John Wayne - American
Three Generations Of Moviegoers Passed The Time Of Life With John Wayne. For half a century they sat in darkened theatres around the world and watched Wayne saddle up in more than two hundred films as he became the greatest figure in one of America's greatest native art forms, the Western.
They ranged from serials to four-reelers in which Wayne capitalized on the rage for singing cowboys by having his voice dubbed to million-dollar-epics, many of them classics. Stagecoach and Red River rank high in the list of great Westerns and True Grit, coming late in Wayne's career, revealed the grizzled veteran's mastery of his art. His portrayal of the profane, whiskey swigging, one-eyed marshal was characterized by some critics as a parody of Wayne's longtime screen character. "Not so," said Wayne. "Rooster Cogburn's attitude toward life was maybe a little different, but he was basically the same character I've always played."
Although John Wayne enjoyed a career as a star without equal in movie history, there was never agreement about his talents as an actor. Wayne himself declared that he had never learned to act. "I don't act," he used to say. "I react. Regardless of character, I always play John Wayne."
Wayne was oversimplifying, as those who were in a position to judge were quick to point out. His colleagues had enormous respect for the range of his talents. The effortlessness with which he dominated the screen was neither accidental nor the indifferent capacity of a tall guy dressed up in a cowboy suit. Wayne's size and athletic strength made him the ideal Western hero. More than that, he moved with a grace that ballet dancers could admire and he was able to speak the most banal dialogue with total conviction.
Audiences saw a lot of themselves in the image they knew so well on the screen. They'd watched him grow from a young, fair-skinned cowboy hero to a septuagenarian whose craggy face mirrored their own. They knew an awful lot about Wayne's personal and professional life. With the same affection and admiration as his friends they called him "Duke."
They understood what Duke was talking about when he recalled the tough times of his early movie-making years during the Great Depression. And even in the best of times, when things ought to have looked their brightest, Duke often found himself knocked to the ground. These were the moments when his personal life had become a shambles or when his career prospects looked so bleak that he seriously considered switching his profession. But Duke, having been through it all before, simply picked himself up and started over again.
Wayne was neither a born loser nor a born winner. He was an ordinary human being who believed in fighting for what he wanted, whether it was the fulfillment of a professional ambition or simply a conviction. Americans have always admired men who stood on their own two feet. Duke embodied all the qualities of the American hero as well as the flaws of the guy next door. Because he was John Wayne his flaws stood out like huge warts on his craggy face. The very grandeur of his character defects - his arrogance, belligerence and stubbornness - endeared him to his fans.
John Wayne's legacy to future generations is a library of motion picture film without precedent in its commercial success or in its display of the artistry of one man. The possibility of so vast a collection of film ever being assembled by another motion picture actor is not within the realm of possibility. While Duke was battling the Big C a couple of pathetic old-timers stood tentatively in the wings ready to pick up whatever mythical title may exist for those who "made nearly as many movies as John Wayne."
Hopefully, they have packed up their shooting irons and returned to their TV commercials. Wayne did not become an American institution because of the numbers game. Yes, he made more movies than any major film actor in history, and he starred in virtually all of them. His name stood above the title for nearly fifty years. When Wayne wasn't Number One in the roster of the ten top boxoffice stars he still held firm in the ranks of the first five. You can count on the fingers of your hands the Wayne movies which were duds. "ajricans love numbers, don't they?" an English newspaperman once remarked. "Why?"
Perhaps it has become a habit of American newspapering. But when you stop collecting and attributing special importance to numbers and begin examining the events that created the numbers, Wayne's durability was certainly extraordinary, but was it accidental? Hardly. Wayne was a brilliant motion picture actor who drew his artistry from a complex personality. He was far from the easygoing, genial, ever-lovin' personality that his publicity suggested. Moreover, Duke was the first to admit that he could be pretty mean and ornery. That he touched the emotions of his audiences as no other actor has ever managed was perhaps not as deliberate as his mastery of the screen. Personally he was a lively extrovert with a great love of people. Inevitably he became excellent copy.
