noconcessionsClint Eastwood is having the last sneer on the Oscars. As three of the five best picture nominees struggle for a box office bounce (and one, The Reader, has become a laughingstock, the poster child for questionable taste among led-by-the-nose Academy Award voters) his latest, and presumably last as an actor, Gran Torino, is pulling up at the $100 million mark and will easily outperform the others. It’s the only one of the highly touted December releases still drawing crowds in a January that has gone to the (Hotel for) Dogs and bear-hugged Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Critics mostly adore it, as they have just about every Eastwood picture since the long-time pariah was welcomed into the church of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with 1992’s Unforgiven.

“‘Deserve’s’ got nothin’ to do with it,” his death-haunted old gunslinger muttered over Gene Hackman as he sent him to that great prairie in the sky, and the Academy loved him for it when at the end we were left with a “statement” on the futility of violence, and not a celebration of its consummation. I wasn’t convinced. On first viewing, the film felt very studied to me, wearing its closing dedication “to Sergio and Don” (which had the auteurist critics swooning) on its sleeve. The message was decidedly mixed: After two hours of expressively photographed moping around the Old West, it was those final gunblasts, a typical Eastwood holocaust, which woke everyone up. The adrenaline rush, combined with the arthouse pretension that crept up like ivy around the foundation of a standard-issue oater, awed the tastemakers into submission. The guy who had his day made dozens of times over in the five Dirty Harry pictures, who dispatched armies of desperados at a Gatling gun clip throughout assorted prior Westerns, who killed 300 Nazis in Where Eagles Dare, who had a warmer and more intimate relationship with his simian rather than female companion in Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can—he had grown up, become part of the pat-on-the-back Hollywood humanists club. It was as if a mangy, flea-eating gorilla had clambered to its feet and become a man, stunning the zookeepers.

Suddenly, deserve had everything to do with it: Eastwood won two Oscars for producing and directing Unforgiven, and was nominated for best actor. (Best actor! Who had ever caught “Squint” acting?) He hit the same trifecta for 2004’s Million Dollar Baby. (“The best movie of 1954,” a friend said, tweaking the creakiness of its ponderous issues-raising.) There have been four more nominations, two apiece for 2003’s Mystic River and 2006’s ersatz foreign film Letters from Iwo Jima. And, as a bonus, an Irving G. Thalberg Award in 1995.

The Thalberg Award is the puzzler. It is for “creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” What exactly had the motion picture academy liked on Eastwood’s production resume before Unforgiven? Surely not Firefox. Pale Rider, unlikely. Thalberg, the MGM standard-bearer, probably rolled over in his mausoleum when the magnum force behind Sudden Impact joined the pantheon. The arty, not altogether coherent, but striving combo of Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart may have paved the path for the far more successful Unforgiven, but who besides a few die-hard buffs saw them? Was the Academy simply following the money generated by the audience pleasers? It’s not as if he were basking in the reflected glory of the films with Sergio (Leone) and Don (Siegel): the Oscar crowd shunned those, too. This remains the strangest wrinkle in the curious case of Clint Eastwood’s rehabilitation.

I’ve since made my piece with Unforgiven. It’s a respectable, if two-faced, piece of work—a whole lot more so than A Perfect World, which I writhed through the following winter. The scene where Kevin Costner helps his little boy kidnap victim with his weiner issues is still unforgiven; Eastwood has a tin ear for dialogue. This is matched by lethargic editing rhythms: Mystic River is one of his stronger efforts, but how much better it would be if some of the meandering fat was pared away. (Noting the running time of Changeling, which even some of the ardent Eastwoodians in the critical community abandoned, I stayed far away.) And the bum, one-take-will-do directing style, which an old pro like Meryl Streep can take in stride (her late-blooming romance with Eastwood in The Bridges of Madison County, a better-crafted screenplay than his norm, works) but is an utter catastrophe for the lesser lights cast in supporting parts (if only if it were possible to cut the framing device used in that same movie, with Streep’s family seemingly played by blocks of wood with human features carved into them). The disaster in Flags of Our Fathers isn’t the bloody Iwo Jima campaign; it’s the flat acting, the nondescript scripting, the bollixed-up storytelling. Johnny Cash gets way more empathy and emotion from “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” in a few minutes than Eastwood manages in an epic film rooted in part in that troubling, tragic subject.

