I often start arguments when I talk about John Wayne. He may have been one of the most popular actors in film history, as well as an American icon, but his reputation has shriveled in some corners. In my experience, film critics and film buffs tend to be a fairly liberal bunch -- exposed and open as they are to so many world cultures and ideas -- and so Wayne's famous conservative politics tend to curdle their view of him. (He supported the Vietnam War, for example.) For the record, I don't agree with his politics, but I miss "Duke" Wayne because he knew who he was. He reached a level of ease and confidence onscreen that seems all but impossible for any other actor to achieve today. There will never be another Duke.
The most common argument I hear against John Wayne is that "he was always just John Wayne." It's easy enough to ignore the politics while watching Duke onscreen, but it's much more difficult to argue that he was one of the great screen actors of the 20th century. He won an Oscar, in 1969, for True Grit, and was nominated once before, but his detractors will claim that it was an act of generosity for a long and successful career in the picture business. At least four of his films are considered among the 100 greatest films ever made (Stagecoach, The Searchers, Rio Bravo and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), though detractors would credit these achievements solely to directors John Ford and Howard Hawks.
I'll come back to this soon, but first I want to offer my concession that, starting with his film debut in 1926 and continuing throughout the 1930s, Wayne was quite a terrible actor. He suffered through nearly a hundred cheap "B" movies that are almost unbearable to watch today, driven by bad directors, bad dialogue and no budget. Many of them are widely available if you should care to try, but don't say I didn't warn you. (Likewise, he made his share of bad movies since then.) In 1930, Wayne was given his big break in a production with a massive budget and a good director, Raoul Walsh. The Big Trail tried an experiment in screen format; it was supposed to be a big wide, picture, the precursor to Cinemascope. But the film failed -- mainly because of the cost of the format -- and Wayne was sent back to the pits.
He put in his time, and he waited. While we wait with him, we'll go back to Iowa in 1907 where he was born "Marion Morrison." He moved with his parents to California and grew up on a ranch, riding horses and such. He had a dog named "Duke" and decided he liked that name for himself rather than "Marion," and I can't blame him. He apparently did well at school, but did better at football and went to USC on a scholarship (after being rejected from a naval academy). An injury ended his football career, but he landed a job in the prop department in exchange for football tickets. (Cowboy star Tom Mix was a fan.) From there, he simply got to know several key movie people, notably John Ford.
Cut to 1939, when Ford cast him as "The Ringo Kid" in Stagecoach. That film became a turning point for the Western, a more mature and intelligent reading of the genre. It made Wayne a star, especially thanks to his amazing first appearance in the film: a memorable zoom-in while he twirls and cocks a rifle. However, he didn't hit his stride until 1948. He had been part of ensembles in a few highly artistic Ford films, including The Long Voyage Home (1940), They Were Expendable (1945) and Fort Apache (1948), when Howard Hawks cast him as "Thomas Dunson" in Red River. The movie takes place over a number of years, and Wayne was required to age; he carries himself with organic wear and tear, and it's an outstanding performance. When Ford saw the film, he was said to have remarked: "I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act!"
The following year, as if in response, Ford cast Wayne as an even older character -- the retiring Captain Nathan Cutting Brittles -- in the cavalry film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Once again, Wayne stepped up and helped make it a masterpiece (it's the best of the cavalry trilogy, I think). Wayne received his first Oscar nomination that year, not for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but for the war film Sands of Iwo Jima (directed by Allan Dwan); the Academy always liked war films better than Westerns. That year, Wayne entered the list of the top ten box office stars of the year, and stayed on the list every single year until 1974 (except 1958).
The 1950s proved to be the pinnacle of his career. His films included Ford's Rio Grande (1950), Nicholas Ray's Flying Leathernecks (1951), Ford's The Quiet Man (1952), John Farrow's Hondo (1953), William Wellman's The High and the Mighty (1954), Ford's The Searchers (1956), Ford's The Wings of Eagles (1957), Josef von Sternberg's troubled, delayed Jet Pilot (1957), Ford's The Horse Soldiers (1959), Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959), and then Wayne made his directorial debut with The Alamo (1960), though Ford reportedly helped. The film was nominated for Best Picture, with Wayne as a producer.
Let's pause to look at The Searchers, which has risen in status since the 1960s and 1970s to rank as one of the ten greatest films ever made, mostly thanks to the enthusiasm of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader and George Lucas. It was a hit in 1956, but hardly anyone saw anything significant in it. It received no Oscar nominations, though Ford did receive a nomination from the DGA. Nowadays it seems impossibly rich with themes of family versus the individual, the wild versus civilization, and American Indian versus white culture. It's something of a flawed film, notably for Ford's weird attempts at humor in it, but after many viewings I have come to love these flaws as part of the makeup of an endlessly fascinating film. Certainly it stands up decade after decade, and it's tragic to imagine it without Wayne. (Check out this grumpy tirade against the movie, which proudly misses the point after a single viewing.)
