(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 10.)
I see from a recent TV news item that Clint Eastwood, at 80, has just begun work directing a new movie.
Two things struck me about this. The first is that it seems almost inconceivable that Eastwood could be that old. It doesn’t seem so long since he was playing the idealistic, hot-headed young cowboy Rowdy Yates in Rawhide, or the rule-breaking San Francisco detective Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry.
The second is that he still has the fire and energy to make films. Something keeps driving him – but what? It’s not as if he has anything left to prove, after a 50-year career during which he picked up five Academy Awards as a director and a People’s Choice Award for “favourite all-time movie star”.
You might think that, having attained octogenarian status, Eastwood would be happy to sit back in the California sun and reflect on a full and rewarding life. But no, there are projects he needs to complete – the latest a film biography of the late FBI director J Edgar Hoover (a figure so controversial and intriguing that it’s amazing no one has made a movie of his life before).
Eastwood gave a clue to his work ethic in a recent interview in which he said it had always shocked him that famous directors from Hollywood’s golden era, such as Frank Capra and Billy Wilder, retired when they were still capable of making films. “I always thought, ‘Why aren’t these guys still working?’ I figure your best years should be at a point when you’ve got a lot of so-called knowledge.”
Myself, I’m with Capra and Wilder. Presumably they regarded work as something you did mainly because of economic imperatives – wives and families to keep, alimony to pay, mansions to buy in Beverly Hills or Malibu. Once you’d made your pile, why keep pushing yourself?
Men of my generation probably have a more balanced attitude to work than those of my father’s era. Most of us, having grown up in a more affluent society, treat work as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself; a way of financing a lifestyle in which we can enjoy family and leisure.
This is especially true in a country like New Zealand, which is noted for its laidback approach to life. Economists sometimes complain that one reason New Zealand isn’t more prosperous is that most Kiwi business owners are happy just to acquire the “Three Bs” – bach, boat and BMW. They don’t feel compelled to build the type of international business that can transform an economy.
But obviously there are people, like Eastwood, for whom work is about much more than making money so they can eventually retire in comfort. Something else propels them.
It’s not hard to think of other examples. Winston Churchill was 65 when he became prime minister of Britain – an age when many men are retired and pottering in the garden.
Churchill had packed more into those 65 years than a lesser man could hope to achieve in several lifetimes. Yet he not only saw Britain successfully through World War II – an extraordinary feat of leadership, requiring unimaginable levels of energy, resilience and determination – but still had enough gas in the tank to come back in 1951 for a second stint at No 10 Downing Street. He was then 76.
He didn’t retire from politics until he was 85 (too late, many said), and he lived till 90 – proving that pressure and hard work are no impediment to a long and full life.
And look at Rupert Murdoch, who is pushing 80 yet remains a dominant figure in the world media scene. He passed the point long ago when his ambitious global expansion could be logically explained by a desire to accumulate more wealth. There’s a limit, after all, to how much money any man can spend.
So what motivates him? His critics would say power, given Murdoch’s apparent use of his media interests to influence politics. Others might suggest his desire to create a dynasty. Even so, you’d think he might now have reached a stage in life when such matters ceased to be so important – but apparently not.
There are examples in sport, too. Take Sir Alex Ferguson, the dour Scottish manager of Manchester United football club. Okay, at 69 he’s a relative youngster, at least compared with Eastwood and Murdoch. But here’s the interesting thing: Ferguson is the most successful manager in the famous club’s history, having won 26 major honours since he took over in 1986. There’s no significant title Man U hasn’t won under his guidance. You’d think his desire to win might have started to fade. After all, what has he got to prove? Yet Ferguson still approaches every game as if his future depends on it.
Then there’s the Australian horse trainer Bart Cummings, still as determined as ever, at 82, to add to his Melbourne Cup tally. Cummings’ great rival, the late Tommy Smith, was also still training at 80.
New Zealand’s own Bob Charles was still playing on the international golf circuit at 74, despite presumably having earned more than enough for a comfortable retirement.
In literature, there’s John Le Carre – still cranking out spy thrillers at 79, though the royalty cheques from his 20-odd novels, not to mention movie adaptations, must have made him a very wealthy man. New Zealand author James McNeish, who is the same age as Le Carre, is also still active (his latest novel was published this year).
Politics seems a particularly hard habit to kick. Just look at Robert Mugabe, still clinging doggedly to power at 86. A more benign local example is Jim Anderton – so addicted to public life that at 72 he was eager to become the mayor of Christchurch while maintaining a parallel career as an MP.
While politicians’ long careers can be explained either by the desire for power (as in Mugabe’s case) or the conviction that they still have something to offer (as in Anderton’s), the reason why others such as Eastwood continue to work into their 80s may be no more complicated than that they simply love what they do.
Many men define themselves by what they do for a living. Their work gives their life purpose and often sustains them into old age.
The sad irony is that others spend their lives grinding away in humdrum jobs that give them no pleasure, yet don’t know what to do with themselves after retirement and often die within a few years.