Directors may occasionally be shown respect, perhaps even asked for their autograph, in America, but no one actually likes them. People may admire or envy James Cameron or Steven Spielberg or Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese, and a significantly smaller group of filmgoers may look forward to Woody Allen's next outing, but they don't have much of an emotional connection with them. This is what makes Clint Eastwood's career so singular.

Because he started out as an actor, and very quickly became an actor that a large segment of the population positively adored, in the same way that they adored Jimmy Cagney and Cary Grant and both Hepburns, Eastwood has long benefited from a personal relationship with the American people that no other living director can even dream of. (In my lifetime, only Alfred Hitchcock, who came into everyone's living room once a week to deliver his weird, deadpan introductions to his creepy TV series, has enjoyed this sort of ongoing, intimate rapport with the American people. But little boys didn't want to grow up to look like the puffy director. And very few women would have asked Hitchcock to play Misty for them.)

Eastwood's close relationship with his countrymen is the sort of thing that Michael Jordan, Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe and Babe Ruth all experienced. At a certain point, he, like Elvis Presley, crossed over into a land beyond reproach, where no blemish would ever go on his personal record, no matter how many Sondra Locke movies he made. It was OK to dislike this or that Eastwood movie - Pink Cadillac, Tightrope, The Gauntlet - as long as you did not dislike the man himself. Even women who did not like Eastwood expected their men to. The American people might forgive you for being a communist or an atheist. But they would never forgive you for saying you did not like Clint Eastwood.

Next month, Eastwood turns 80. He has made more than 50 films as director or actor. He has been a fixture in American life since 1959, when he charmed his way into the bosom of the Republic by playing the likable cowboy Rowdy Yates on the TV series Rawhide. Much like Robert Redford, another actor who enjoys near-godlike stature in America, Eastwood's film career did not take off until he was in his mid-30s. But after the operatic, genre-smashing A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which made it impossible to go on making Westerns the way they had always been made, he was in the club for good.

To the extent that Westerns can be taken seriously, there are only two cowboys worth talking about: John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Wayne was the old-style prince of the high chaparral, the hero in the white hat. (Only in The Searchers did he deviate from this role.) Eastwood always played a gunslinger with something dark in his past. This is the way people who grew up in the 60s liked their leading men - Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and Little Big Man, De Niro and Pacino in everything. People in that era still wanted heroes. But they no longer wanted monochromatic ones such as Wayne and Gary Cooper. They liked it if their heroes were a tad neurotic, with a bit of history. The Man with No Name fitted the bill perfectly.

Like John Wayne, Eastwood is a charismatic, somewhat underrated actor who was not born to play Lear. He is not in a class with the Nicholsons, Hoffmans, Hackmans and Freemans, much less the Washingtons and Day-Lewises, but he is far superior to contemporaries such as Harrison Ford. And no one else has ever had a career like his: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Hang 'Em High, Play Misty for Me, High Plains Drifter, Dirty Harry, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, Bird, Unforgiven, White Hunter, Black Heart, In the Line of Fire, The Bridges of Madison County, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, Mystic River. Not to mention less successful, but not uninteresting, films such as Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Bronco Billy, The Gauntlet, The Changeling, Invictus, Honkytonk Man and A World Apart. And those truly bizarre films such as Paint Your Wagon, The Beguiled and Every Which Way But Loose.

Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg, legends all, made better films, archetypal films, but none of them were actors. Nicholson has dominated the American psyche since Easy Rider in 1969, but his stabs at directing were not terribly successful - and nor is he actually liked by Middle America in the way Eastwood is. He is too dark, too strange, too LA. Eastwood has never been accused of that.

Redford, De Niro, Marlon Brando and Barbra Streisand, among others, also experienced a measure of success as directors, but not on the scale of Eastwood, who has directed 30 films, and is thought of as a serious, full-time director in a way they are not. There was, of course, Orson Welles, a splendid actor and brilliant director. But his career petered out early and, by the end of his life, the prodigiously fat has-been was making self-parodying TV commercials for mid-market California wineries and appearing in pitiful Pia Zadora movies. His fall from grace was the saddest event in the history of American cinema.