There was nothing mystical - or mythical - about Wayne. He was real. To avoid him you would have been obliged to move to another planet. Wayne stood tall in the saddle and out of it. Wherever he went he collected crowds. He loved them - and they loved him. Electricity sparked when Duke sat down with his fellow Americans. He was fully aware that many of them believed his face had already been carved on Mount Rushmore. What purpose would be served by disclaiming it? The illusion was part of his message, that they - like Duke and the presidents on Mount Rushmore, were privileged to live the American dream. Their minds could soar to the sky; their ambitions could be as wild and as outrageous as this limitless country of ours. Wayne knew because he lived to see his own dream come true.
Wayne was a big man. He stood tall. His arms were long. His stride was long. Like many big men he was graceful; like all strong men, he was gentle in physical contact. His handshake was firm, never bone-crunching. He was well mannered. His voice lay in the middle register where it hung attractively in a lazy Midwestern drawl that came naturally to him.
Recently I read that in her memoirs one of Wayne's leading ladies will tell how she helped Duke with "the big words" in the dialogue of their picture. I can imagine it being believed. How easily we box people into stereotypes! The cowboys Duke played were more celebrated for their brawn than their brains. But be assured Duke never needed an adult reading course. He spoke cultivated English. Moreover, when Duke sounded off you could never accuse him of being dull.
Wayne was an articulate, thoughtful man who accepted the existence of enemies with the same grace that he welcomed the attention of his friends. Duke's controversial political beliefs were sincere, born of extensive reading and exposure to the thoughts and positions of men he admired. Duke put his money where his mouth was. He filmed two affirmations of his faith in America, The Alamo and The Green Berets, and spent years paying off the personal obligations he incurred in their financing. The Alamo, belatedly, has been "restudied" and has begun to edge into the realm of Wayne classics.
Even Hollywood's liberals had to admire Wayne's guts. On meeting him the new stars who knew Duke only from reading of the McCarthy era and the Hollywood Witch Hunt constantly expressed surprise at his charm and courtesy. He could make anyone feel comfortable and at home by the simple act of extending his hand and smiling with his bright blue eyes. Duke's code called for courtesy and professionalism even in dealing with political opponents.
Wayne was the consummate professional. Once he became a major Hollywood personality his roles, his life style and his image were molded to conform to Wayne's film character. He was the star who invented himself. They used to say that Al Jolson didn't play to his audiences, that Jolie made love to them. Of Gary Cooper every director who worked with him claimed that Coop had an affinity for the camera unequalled by any other male star.
Wayne was neither a Jolson nor a Cooper. His talent had not come naturally. It developed slowly over the years. He was a late bloomer as a star, and it was even later before Hollywood gave him its long overdue respect. With audiences it was different. Maybe Duke didn't make love to them. But he accomplished something just as important. He inspired their confidence and trust. They knew that as long as John Wayne was up there in charge everything was going to come out just fine.
He belonged to an era in America when kids did carry balloons and when they did march in Fourth of July parades, when patriotism was an emotion to be cherished - not lathered with cynicism. Duke preferred the spirit of the America he had grown up in. And who knows but that Duke may have been right all along? Who knows but what a new century may diminish the angst afflicting our complicated world and we may discover that, as the Duke said, everything's going to be "real peachy after all"?
The Duke lived long enough to enjoy the honors that come with being an institution. An article, "the," went before his name - placing him in the same league with "the" President and "the" Pope. His political foes grew kinder. Duke had himself mellowed and supported the Panama Canal Treaty over the opposition of his old friend, Senator Barry Goldwater. Critics began to look at his old movies on television and abruptly discovered that Duke had improved a lot since the movies had first been released.
For his sake, I hope the movie buffs do not submit him to the wholesale dissection players like Bogart have endured. I doubt that anything more significant than the way the sun lay influenced Duke's kicking the grass with his left foot or right when there was that moment of silence as the hero sized up his adversary.
John Wayne belonged to that great era of Hollywood when movies were made to entertain and when star personalities were involved in nothing more complex than holding our attention while they searched for honesty, justice, love and happiness. Sometimes Duke made out well. Sometimes he didn't. That's how it went in his life - just as it does in ours. That's why we care for him. We are going to miss him.
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