Editor's note: Carrie Rickey was the film critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years. She writes for many publications, including the Inquirer and The New York Times. Follow her at carriedrickey.com.
(CNN) -- For years, Republican presidents and presidential candidates have strip-mined Clint Eastwood movies for rhetorical nuggets. Ronald Reagan warned Congress in 1985 that he had his veto pen at the ready if it voted a tax increase. "Go ahead, make my day," he baited, quoting Eastwood's Dirty Harry character in "Sudden Impact." "Read my lips," promised candidate George H.W. Bush in 1988, echoing Eastwood in the original "Dirty Harry," adding, "No new taxes."
Thursday night, Mitt Romney's campaign recruited Eastwood himself. The beloved actor/director, 82, was the "mystery guest" at the Republican Convention, a warm-up act for Sen. Mario Rubio of Florida, who introduced candidate Romney. He strode out on the stage, hair uncombed and a little wild, with his familiar, stiff-legged authority, and proceeded to deliver an improvised piece of performance art that triggered unintentional amusement and confusion within the Tampa Bay Times Forum and throughout the viewing audience.
But to many, the political nuggets Eastwood delivered this time were more like fool's gold. "I never thought it was a good idea for attorneys to be president anyhow," Eastwood rambled, perhaps unaware that Romney has a law degree, "because they're arguing both sides of the issue."
"Clint Eastwood became huge star as a man of few words. As a surprise guest on the Tampa stage he had too many words (I say as a friend)," tweeted newsman Tom Brokaw of the actor's apparently improvised act, where he addressed an empty chair meant to represent President Barack Obama.
Afterward, the Chicago Sun-Times critic and Obama supporter Roger Ebert tweeted, "Clint, my hero, is coming across as sad and pathetic. He didn't need to do this to himself. It's unworthy of him."
For this film critic and longtime admirer of Eastwood (and a registered Democrat), it was not the best hour for the former mayor of Carmel, California.
But was I surprised that Eastwood, a man who describes himself as an "Eisenhower Republican" and who publicly endorsed John McCain in 2008, would appear at the Republican convention? Not at all. Eastwood is nothing if not a straight shooter.
What did surprise me, a little, is that the GOP would invite Eastwood after prominent Republicans such as Karl Rove criticized the actor as an Obama tool for narrating Chrysler's "Halftime in America" ad aired at the Super Bowl this year. What also surprised me is that the GOP would invite the guy who told GQ magazine in October, "These people who are making a big deal about gay marriage? I don't give a --- about who wants to get married to anybody else. Why not?"
And it was surprising that, when the identity of the "mystery guest" was revealed Thursday evening, many non-Republicans took to Twitter and Facebook to pillory Eastwood, huffing that his appearance at the GOP convention "tainted" his movies for them. Huh? First of all, Eastwood publicly endorsed Romney this month. Second of all, the actor who is a lower-case-L libertarian on social issues (pro-gay marriage, pro choice, pro-ecology) and a fiscal conservative is hardly one to toe a party line.
Have they watched Eastwood's movies? You can't pin this guy down ideologically. Many have tried. All have failed. As critic Dave Kehr has noted, "Ambivalence runs deep in his movies, just as it runs through American culture." Eastwood specializes in playing men in the moral shadowlands. During the Nixon years liberals branded Eastwood movies like "Dirty Harry" as "fascist." During the Clinton years, conservatives tagged "Unforgiven" as squishy "political correctness." Heaven knows what they made of -- SPOILER ALERT! -- the assisted suicide in his other Oscar-winning movie, "Million Dollar Baby."
The first half of Eastwood's career he played men who shot first and thought about it later. The second half of his career, he's largely devoted himself to exploring the consequences of that gunplay. Is that Republican? Is that Democrat?
I think it's American.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carrie Rickey.