POSTED June 10 2014

John Wayne in all his contradictions

Duke Wayne, cieca 1930

Duke Wayne, cieca 1930

Scott Eyman’s engrossing and masterful biography of John Wayne juggles the contradictions of the enduring star that some find unendurable for his politics. (My review of the bio here.)

As Eyman puts it, Wayne was a deeply conservative man who believed in freedom of speech, a fierce patriot that didn’t serve and a fine actor unwilling to leave his comfort zone. This is a biography etched in acid and appreciation, deftly analyzing the man and his movies without psychoanalyzing them.

For almost as long as I’ve watched movies I’ve wrestled with the Duke, admiring him as an actor and not always admiring him as a man. My husband has a less balanced reaction to Wayne: Whenever I turn on one of his movies, spouse walks out of the room. Are you able to watch Wayne films without his personal ideology blurring your view?


  1. Richard T. Jameson says:

    Among my favorite things published during my tenure at Film Comment is an interview (conducted by Lee Server, if I recall correctly) with the indispensable character actor Marc Lawrence. Lawrence was blacklisted in the Fifties and relocated to Italy, where he became something of a star. One day he was going about his business when who should he see striding down the way but John Wayne (I’m guessing this was when “Legend of the Lost” was filming at Cinecitta). The Duke walked right up to Lawrence and hailed: “Hey, commie prick, lemme buy ya lunch.” They’d worked together on one of Wayne’s first important films, the 1941 “Shepherd of the Hills,” and he spoke fondly of the Duke. As he saw it, Wayne was never one of “the haters.” Furthermore, he believed that the real haters exploited Wayne’s eminence in raising the profile of their ugly Red-baiting organizations.

  2. There’s a similar story in the book about seeing Carl Foreman in the early 60s and how warm Wayne was to him and ended with Foreman realizing they came from the same basic place (Hollywood) and that they both believed they were patriots. It’s difficult for me to be objective about Wayne, I grew up with a father who loved him and who was the same size with a similar look (his nickname was Dude, which seemed awfully close to Duke to a young boy), and there are definitely moments in the book where I as a liberal adult simply can’t abide him. But for the most part, he comes off well in the book; gracious, articulate, bright and generally respectful to those around him, especially those with less power than he had (though he seemed to have gotten grouchy and short-tempered in later years and was known as something of a director killer, often taking over the functional direction of his non Ford/Hawks/Hathaway films), he also understood filmmaking to a sophisticated degree (The Alamo is in many ways a good encapsulation of his strengths and weaknesses; it’s depressingly talky for the first half at least and more than a little didactic in its political aims (see J. Hoberman’s wonderful “The Dream Life” for a lovely comparison between the politics of The Alamo and Spartacus, released at roughly the same time), but once the action starts, it’s actually thrilling and his command of a large theater of action is impressive).

    In the end, I simply can’t imagine another iconic Hollywood actor of his era playing either Dunson in Red River or Edwards in The Searchers or for that matter, Tom Doniphon in Liberty Valance (I love the scene after Valance dies where we see Doniphon in the bar throwing his anger and weight around and understand he could very easily turn into a bigger menace and bully than Valance, that was in him, but something human was there too, the same thing that allowed him to step aside when he realized Vera Miles was in love with Jimmy Stewart), there’s a level of power and heft to those characters as well as a darkness that seems beyond the other icons of the era (I guess Stewart comes closest in his films with Mann, but you never really question whether he is a good man today in those films, though you understand there was darkness in his past).

    There was a story I read somewhere, maybe in Howard Hawks’ biography of a few years ago, about Red River and Monty Clift and how he came in with a dim view of Wayne and after his first couple of scenes, Hawks pulled him aside and said, basically, “Look, this guy is huge on screen and if you don’t find a way to match him, he’s going to blow you off of it,” and Clift in that moment realized that some actors have a cinematic heft that went beyond acting, and personality and politics and that he had to be aware of it or indeed he was going to get dwarfed by Wayne.

  3. Nancy Colman says:

    For me, the climactic scene in “The Searchers” is in many ways a metaphor for Wayne’s own conflicted man-versus-movie-star persona. Wayne’s character throughout the story is driven by a deep-seated, bitter hatred of the Indians who have abducted and “despoiled” his innocent niece. After years of obsessive but fruitless tracking, it seems almost certain that, if found, Natalie Wood’s character (niece Debbie) will be too far gone–corrupted–by the Indian culture that has absorbed her, and he will have no choice by to kill her to “restore” her virtue and the family honor. When the moment finally arrives (spoiler alert), the brutal cold killer so clearly evident in his gaze melts with their mutual recognition. Just when it seems the rigid man of righteousness will home in on his prey, he scoops her up into his arms, hugs her close, and murmurs, “C’mon, Debbie, we’re going home.” If a meme/motif of Westerns is the whore with the heart of gold, then Wayne embodies the male counterpart: the hardboiled killer with a heart.

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