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On Scott Eyman’s ‘John Wayne: The Life and Legend’

Note: This originally ran in The Globe and Mail.

Not even John Wayne liked being called John Wayne. If you knew him well enough and he liked you, you called him Duke or Duke Morrison, or maybe Mr. Morrison. But you never called him John Wayne because that’s a character he played. As he once said, “I’ve played the kind of man I’d like to have been.”

As Scott Eyman makes plain in his new biography called John Wayne: The Life and Legend, the man who played John Wayne never stopped minding the gap between who he was and what he represented to so many people around the world — an idealized but conflicted embodiment of Americanism usually outfitted in cowboy hero drag — and he respected it. That’s why he never confused one with the other. He was as aware of anyone of how hard it would be to really be John Wayne, and he could live with it because he never tried. “The guy you see on the screen isn’t really me,” Wayne once said. “I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne.”

“The actor became his own genre,” Eyman writes in the book’s epilogue, and it was a process that took decades to complete and could only take many more, if it could ever be done, to undo. And it says something about the power of that one-man genre that no amount of personal detail about the actor — that he came from a nearly impoverished background, that he guarded his image like Davy Crockett at the ramparts of the Alamo, that he felt like a failure as both a father and a patriot (for not serving in WWII) — can diminish the icon’s stature. Although Wayne may be dead these thirty-five years and the cowboy movie a relic of the century he so commandingly bestrode, you say the name now and people have an idea, an probably a pretty clear one, of a number of things: a man, an idea, an ideal, a country, an attitude, a genre. A ‘John Wayne movie’ refers at once to a series of particular titles — Stagecoach, Red River, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Shootist — and a collective narrative in itself. A genre.
Perhaps the most remarkable and insightful thing about Eyman’s biography is that it never loses sight of what Wayne himself kept in his sights: that John Wayne was a construction, and that movies conveyed upon particular figures within them, though none perhaps as indelibly as the man who was born Marion Morrison in Winterset, Iowa in 1907, a kind of semiotic potency that transcended not only the actor but the roles they played and the movies they played them in.

In the course of his long career, which sprawled from the 1920s to the 1970s, and which only began to acquire its monolithic shape after the director John Ford cast Morrison as the Ringo Kid in 1939’s Stagecoach — following a ten year period where Wayne thrashed through the wilderness of poverty-row western cheapies — Wayne came to represent America distilled to a fantasy of determined and sometimes obstinately belligerent masculinity. He may not have been perfect, and it’s to Eyman’s considerable credit that he restores to the Wayne persona its considerable ambiguity and internal contradictions, that he reminds us just how difficult being John Wayne so often was to John Wayne.

If the actor endured the often horrendous humiliation meted out toward him by the brilliant but cruel and demanding father-figure Ford — who directed him to his greatest performance in The Searchers — and if he grew increasingly determined to navigate his own career as a producer and director, it’s because Wayne felt no one understood the terms of his contract with the public quite as clearly as Wayne himself. If a script had too many words, he’d cut them back because he knew the less said by John Wayne the more authentically John Wayne the script was. In one of the book’s many revealing passages, Wayne erupts in a screening room when he sees how the filmmaker Don Seigel (who directed Wayne’s elegaic final fadeout The Shootist) has cut in a scene where a double for the actor shoots a man in the back. “Wait a goddamn minute!” Wayne roared when he saw it. “I’ve never shot anybody in the back and I’m not going to start now.” The scene was re-shot.

It was a common means of tarnishing the icon during the 1960s — a period that not only saw the western mercilessly ‘revised’ but Wayne widely re-cast as the anachronistic embodiment of narrow-minded conservative bigotry — by deriding Wayne for precisely what Eyman insists was the actor’s greatest and most subtle strength: his phenomenal instincts as a screen actor, which is to say someone who so innately understood the way the camera registers the least of gestures — a furrowed brow, a walk, not so much words as the pauses between them — as drama itself.
Here’s Eyman on the impact of Wayne’s “annunciation” as a star playing the Kid in Stagecoach: “Wayne became more than a star for his time; rather he became indivisibly associated with American itself, even if it was an America that was dead by the time he was born, and he was personifying a folklore easier to locate in the nineteenth century than the twentieth.”

In this sense, Eyman argues, Wayne was among the very greatest of screen actors, a guy who understood that sometimes all it took to become a character, even a character as imposing and indelible as John Wayne, was to just be.