Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book: John Wayne: The Life and Legend, by Scott Eyman (2014)

At the heart of this mammoth biography lies a simple piece of psychology that explains what may be the greatest career in movie history. John Wayne, born Marion Morrison, insisted that everybody call him Duke for a reason. Here’s the man himself making the point:

“I know (John Wayne) well. I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.”

And here’s Scott Eyman’s version: “In Wayne’s own mind, he was Duke Morrison. John Wayne was to him what the Tramp was to Charlie Chaplin – a character that overlapped his own personality, but not to the point of subsuming it.”

That tension animates Eyman’s opus, almost elevating it to the level of case study. Duke wasn’t merely a nickname, it was a boundary. Or, in the Duke’s parlance, a frontier. He was forever conscious of crossing it, and patrolled it rigorously. It chafed when other actors didn’t do likewise; he was disturbed by Robert Montgomery’s acclaimed turn as a killer in Night Must Fall (1937), feeling Montgomery betrayed the audience’s trust, and told Kirk Douglas (who goaded Wayne by insisting on calling him “John”) after a screening of Lust for Life, “We got to play strong, tough characters. Not these weak queers.” But like a veteran scout Duke knew every inch of that frontier’s terrain, sensing where the shadows were darkest and tapping into them to enrich performances like Red River and The Searchers. (If only he’d taken that offer to co-star with Clint Eastwood in a western written by my hero Larry Cohen.)

This constant tending to his alter ego led to a lot of lousy movies, and Eyman watched them all. (He even made it the end of both The Alamo and The Green Berets.) He pays particular attention to the run of middling Poverty Row oaters Wayne made following the failure of 1930’s The Big Trail, those low-budget years honing his chops, forging his persona – and building an audience in what’s now dismissed as flyover country. His return to prominence in John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach surprised only the critical establishment; as Eyman notes, “Wayne may not have been a star in New York, but he was assuredly a star in Waco and Rockville and Atlanta.” Ron Howard, who appeared in Wayne’s final film The Shootist, said the actor “respected the fact that I had come out of TV. Early on, he said to me, ‘I came out of cheap westerns, and that was the TV of our time.’ He liked the unpretentious work ethic of television, where you have to finish it by Friday.”

Wayne is still remembered and even caricatured for his conservative politics. As he did with his previous book on Cecil B. DeMille, Eyman humanizes an imposing, almost monolithic figure without pulling punches. Wayne was a member of the John Birch Society (although he didn’t buy their fears about fluoridation and the “horseshit” charge Ike was a Red) who uttered cringe-worthy comments about race in a notorious 1971 Playboy interview. But the same man who offered that unwanted advice to Kirk Douglas also said of Rock Hudson’s sexual orientation, “It never bothered me. Life’s too short. Who the hell cares if he’s queer? The man plays great chess.” His Rooster Cogburn co-star Katherine Hepburn had the poor-boy-made-good’s number when she said, “He suffers from a point of view based entirely on his own experience.”

Duke Morrison was generous and loyal to a fault, famously democratic to cast and crew. He relished debate while respecting others’ opinions. Before work started on In Harm’s Way, Otto Preminger told Wayne anyone over thirty has their mind made up about politics and suggested they not try to convert each other. Wayne happily agreed, and the director found him “the most cooperative actor.” Eyman spends considerable time on a series of elegiac commercials Wayne made at the end of his career with the staunchly liberal Haskell Wexler – the man made Medium Cool, for Christ’s sake – recounting how some retrograde views the actor voiced early in production upset a female crew member. Wayne was crushed to have hurt her feelings and eventually won her over; decades later she calls him “a charming chauvinist” while Wexler dubs him “a principled reactionary.” French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier tweaks his leftist friends by praising Wayne over the more politically simpatico Marlon Brando, saying Wayne was the more intelligent film actor and while Brando at his apex “specialized in terrible movies and ridiculous accents,” Wayne used his power to make the best work of his career.

Much of Wayne’s legacy is based on the films he made with John Ford, and Eyman digs deep into the truly perverse collaboration between the actor and the director he called “Coach.” Ford regularly humiliated the actor in front of the company, even after they’d worked together for decades, and Wayne gamely took it. But the results of that tortured relationship played out on TCM all of last week. You may disagree with John Wayne’s views, but by the end of Eyman’s book you’ll like Duke Morrison. (Ward Bond, on the other hand? Total shitheel.)

In 1970, Wayne produced and hosted a TV special called Swing Out, Sweet Land. Eyman calls this vaudeville-style history of America “a time capsule of a special kind of show business hell.” With Dean Martin as Eli Whitney, and the Doodletown Pipers singing the entire Declaration of Independence. Naturally, the whole thing’s on YouTube.