But the fix is in: the slate was wiped clean. Eastwood is somewhere between Hollywood and Mount Rushmore in our cultural estimation. When Gran Torino idled at the Oscars, there was an outcry, not least among my Facebook friends, who were indignant at his alleged shafting. The movie, which Lance Berry ably defended on Popdose a couple of weeks ago, is basically a Republican response to the waiting-for-Obama Academy Award nominee The Visitor, where a meek professor takes on the apparatus of the Bush war-on-terror machine to defend basic human rights; here, Eastwood’s unrepentantly racist Korean War vet undertakes a drastic bailout plan to help Hmong residents in crumbling Detroit. It’s a half-interesting, half-terrible movie, and given recent history I doubt the Academy had any problem with the half-terrible part: The unplayable race-baiting “comedy” scenes in the barbershop, for openers, or the godawful performance by the actor portraying the priest, worse than even the deer-in-the-headlights reactions of curious onlookers caught by the first cameramen to operate film equipment more than a century ago. Seriously—that bad. (And a weird stray-in from Million Dollar Baby, where the part was played by the more seasoned Brian F. O’Byrne. The eruption of Catholic bias is inexplicable: Was Eastwood bitch-slapped by a nun?)

I didn’t hate Gran Torino. Hell, once Eastwood’s raspy rain-down-the-drainpipe vocals ended, I even liked the title song, with Jamie Cullum securely in the driver’s seat. It’s the half-interesting part—Eastwood’s own performance—that I suspect gave high-minded Oscar voters fits. It’s frustratingly unrealized: He overdoes the finger-gun schtick, the line readings, and little bits of business with props, the things a more conscientious director would have spent (in his eyes, wasted) more time and takes on to get right. Once Leone and Siegel established his basic iconography, Eastwood riffed off it, but two of the boldest attempts to explore the image are credited to others: Richard Tuggle, of the seamily psychosexual Tightrope, and Wolfgang Petersen, of In the Line of Fire, where Eastwood is believably scared…and unexpectedly charming, tickling the ivories and flirting with Rene Russo.

Gran Torino is maybe the last attempt to get under the hood, bringing the avenging angel aspect of his persona front-and-center. It’s a Rust Belt High Plains Drifter, proudly made-in-America while subverting expectations. The public, pleased to be reminded of old-model Clint with the new decals and paint job, has gone along for the ride, but Oscar doesn’t want to have that sordid, Cro-Magnon past dredged up again. That was buried under Academy Award gold, 17 years ago. Toe the line with Angelina Jolie.

And that’s what I miss. Watching Eastwood since Unforgiven has been like watching an aging band trot out the new stuff on tour and slighting the oldies, the ones you want to hear. I was a huge Clint Eastwood fan, and I went to the mat for him at Cineaste, a left-leaning publication, over a recent biography that was nothing but bones being picked. I’ve picked a few here, but make no mistake: There’s no bigger fan of vintage Clint, say, 1964-1985, than me. I have most of them on DVD. I like their leanness, and meanness; the independent streak; the ambiguity that sneaks in, rather than announces itself; the no-big-deal use of women and ethnic actors (good performers, too, not the recent cardboards) in key parts; and the grace notes. Nothing Unforgiven or Gran Torino have to say about familial and community ties wasn’t said more eloquently than in The Outlaw Josey Wales, the great, unsung bicentennial movie. Eastwood has strengths. But what was it Harry once said? “Man has got to know his limitations.” Oscar, late to catch up, went overboard with the glittering prizes. But we can, and should, assess his career more realistically as he prepares to ride off into the sunset.