It’s hard to calculate how much Sondra Locke’s career was helped and hurt by her long-running personal and professional relationship with Clint Eastwood. On one hand, her co-starring roles with her then partner were widely distributed, much talked-about, and often commercially successful. On the other, to many, the arc of her career was sometimes defined more by Eastwood than by her own considerable talents.
Which is too bad, because Sondra Locke was an outstanding actress. She scored an Oscar nomination for supporting actress in her very first role. Acting opposite Alan Arkin in the lovely – if largely forgotten – The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Locke made an impressive debut as a petulant teen who forms a friendship with Arkin’s deaf-mute character. It’s terrific work in a fine film whose sentimental tone has perhaps not aged well when compared with the more cutting-edge films of the late 60s, such as The Graduate and Easy Rider.
Three years later she was seen in the cult horror film Willard about a misfit (played by Bruce Davison) who forms a connection with rats and takes revenge against those who mistreat him by sending his vermin buddies on the attack. Willard was a sizable success leading to sequel which oddly birthed a #1 hit single by Michael Jackson titled “Ben” about a different boy’s favorite protective rat.
Locke spent the next five years of her career in the TV guest-spot wilderness until Eastwood cast her in his classic western The Outlaw Josey Wales. Although 32 at the time, Locke’s youthful appearance and huge eyes – which defined the cliché doe-like – made for a very successful performance as the ingenue who falls for Eastwood’s Wales, even if her affection goes unrequited.
After Wales, Locke made five more films with Eastwood. 77’s gritty crime thriller The Gauntlet, Eastwood’s two redneck blockbusters Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can. In which Eastwood played a bare-knuckles brawler named Philo Beddoe who traveled with an orangutan sidekick named Clyde. Yes, that was a fun sentence to write. Locke played his contentious love interest Lynn Halsey-Taylor. A saloon singer who would break Beddoe’s heart (in a surprisingly dark ending) in the first film but mend it in the second. For reasons not entirely clear to me, I never forgot her character’s name. I could call it up like nobody’s business. I still live in hope that it will one day be asked for in a trivia contest I’m a part of.
Her last film with Eastwood was 1983’s Dirty Harry film Sudden Impact. As a woman who is raped and seeks vengeance upon her attackers, Locke gave a harrowing performance in a film that was far less formulaic in feel thanks to her presence.
Still, my favorite role of hers was in Eastwood’s nostalgic, sentimental Bronco Billy from 1980. It’s a sweet and somewhat sad film about an aging cowboy doing wild west shows across the country to smaller and smaller audiences. Locke plays Eastwood’s begrudging love interest and reluctant assistant. In one sequence, Locke is placed on a spinning wheel surrounded by balloons. Eastwood’s Bronco Billy tosses a knife at the wheel with the intention of nearly striking Lock’s Antionette Lily. In her best moment from the film, Billy asks Antoinette if she would like to wear a blindfold. She follows her script saying no, because Bronco Billy is the most accurate knife thrower in the world. Eastwood replies, “Very well, but I will wear one.” Lock responds – off script – “Must you, Bronco Billy?” I suppose you have to see it, but let me be clear, no line reading ever dripped with more comedic contempt than in those four words Locke uttered in that scene.
Despite spending another six years as Eastwood’s partner, Locke made no more appearances in his films. Her 14 years with Eastwood were at times volatile. As their relationship came apart in 1989, Locke sued Eastwood for palimony in a suit that played out in the tabloids. In 1995 she sued Eastwood again, claiming he undermined a number of projects she had attempted to spearhead that were rejected by the studio. A few years later she sued the studio too. Terms of the settlements are unknown but Locke said she was “elated” by the outcome.
Locke only acted six more times over the last 35 years of her career. None of the roles were memorable. She did direct four films. The 1986 oddity Ratboy, about a boy who, well, looked like a rat. Much better was 1990’s Impulse. A noirish crime-thriller starring Theresa Russell and Jeff Fahey. A TV film called Death In Small Doses followed in 1995. Locke’s final effort behind the camera was the 1997 film Trading Favors with Rosanna Arquette.
Sometimes I wonder if Locke ended up with the career Sally Field narrowly dodged by ending her relationship with Burt Reynolds. I doubt Field would have been in as many interesting films had she continued to make Bandit and Cannonball movies with Burt during his good ol’ boy phase. The films Locke made with Eastwood were certainly better – although the two orangutan movies would have squarely fit into Reynolds and Field’s filmographies when they were together. It’s just that it’s hard not to wonder if we ever saw the best Sondra Locke had to offer. At least not as often as we should have.
As unjust as it is, the unavoidable truth is that Locke will probably be largely recalled as Eastwood’s former sidekick in love and cinema. I hope I’m wrong about that. Because when given the opportunity, Locke was equally adept at comedy and drama. For all the benefits that may have come from her association with Eastwood it’s hard not to think their relationship wasn’t somewhat stifling to her potential and volume of output.
Even with that in mind, Locke had a handful of performances that truly showcased her skill. In those brief moments her gifts did more than flash. They shone brightly. And if you were paying attention, you might have noticed she was every bit as formidable as her iconic co-star.
Sondra Locke died yesterday of cardiac arrest associated with bone cancer. She was 74.