12/24/1984 at 01:00 AM EST
Violence sells like popcorn in American movie houses and nobody can move the product like Clint Eastwood. Among today's stars, he is the most consistent money-maker. Since 1955 Eastwood's 40 pictures have grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide, and in 16 of those years he has placed among the Top 10 at the box office. In 1984, his biggest year, he will almost certainly rank No. 1 for the second time in a row. Sudden Impact, released late in 1983. earned $75 million by the first few months of 1984. Tightrope, which premiered in August, has grossed $43 million so far. And City Heat, a hilarious romp that co-stars Burt Reynolds and opened this month, is expected to run up a colossal score. Many critics think 1984 was also Eastwood's biggest creative year. From his 1964 spaghetti Western (A Fistful of Dollars) to the latest exploits of Dirty Harry Callahan, Eastwood has played variations on a single character: a strong silent type with a tombstone face that marks the spot where his feelings lie dead and buried. But in Tightrope, risking the disillusion of his antihero-worshipping fans, Eastwood has meticulously dug up the character's buried life—which turns out to be a distressing mess. The New Orleans cop Eastwood plays in Tightrope is a father of two who sinks into a nightmare of kinky sex, all the while pursued by a psychopath who murders the prostitutes the detective visits. Eastwood's surprised fans were fascinated to get the dirt on Dirty Harry—and so were reviewers. Clint shrugs off talk of an Oscar nomination. He saw the role simply as a chance to play a more complex and vulnerable character. "You have to broaden out." He says he'd hate to be remembered just for Dirty Harry and a flock of Westerns. "Maybe it's because the years are winding down." Many who have long dismissed Eastwood's movies as crude cartoons now suddenly understand that the violence has always been infused with self-irony and moral intelligence, and that Eastwood's lack of expression does not result from lack of expressive talent. He practices an ancient principle of acting: Don't just do something—stand there.