John Wayne did not like 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, 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 as 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,” he 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 to undo, if that ever could be done. 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 the Second World War) – can diminish the icon’s stature.
Although Wayne may be dead these 35 years and the cowboy movie a relic of the century he so commandingly bestrode, you say the name now and people have an idea 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 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 convey upon the particular figures within them – although none perhaps as indelibly as the man who was born Marion Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, in May, 1907 – a kind of semiotic potency that transcends not only the actor but the roles and the movies.
Wayne’s long career, which sprawled from the 1920s to the 1970s, began to acquire its monolithic shape after director John Ford cast him as the Ringo Kid in 1939’s Stagecoach (following a 10-year period when Wayne thrashed through a wilderness of western cheapies). The actor came to represent America distilled to a fantasy of determined, and sometimes belligerent, masculinity. He may not have been perfect, and it is to Eyman’s credit that he restores to the Wayne persona its considerable ambiguity and internal contradictions, reminding us just how difficult it was for John Wayne to be John Wayne.
If the actor endured often horrendous humiliation meted under the brilliant but cruel and demanding father-figure Ford (who directed him to his greatest performance in The Searchers), and if Wayne grew increasingly determined to chart his own career as a producer and director, it’s because he felt no one understood his contract with the public as clearly he did. If a script had too many words, he’d trim them, because he knew that the less said by John Wayne, the more authentically John Wayne the script was.
In one of the book’s many revealing passages, he erupts in a screening room when he sees how Don Seigel, who directed his elegiac final fadeout The Shootist, had cut in a scene in which a double for the actor shoots a man in the back. “Wait a goddamn minute!” Wayne roared. “I’ve never shot anybody in the back and I’m not going to start now.” The scene was redone.
In the 1960s, a period that saw the merciless revision of the western, Wayne was derided for precisely what Eyman insists was his greatest and most subtle strength: his phenomenal instincts as a screen actor, someone who innately understood the way the camera registers the least of gestures – a furrowed brow, a walk, the pause between words – as drama itself.
Here’s Eyman on the impact of the actor’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 America 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, he argues, Wayne was among the 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 simply be.