Written on the centenary of John Wayne's birth.
Marion Morrison would have been 100 years old today.
Two stories to start--one certainly apochryphal, one probably true.
Story one: George Stevens was directing The Greatest Story Ever Told and in one of the egregious examples of "stunt-casting" that mars that movie is John Wayne as "The Centurion." Wayne was dressed improbably in Roman armor, and when Jesus "commends his spirit" and the heavens open, Wayne had one line, looking at the cross--"Surely this was the Son of God!" They did a take and Stevens wasn't satisfied. "It needs more, John! This is Jesus and he's just died...I need more awe...can you put more awe in it, John?" Take two: Wayne looks up at the cross and says...."Awww, surely this was the Son of God!"
Story two: Ward Bond was a member of director John Ford's stock company of players (of whom Wayne was probably the most famous). He was in the great majority of Ford's movies playing many different roles. He was also, like Wayne and Walter Brennan, a vitriolic right-winger and anti-communist, who in the hey-day of the 50's red-scare would brow-beat members of cast and crew into signing loyalty oaths. A crew-member came up to Ford and complained bitterly about Bond's behavior. "Yeah!" Ford growled. "Bond's a son of a bitch, alright! But he's our son of a bitch." As in: "He's a jerk, but forgive him." As in "We've all got our faults." As in: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."
I love John Wayne. And I despise John Wayne. But I love John Wayne.Wayne had to work with players wise with their own tricks before the camera--the Clift's, the Brennan's, the O'Hara's, the Mitchum's and Douglas' and Holden's and Marvin's--or he'd walk all over them with a simple glare. All Wayne had to do to make his point was NOT look at an actor. Even sick and weak, Wayne in The Shootist had to be balanced with a cast top-heavy with strong actor-personas: Jimmy Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Richard Boone, Harry Morgan, Hugh O'Brian. They had to be--for Wayne's last film they were playing against Wayne and his legend. I'm completely unapologetic in saying that John Wayne was a master of his craft and the more I see of his work, the more I believe it.
I also think John Wayne was an immature man with a false sense of what being a man was: he was a bully, a bone-head, and a complete fake, espousing Great American Ideals, while holding to none of them personally. The actor who portrayed "America's Fighting Man" never joined the military, opting to stay out of World War II claiming marriage, and because he didn't want to go in "as a private" (and with most of Hollywood's leading men off to war, commission or no--it allowed a vacuum that Wayne was only too eager to fill--he feathered his nest very well during the war). John Wayne, American, was married three times and all three times his marriages were contentious, and rumored to be abusive. John Wayne, hero of the West, was never a rough and tumble cowboy, but a football player and actor who grew up in California, and lived a very privileged life. It was all a charade. But I love him in those movies, and I can't get enough. A John Wayne movie can even bring a tear to my eye.*
I love John Wayne. And I despise John Wayne.
Because Marion Morrison of Winterset, Iowa, born 100 years ago today, was a football player who worked on John Ford's crew and did the occasional line on-camera until Raoul Walsh picked him to star in The Big Trail and changed his name to "John Wayne". And though Marion Morrison appeared in many many films, his greatest role was as "John Wayne," actor and patriot--the persona that never really existed but was portrayed as if it did, an American Myth. And even that role I admire and wonder at--the performance of a lifetime--though the things said in that guise could be alarmingly knuckle-headed. God and Country, sure. But "the Indians shoulda got out the way...they were selfish," how retarded is that? Still, when the Harvard Lampoon invited him to accept their bogus "Brass Balls" award, Morrison went...as Wayne...and bowled them over with his, by-now, well-learned self-deprecating humor. It was a day to show up and not take anything too seriously. He got as many laughs as jeers from the Hah-vahd boys, and there's something great about that. "Brass Balls," indeed.when Carl Foreman, blacklisted writer-producer, came back from self-exile producing films in Europe, and encountered Morrison at a dinner party he was astonished when Wayne came over to his table and gushed and made a fuss over him in front of Foreman's kids...like they were old buddies. Effusive in his praise and admiration. By-gones. There's the rabble-rouser John Wayne who would carouse and whore on-set, but who won the admiration of that most judgemental of actresses, Katherine Hepburn. There's the Marion Morrison who got along famously with wildly liberal director Don Siegel (who would needle Wayne on The Shootist set by wearing a peace medallion) and send Siegel's mother in hospital fresh flowers every day. There's the Marion Morrison, who read black-listed author Marguerite Roberts' screenplay for True Grit and declared it "perfect." Marion Morrison had less bluster than "John Wayne" did. Gentlemanliness. Grace.
I encounter those stories more and more and marvel at them. And marvel at how Marion Morrison maintained "John Wayne" all those years. How he became greater...improbably greater...than himself in that persona. How he "sold" the myths and made you believe. There's real artistry there...beyond the screen roles....the complications embodied there in the one man. And wonder what's Myth and what's Truth. A little bit of both, as we all are. Just bigger. Broader. In gifts, and in failings.
And I go on contemplating that as I watch him stride across the screen in that walk that made him look like he was balancing on a ledge...or maybe a tight-rope. And I smile and admire him, despite everything else, say what you will about him.
But he's our son of a bitch.
Afterword: John Wayne died 30 years ago, and I have vivid memories of that. It was a Saturday, I was living in Longview, Washington working as a disc jockey and driving home from my shift when the news came over the radio. Death. Cancer. Long fight. I was so swept up in grief that I had to pull off to the side of the road and weep. I'd lost my father a couple years before and was probably sensitive to loss at the time. But this one, this time, was John Wayne. I had no connection to him other than his roles on-screen, although there was ample opportunity to have met him when he was in Seattle filming McQ** or come up to the Sound for one of his frequent fishin'-and-drinkin' sortee's...in a converted mine sweeper! The marina he tied up to is named in his honor.
He was ranked #1 by Quigley Publications' annual poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars, 19 times from 1949 to 1972. Only one other Hollywood actor has surpassed that popularity—Clint Eastwood at 21.
Wayne died of stomach cancer June 11, 1979.
His gravestone reads: "Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday."
In interviews, he favored "Feo, fuerte y formal." Spanish for "Ugly, Strong and Dignified."
* I'm not alone here. French director and French Nouveau critic Jean-Luc Godard hated everything about Wayne, but there's a moment in The Searchers that so moved Godard that it "filled him with love" for the actor.
** I did have conversations with an actor who'd worked with him on McQ, and got the usual: "Bigger than life," "Big man," "Gregarious, always laughing" and this..."He had tiny feet!"
Robert McGinnis painting of Wayne—"Ethan"