As a double threat, the most obvious comparison is with Mel Gibson, a solid, highly successful director who is also a very accomplished actor. But Gibson is not nearly as productive as Eastwood, nor as idiosyncratic and varied. And, though he was born just up the river from the town where I live, Gibson is an Australian, not an American. Nor, after the furore regarding The Passion Of the Christ and his boozy, antisemitic tirade to those Malibu coppers, will Gibson ever be thought of as "beloved". In the end, no other actor-director - not Beatty, Costner, Lee nor even Woody Allen - has had a career like Eastwood. Like the Man With no Name, he stands alone.

(Out of respect for the directors cited above, I have not mentioned Sylvester Stallone, director of nine movies, even once in this essay. Nor will I.)

Eastwood, born in 1930, displays a mindset shaped by the decade of his birth and by the 1960s. The best films from the 1930s and 1940s are both entertaining and uplifting, and united by a clear moral vision: good will prevail over evil, but it's going to take a while. In the spaghetti westerns that made him famous, good's triumph over evil takes even longer. Working with the director Sergio Leone had a huge stylistic influence on Eastwood, who has never been in any hurry to get to the point. Spaghetti westerns moved along at a languid pace and so do Eastwood's. Early films such as High Plains Drifter start off with a bang, then taper off, then build to a huge finale; so do Pale Rider and Unforgiven. In A Fistful of Dollars, the movie that made him a household name, a tall, lanky, enigmatic stranger comes to the aid of poor, downtrodden Mexicans. In Gran Torino, a tall, lanky, enigmatic stranger comes to the aid of poor immigrants from south-east Asia. Some things change. Some things don't.

A true child of the Depression, Eastwood understood that the only unforgivable crime was to stop working. So he never did. He made all kinds of movies and he made them fast. He didn't waste much money on co-stars and he didn't spend much money on special effects. He brought his films in under budget and on time. If a film flopped he'd make another one, and if that flopped, he'd try something different. Then, if his career as a director stalled, he'd hire himself out as an actor. Unlike Beatty and Welles, he does not seem to have been terribly afraid of failure, and nor does one get the impression that he ever cared much what the critics thought of his work. His biggest-grossing films - the stupid ones with the orangutan - are among his greatest box-office coups. So there.

William Goldman, probably the world's most famous screenwriter, worked with Eastwood on Absolute Power. He believes that Eastwood, like Paul Newman, benefited from having to delay gratification. "The reason they were so terrific is that they didn't make it early," he told me last year. "Eastwood was still digging swimming pools when he was 29. They were not John Travolta. They were not Tom Cruise."

He also pointed out that Eastwood's high-quality work at such an advanced age is unprecedented. "Directors lose it around age 60," he says. "They're either too rich or they can't get work anymore. And it's physically debilitating work. That's why Gran Torino amazes me. Clint Eastwood is nearly 80, and he can still make a movie like that. He is having the most amazing career."

Clint Eastwood falls into the category of artist - like Sean Connery or Judy Garland or Van Cliburn - who does something wonderful early in his career, for which the public believes he is owed a permanent debt of gratitude. The public never forgets A Fistful of Dollars, because it breathed life into a dying genre and because Eastwood - with the poncho and the cigarillo - was just so fantastically cool.

(The genre is now even closer to death, only occasionally coming back to life when Eastwood directs a western.)

Like Bob Dylan, once reviled for his born-again Christian albums of the early 80s but now thought of as a congenial old coot, Eastwood somehow managed to bury the rightwing Dirty Harry stigma that followed him around in the 70s. (At a time when a lot of people in Hollywood were genuinely concerned that their country might be turning into a police state - during Richard Nixon's administration - Eastwood was making movies lionizing a rogue cop. Talk about politically incorrect.) But Eastwood himself mellowed and grew as an artist with the passage of time: High Plains Drifter (1973) starts with three murders and a rape; The Bridges of Madison County (1995) doesn't.