My favorite era of Wayne movies starts with The Searchers. Wayne reached fifty years of age around then, and he had appeared in some 200 movies. He was surrounded by friends in the movie business and he seemed to feel secure. He relaxed onscreen and carried himself with confidence. He never tried to make important Oscar-mongering movies or stretch out as an actor to try different things. He was pigeonholed, and he liked it there; he made way more Westerns than any other genre. He perfected a kind of drawling, hesitating line delivery that probably wasn't too different from the way he spoke in real life. In essence, he could interpret any line in any screenplay by any writer and make it sound as if he had just made it up himself.
Rio Bravo is probably my absolute favorite Wayne picture. It takes a simple story about a small band of ragtag heroes who must try and protect the jail while a group of angry henchmen try to break out their boss, and then it stretches it out and turns it into a meditation on these things. It's all about the waiting, but the waiting is so relaxed and languid that it hardly seems like an action picture (it is, though; it has some terrific gunfights). Wayne is the center of this, commenting matter-of-factly on events without panic or stress. His Sheriff John T. Chance has gone through this type of thing before, you see. He's experienced and trustworthy, and you can't help but be drawn to him, and put your faith in him.
Throughout his remaining years, there was Ford's great The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance -- which also turned the Western on its side -- as well as Hawks' summery African adventure film Hatari! (both 1962). There was also his last film with Ford, the sunny, bawdy Donovan's Reef (1963), Otto Preminger's war epic In Harm's Way (1965), Hawks' wonderful El Dorado (1967), Wayne's own notorious, troublesome The Green Berets (1968), the Oscar-winner True Grit (1969), and his last film with Hawks, Rio Lobo (1970).
There were many movies in-between, most of them a little lethargic and enjoyable lying-on-the-couch time-wasters. But Wayne wrapped up his career with one of the greatest swan songs an actor could possibly want: Don Siegel's The Shootist (1976). In real life Wayne had contracted cancer -- possibly while shooting The Conqueror in 1955 near a nuclear test site -- and here he played an aging gunfighter also dying of cancer. He tries to check into a little hotel and plan his funeral, but he must deal with several upstarts who wish to gain fame by killing him. It's a lean, unsentimental film, and a worthy tribute to the legend. This makes a list of at least eight masterpieces -- or twelve, according to They Shoot Pictures -- which is arguably more than any actor alive today could boast.
Thus it's time to bring out my "sliding scale" argument. In the history of film, film artists -- including directors as well as writers, actors, etc. -- have been more celebrated for diversity than for depth. Marlon Brando is considered a superior actor to John Wayne because he has more range. He can play a wider spectrum of parts. Wayne could never play all the different cultures, time periods, histories and accents that Brando embodied over the years. But conversely, Brando could never, ever play a role as distinctly as Wayne played it. The Searchers would have been an entirely different, and considerably weaker, film if Brando had played Ethan Edwards. All of Wayne's personal screen history would have been gone; Brando would have had to start fresh with the role, like an amateur.
Consider, just for a second, that "he was always just John Wayne" is not a bad thing but a good thing. Consider that playing the same type of role again and again brought greater depth and understanding and ease to that role. Similarly, James Gandolfini played Tony Soprano for approximately 80 hours -- or the equivalent of 40 feature films -- and look what he came up with; no one would ever disparage him for "always being Tony Soprano." Consider also that Charlie Chaplin also played not only a similar role, but actually the same role, for almost his entire career (except for his last four talking pictures). Would anyone take away Chaplin's skill as an actor for that paltry reason alone?
What if we change the idea that an actor with range is superior to an actor with depth? What if we change it to a sliding scale upon which an actor with range is on one side, and an actor with depth is on the other side, so that they're equal in stature, and with different skills? Sort of like comparing a great piano player to a great guitar player. Actors like Wayne require a bit more work on the part of writers and historians, since we have to assess many films at once rather than just one at a time. But thankfully these actors are usually very well documented. They have plenty of fans, simply because paying customers know what they're going to get for their money. (Lately Hollywood has shied away from stars and moved more toward franchises, which accomplishes essentially the same thing, but with less personality.)
Perhaps this fandom is enough to drive critics away from Wayne's work; if he's so popular, he couldn't possibly be good, goes the general line of reasoning. Additionally, I have actually heard the argument "I don't like Westerns." I usually ask these people which ones they have seen, and their response is usually, "none." To which I can only respond, "don't knock 'em if you haven't tried 'em."
So, yes, I miss John Wayne. I miss that sleepy drawl. I miss the fact that he was so comfortable, an accusation that Wayne once reacted to with incredulity in Rio Lobo: "I've been called a lot of things, but not comfortable"! But mostly I miss the fact that he so confidently accepted who he was and never strove to be anything he wasn't. And through this confidence and acceptance, he rose to greatness, without even trying.