Today’s topic: the controversial icon. I’ve known the name ‘John Wayne’ since I was a little child. It made me feel safe, it made feel right at home. That familiar face, those reassuring blue eyes, and that walk. He would come up on screen and it was celebration time for me and the entire family. An old friend. That’s who John Wayne is to me. Because let’s face it, maybe not my generation, but anybody who’s lived through the 50s, 60s or 70s must remember what it felt like when the big man hit the theaters. Of course, a lot of people think of him as the racist, homophobic, over-the-top republican washed up Hollywood actor. Yet, there must be a reason why he’s still famous and remembered by millions as “The Duke”.
Go ahead, complain about how every movie of his was about cowboys shooting Indians, cowboys taking over the prairie, cowboys killing buffalos. I won’t argue. But there is a lot more to who he really was than just that first impression. Wayne (with an acting career that spread well over 50 years), in fact, was an inspiration to such future celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Roger Moore, Martin Scorsese and Michael Caine. He was great friends with Dean Martin, Bob Hope, Walter Brennan and James Stewart. He was revolutionary in the way he brought the Western genre to the big screen time after time and still managed to be a box office hit. However, Wayne was and still is misunderstood by the public. Seen as the ‘macho’ type, the one who always comes fists first, words later. The kind of character who punches someone and then asks the questions. A very common mistake committed by Hollywood, that still applies to today’s situation. John Wayne was type casted in the last twenty years of his career. He would be hired to make B-movies where he knocked the guy’s teeth out, or rammed through a door with his powerful kick. But as Wayne said many times: “The guy you see on the screen isn’t really me. I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one if his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.”
In fact, many people don’t know this or refuse to believe it, but John Wayne’s walk was invented by the actor. Like the greatest performances we see on screen by actors like Daniel-Day Lewis, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, Wayne would undergo tough, compelling changes in the way he behaved and talked. The famous walk was invented and built in its entirety by the actor himself. He wanted some of his characters to have a past, dark motivations, scarred memories. He wished to push the character development as far as possible, to the extreme edge. And look how he fooled whole generations of viewers, letting them believe that it was all part of his true self. The slurred speech, the funny look, the way he reached for his rifle, Wayne had it all under control and all hidden under a great actor’s mask. A hidden identity.
Of course, he also had a bad reputation amongst other Hollywood stars and well known directors; he would argue like a madman with frequent collaborator, the legendary John Ford (director of Stagecoach, Rio Grande, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), up to the point where the two would start cursing at each other and one of them would walk off set. During the shooting of Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948), Wayne and actor-friend Walter Brennan would fight with co-star newcomer Montgomery Clift over political ideas; Brennan and Wayne were hardened Republicans while Clift was a convinced Democrat. Clift, after the movie got released, said he’d never work with the two again, especially with John Wayne. The Duke was famous for his heavy drinking and chain smoking that eventually led to his death in 1979. He was also a strong supporter of the Hollywood Blacklisting, convinced that “un-american Americans need to stay out of here”.
So what is there to admire? Wayne’s passion and love for what he did. He loved acting, he loved people and he loved life. He loved simplicity and when we watch him act out his lines we see honesty and truth in the way he delivers them. Want to see an unusual, subtle performance by the tough guy who breaks people’s noses? Watch The Quiet Man (1952) and notice the transformation. For me, it will always be the 1959 Western, Rio Bravo (one of Tarantino’s favorites). The way Dean Martin’s character introduces the big man, Sheriff John T. Chance. His confident walk, his posture and warm look. A familiar face in a saloon full of bandits and drunks. There would always be hope when he appeared on the big screen. His presence would and still does, make everything seem better. He can be the bad guy, the asshole, the hardened Sergeant, but he will always have a positive impact on how we view the picture. And I’ll never forget when Bruce Dern’s character in The Cowboys murdered John Wayne in cold blood. The tears I cried when I was a kid watching that scene. The many nightmares I’ve had since seeing that final bloody shootout. How could a nobody just go ahead and kill the man who’s never been killed before? How could someone put a deadly bullet into the back of a legend? I couldn’t comprehend and to this day I don’t have the courage to watch that scene in its entirety. It takes guts to kill John Wayne.
What’s my point? Perhaps I’m just talking to myself, perhaps I just want to remind myself of some childhood memories or perhaps I just like to brag about some of the forgotten idols. Whatever it is, I like to think that Wayne is and always will be appreciated for his presence, his warm smile and the fact that John Ford admitted that “Wayne will be the biggest star of all time”. Don’t let the controversies fool you, because we all live in a world that’s built on controversies. That’s no news.
The Duke will always be The Duke.