In Eastwood's defence, the Dirty Harry movies that some found so objectionable were little more than Hang 'Em High transferred to modern times. Extremely unpleasant men are making life miserable for ordinary citizens. The police are unable to control them. Into the mix comes a mysterious sociopath who is nonetheless fighting on the side of the angels. Nobody minded when Eastwood did this sort of thing in A Fistful of Dollars, High Plains Drifter, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Hang 'Em High, just as nobody minded when he returned to this theme in Pale Rider and Unforgiven. It is only when the avenging angel appears in an urban setting that civil libertarians get riled up. Westerns are set in an era with which Americans feel comfortable, with everyone having a gun and gunslingers taking the law into their own hands. Rogue cop movies aren't. If somebody takes the law into his own hands in the late 1800s, he's a hero. If he does it in the late 20th century, he's a fascist.

Eastwood resembles the great directors who preceded him, such as Hitchcock and John Huston and Don Siegel, in that he never stopped punching the clock. Unlike sensitive auteurs, who will take a few years off to contemplate their next project, Eastwood has not stopped making films since his debut in 1971. Working with the same collaborators, he has made arty films such as Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart, creepy films such as Play Misty for Me, offbeat comedies such as Bronco Billy and Space Cowboys, sentimental films such as Honkytonk Man and Invictus, and epics like Flags of Our Fathers. He has taken a great book and made a great movie (Mystic River), but more impressively he has taken a terrible book and made a great movie (The Bridges of Madison County). Eastwood went through a few stretches where it seemed he might be washed up, but he always found a way to drag himself up off the canvas. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, True Crimes and Bloodwork appeared in rapid succession. They were all duds. Then came Mystic River and Million-Dollar Baby, which were not.

The number of truly bad films Eastwood either starred in or directed is surprisingly small. This is mostly because he avoided comedies: cop movies can only be so bad, but with comedies, the sky's the limit. His worst movies, without question, are the ones he made with Sondra Locke, who briefly played Linda McCartney to Eastwood's Sir Paul. Still, the only thoroughly ridiculous (non-orangutan) film he ever made is Paint Your Wagon, the misbegotten 1969 musical. And even that has the redeeming virtue of being completely insane.

Clint Eastwood films are not philosophically dense. He likes to make movies where the little guy is up against it, where the small fry are going to need a champion, a deus ex machina. A conservative himself, Eastwood somehow manages to synthesise right- and leftwing points of view in his films. The government cannot be trusted - a position tenaciously held by Republicans - but the police are invariably brutal and corrupt - the opinion of most Democrats. In Eastwood's world, there is something for everyone, as long as they do not object to a bit of violence.

He has also never hesitated to poke fun at his own persona. Gran Torino, where Eastwood literally growls and squints and swears and points firearms throughout the film, is actually quite funny. So is Space Cowboys, where the famous twitch is on full display.

Like Denzel Washington, a far better actor, Eastwood presents an image of America to the rest of the world that Americans are comfortable with. He is not a gangster (De Niro), not a glamour boy (Richard Gere), not a wiseguy (Bruce Willis), not an orthodontist's dream (Tom Cruise), not a neurotic (Dustin Hoffman). He is not impish (Johnny Depp), not avuncular (Robert Duvall), not sincere (Harrison Ford), not mannered (Tommy Lee Jones), not hysterical (Al Pacino), and not homegrown Hollywood royalty (Warren Beatty). Pundits are always using the term "national treasure" to describe people such as Michael Moore, a fiercely divisive American who is only a national treasure to those who hate conservatives. Eastwood is a conservative, a rarity among movie stars. Yet he is also, without question, a national treasure. Even Michael Moore knows that.

Eastwood made his film debut in 1955, playing a lab technician in Revenge of the Creature. That was the year Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra made Guys and Dolls, the year Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Alabama. This has been one long career. Eastwood has outlasted all of his notable contemporaries, and has lapped a host of actors and directors whose stars once, briefly, emitted somewhat more light than his.

Directors and stars have come and gone; Eastwood has endured. He is still working today, directing Hereafter, his 31st film. "Man's got to know his limitations" is the famous line he delivers at the end of Magnum Force. To all appearances, Clint Eastwood never had any.

RELATED NEWS

A name to reckon withJune 4, 2010

‘Hollywood needs Bollywood more’ October 9, 2010