Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Favorite Actors, #3: John Wayne

First Movie I Saw Him In: I don’t know; the Duke’s always been around. The Alamo (1960) comes to mind, though I know that's not it.

Three Favorite Movies: The Searchers (1956); El Dorado (1967); The Shootist (1976)

Honorable Mention: Rio Grande (1950)

Favorite Performance: The Searchers (1956)

Why I Like Him: You either love him or you don’t. It’s that simple. Now that that’s out of the way…

This is the toughest entry because I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t watching a John Wayne movie. But the Duke was a simple, direct man so my admiration for his movies should make for a simple entry. Early on, I probably tuned in because parents or grandparents were watching, so his presence in my movie-viewing life goes way back. Before I even knew about movie stars or movie genres, I was watching John Wayne. You couldn’t get me to sit still for a Cary Grant movie, but if it was a western and John Wayne was in it, I was there. John Wayne was the first “action hero” I can recall and he’s the only movie star who became a genre unto himself. His continued popularity is amazing. Wayne was such a force of nature that when the Western was in decline in the early 1970s, he was the only major star making them—his westerns continued to earn money at the box office. I remember trips to a video store—not a rental store, but where all videos are for sale—and John Wayne had his own section! He remains the most-popular movie star ever and was a top ten attraction for twenty-five years. His appeal is primarily to men, for his no-nonsense, rugged individualism, and his penchant for kicking ass, though not in that order. If there are any female John Wayne fans reading this, please comment! I refuse to believe that his popularity lies squarely in the realm of macho.

I honestly can’t describe all my reasons for liking John Wayne.; his movies are “comforting.” I also enjoy the stock company of actors he often appeared with, whether it is in his films with director John Ford or later on when Duke was a producer of his own films. He is and will always be a vastly underrated performer, despite all of his career accomplishments and popularity. One thing that gets me angry is when people parrot what Wayne’s critics say or things people they know say about Wayne: “He can’t act; he’s the same character in every movie.” Give his movies a try and you’ll see an excellent screen actor who excelled at comedy, both with wild slapstick as well as the subtler humor of his more serious pictures. Of course, it was always within the John Wayne screen character, but you could make that same claim against 99% of all actors throughout film history. And face it: any actor who John Ford sees fit to cast in his greatest films has to have considerable ability. John Ford didn't suffer anyone gladly, least of all someone who could be dismissed as not being able to act! And if Wayne couldn't act, then he's still the greatest actor of all time, because he fooled the world all of those years he was top of the heap. And Wayne continues to bamboozle the masses thirty years after his death. Hey, that John Wayne was good! The bottom line about movie stars is that their success is measured in how well that performer can work within his or her definitions and Wayne is no exception. In fact, he’s the rule. It’s an argument I’ll not continue here; the man's polarizing enough without me having to defend his very ability!

A couple things that keep John Wayne from being my all-time favorite actor is that he didn’t do romantic comedies and he was rarely in movies set in contemporary times. I’d love to have seen the Duke as a Frank Capra everyman; he would have been great in such a role. Wayne was wonderful in what he did; too bad he didn't do some different things outside of war and western movies. Of course, he may have had a few more box-office flops…but it’d be interesting to see.

Random Thoughts: The greatest Wayne quote comes from The Shootist:

“I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a-hand on. I don’t do these things to other people and I require the same from them.”


  1. Count me as a huge Duke fan as well. A number of great performances to choose from. I would go with either The Searchers, Rio Bravo, or Red River. I love the story always told about John Ford having seen the Duke in Red River and saying, "I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!"

    My favorite Wayne movie is quite easily Rio Bravo, but the other two I mentioned are right behind it. After thinking a little bit, I think I would probably agree with you that The Searchers is likely his single greatest performance and I'm due to re-watch that film sometime in the near future.

