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John Wayne’s Lost Legacy

Hollywood's icon of masculinity acted like he lived: plainly and honestly.
John Wayne Sands of Iwo Jima set

John Wayne’s gravestone in Corona del Mar, California, is marked with the following inscription: “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.” It’s a lovely sentiment—poetic in its way, and more than a little unexpected coming from the gun-slinging “Duke” of the Hollywood western. But it’s tragic, too, because tomorrow has not been kind to John Wayne, if we take “tomorrow” not in the narrow and literal sense, meaning the day following the current one, but in the expansive and, yes, poetic sense, meaning all that comes after. In fact, by the time he spoke those words in a 1971 interview with Playboy, tomorrow had already decided it didn’t have much to learn from John Wayne.

The man born Marion Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, in 1907 had one of the most enviable careers in the history of film. But in terms of his profession—movie actor—and the influence his legacy has had on the industry he dominated for several decades in his prime, well, let’s just say that Wayne’s mid-century style of film acting is more than just obsolete; it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the craft as it is currently practiced. Nobody does it like that anymore (except maybe Clint Eastwood). Actors today trace their professional lineage not to Wayne, or highly regarded contemporaries such as Spencer Tracy or Jimmy Stewart, but to the brutal emotional realism of Marlon Brando and, through him, to the American “method” of acting developed by the Group Theatre in the early 1930s. Brando’s spellbinding performance as Stanley Kowalski in 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” touched off a revolution and made the film acting that came before it seem like a classic case of same genus, different species. Brando did to Wayne what the iPod did to the Walkman—both play music, but the similarities end there.

Buried deep within Scott Eyman’s large new biography, John Wayne: The Life and Legend, is an anecdote from the set of 1961’s “The Comancheros” that captures the artistic distance between Wayne’s lunch-bucket approach to acting and the method madness of Brando’s apostles. Michael Curtiz (of “Casablanca” fame) was the film’s credited director, but Wayne was forced to step in and direct numerous scenes when Curtiz, battling terminal cancer, became too weak to work. The film’s female lead, Broadway actress Ina Balin, was set to play a short scene with Wayne, who was eager to shoot it, print it, and move on. Balin wanted to explore her character’s motivations and asked for a rehearsal. Wayne consented, but whispered to cinematographer William Clothier to roll film as they “rehearsed.” When the scene was finished, Balin was shocked to hear Wayne bark, “Cut. Print. See how easy this is?” According to co-star Stuart Whitman, when Balin would “dig down and get emotional” Wayne would mumble under his breath, “Get the goddamn words out.”

Wayne’s general attitude toward the craft of acting—“get the goddamn words out”—is not dead. Many actors and directors work quickly. But no well-regarded modern, American actor focuses, as Wayne and his ilk did, exclusively on the external attributes of a character. “Wayne was a member in good standing of a pre-Method generation of actors,” writes Eyman, “whose general intent was, as James Cagney put it, ‘Look the other actor in the eye and tell the truth.’” Wayne was obsessed with being truthful on screen, even if that meant turning down offers from good directors of meaty parts that he felt he couldn’t authentically carry off. He employed a handful of writers whose job was to finesse his lines so that they sounded genuine coming out of his mouth. Wayne was equally committed to preserving his image. He was, Eyman writes, “emotionally committed to playing only John Wayne parts.” These were parts that looked like a man should look and acted like a man should act. When a still photographer on the set of “True Grit” snapped a few shots of the aging Wayne riding not on a horse but a on a specially outfitted mechanical saddle, the star ran him down and smashed his camera. “He was always going to be in the John Wayne business, always going to be protecting the franchise,” says Eyman.

Wayne couldn’t fathom why other stars weren’t as diligent has he was about “protecting the franchise.” At the 1957 premier of Vincente Minnelli’s “Lust for Life,” Wayne upbraided star Kirk Douglas for playing the part of Vincent van Gogh like a “weak queer.” “How can you play a part like that? There’s so few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters,” said Wayne.

“It’s all make-believe, John,” a dumbfounded Douglas replied. “It isn’t real. You’re not really John Wayne, you know.”

If Eyman is to be believed, John Wayne was really John Wayne. The actor known for playing strong, tough characters was a strong, tough character in real life, too. He loved making westerns because it allowed him to spend his days outdoors doing vigorous, physical things. For recreation, he liked nothing more than fishing for giant salmon off the coast of Vancouver in his 136-foot yacht, Wild Goose, a decommissioned Navy minesweeper. He enjoyed the company of manly men, such as frequent co-star Ward Bond and screenwriter James Edward Grant, and was never happier than when playing a game of poker outside a tent on location in Mexico. There was always a bottle of tequila on the table.

This is a panoramic and entertaining book. It brings the fast-fading world of classic Hollywood into sharp focus. If it has one flaw, it’s in the author’s clear disdain for his subject’s conservative politics. Wayne was involved in the blacklisting of Hollywood communists, Eyman believes, through his long association with the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization dedicated to turning back the efforts of “Communist, Fascist, and other totalitarian-minded groups to pervert this powerful medium into an instrument for the dissemination of un-American ideas and beliefs.” Furthermore, Wayne supported the Vietnam War. Eyman quotes a letter sent by Wayne to President Lyndon Johnson asking for help coordinating the filming of “The Green Berets”: “Let’s make sure it is the kind of picture that will help our cause throughout the world.” A red-hunting supporter of America’s Southeast Asian military misadventures? Nothing could be more grotesque to the modern liberal mind. But while it’s understandable that Eyman doesn’t share Wayne’s conservatism—not everyone does—it’s off-putting that the author is so desperate to let the reader know it. This is the mark of a snob.

Wayne’s politics can be summed up very simply: he loved America and he hated communism; he loved liberty and he hated dependency; he thought the movies were the best thing going and he didn’t want them turned into a left-wing propaganda tool. Yet, for all Eyman’s antipathy, and for all Wayne’s deeply held convictions, the book makes it plain that the star was a straight-shooter who refused to hold a co-worker’s creed, color, politics, or sexuality against him. “For Wayne,” according to Eyman, “personality always trumped politics; if he liked you, he was willing to overlook your ideology.” One doubts that this spirit is much in evidence in today’s film industry. Hollywood still has a lot to learn from yesterday.

Matthew Hennessey is an associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.



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