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.”