessness of silent films, and the eternal power of great acting. So who, among the bright lights of modern stardom, could have made it in the Silent Days? They Might Have Mimed is a continuing feature designed to answer this question. I’ll be updating this list as often as I’m inspired to do it.
#2: Clint Eastwood
It was television, not the movies, which brought Clint Eastwood his early fame. In 1959, the 29-year-old Eastwood originated the role of Rowdy Yates on Rawhide, a popular Western. Eastwood slowly developed his character from a frivolous boy to someone more turmoiled—enough that, by 1963, observers were speculating on his career path beyond the show. That year, he was recommended for the role of The Man With No Name in A Fistful of Dollars, part one of Sergio Leone’s ‘dollars trilogy’ of spaghetti westerns. Eastwood’s performance is, of course, well-remembered today. Perhaps even more famous is police officer—and borderline anarchist—Harry Callahan, whom Eastwood first portrayed in Dirty Harry (1971).
As his career matured, Eastwood gained the freedom to express his talent in other ways. He directed his first film, Play Misty for Me, in 1971, and has since directed Academy Award winners Unforgiven (1992) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) among many others. He is also a composer, having scored several of his own films, including last year’s hit, Gran Torino.
Why could Eastwood have made it as a silent actor? Well, how often do his iconic characters actually talk? Dirty Harry is famous for his one-liners, but that’s partly because they are pithy phrases; summations made by a man who spares words. And his portrayal of The Man With No Name? Of this role, Eastwood reportedly said: “I wanted to play it with an economy of words and create this whole feeling through attitude and movement... I felt the less he said the stronger he became and the more he grew in the imagination of the audience.”
Eastwood’s approach recalls a much earlier Western star, William S. Hart.
Like Eastwood’s mercenary drifter in the dollars trilogy, Hart’s characters found redemption via the hard road. They were wounded inside, and though they made honourable choices in the end, it wasn’t often clear why they did so. Our only clues lay in the actor’s face. Hart, like any silent star, could project his characters’ inner conflict through changes of expression—aided, of course, by generously long takes. Like Eastwood, he could also project stoicism and moral certitude by emoting nothing at all. Active or passive, the face spoke.
Eastwood could have been great in the Silent Era, just as he has been in his own; in fact, his success suggests the continued willingness of today’s audiences to accept the silent aesthetic. His men call for authority by refusing to chat, and are we not transfixed just the same? Indeed, we are.