  2. Yeah, you either love him or don't. Well, I don't, far from it. Funny, that yesterday, when I was reflecting on Cary Grant being the 4th in your 10 Favorite Actors List, C.K., I thought, "Definitely John Wayne must be somewhere among the front-runners." And guess what? He was! (Because it would seem a strange coincidence, if all your 10 faves were those that I like, too.) Well, I wish the remaining two would be Bogie and Jimmy Stewart. Or Gregory Peck (wishful thinking) and Henry Fonda. Or Bill Holden and Ty Power (most improbable). Or any combination of those six. That would be a relief (only ONE my un-fave making your list). You should run a betting parlor. I bet Marlon Brando and Clark Gable taking the 1st and 2nd place.

  3. I esp. like Wayne in the Quiet Man. In some scenes he seems to have the voice and mannerisms of my husband. Hmm....
    Sincerely, A female perspective

  4. I'm female, and I have always loved John Wayne. Like you, I can't ever remember a time when I wasn't watching one of his movie, and many of your reasons for liking him are also mine. Watching his westerns are some of my earliest film memories. But my family watched mostly action movies growing up. Westerns and war movies were the primary staple, so naturally, John Wayne was always on.

    Big Jake is still my favorite of his, but there's so many good ones.

  5. Dave: That's about as close to a compliment as Ford ever gave! LOL

    drug-detei: I'm convinced that anyone who claims to dislike John Wayne will eventually "come around"; hope you will, too. :)

    Viridian: One thing about Wayne I wanted to include, but didn't, was his tender way with women; many times when he's not spanking them, he's quite comforting and sympathetic. Watch him console the half-caste girl in "Donovan's Reef." And yes, "The Quiet Man" has a fine scene with Maureen O'Hara--when he's not spanking *her*, too!

    Deb: I had you in mind when I made my request for female input.

    BTW, I'm enjoying my copy of "In Harm's Way"; how 'bout you?

  6. Watching The Searchers really changed my perspective on John Wayne. I had thought that he was only capable of playing the same old cowboy role but I'm glad I was wrong. He was also excellent in Stagecoach.

  7. People frequently say that John Wayne always played John Wayne, but couldn't the same be said of Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine and a host of others that have won awards? John Wayne is probably my #1.

  8. Just a fantastic actor!

  9. If you want to see him do romantic comedy, look out for a Sam Katzman cheapie called His Private Secretary. It's an easy to find public domain DVD in this country at least... Not exactly what you'd call good, but one of the most fascinating damned things you ever saw!

  10. C.K., I figured Wayne would be one of the remaining top 3. It took me a long time to warm up to him as an actor. Maybe it was because of all those Westerns (never my favorite genre, although I've recently come to appreciate it more and more as perhaps the quintessential American genre), his macho image, or his outspoken political conservatism (before I learned it's pointless to confuse the actor with his politics unless they interfere with his craft). It was probably his performance as the Ringo Kid in Ford's "Stagecoach" that made me start to take him more seriously. Even when he played a bastard ("Red River," "The Searchers"), he still retained some warmth at the core of his iciness. One of my very favorite Wayne performances is in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." For Wayne in a contemporary role in a romantic comedy, try "Without Reservations" (1946), directed by Mervyn LeRoy and co-starring Claudette Colbert. I also saw him in Hawks's "Hatari!" not too long ago and thought both he and the movie were quite good.

  11. Female perspective-- I like his films. Donovan's Reef was one of the very first classic films I ever saw, and Without Reservations is one of my favorite movies. But I am a little biased, because he looks exactly like my grandfather who died when I was 10, and watching The Duke is like watching my grandfather-- so I can't say every female would enjoy his films as much as I do :)

    btw, my cat (female actually) is nicknamed "The Duke" because, I swear, she has his same sort of stride. It's so funny!

    Gosh, this count down is so neat-- I am so interested to see who #2 and #1 are!!

  12. No romantic comedies? The Quiet Man, Donovan's Reef, North to Alaska and McLintock! all qualify as romantic comedies.

    As to why I love him? His are the first movies I can remember seeing, he was larger than life, he was a patriot. But most of all I love him because he has always put me in mind of my Daddy - the look similar enough to have been brothers and they shared many of the same mannerisms. What girl or woman could resist loving a man who is just like her first hero, her Daddy?


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