Has any actor ever dominated American cinema more completely than John Wayne? For more than four decades and 162 feature films, he filled the screen and our cultural fantasies. For 25 of 26 years, from 1949 through 1974, he was one of the top 10 box office stars, and 35 years after his death from cancer at 72, he still makes the list of top five all-time favorite actors. Along the way he became a symbol of American masculinity — the emphatic authority figure defending our values with fists and guns — “an innocent man in primary colors,” in the words of Scott Eyman’s entertaining new biography.
But what’s most striking about Eyman’s thorough and sympathetic portrait is the cloud of sadness and regret that hangs over its seemingly unconquerable protagonist. Wayne emerges as a restless, melancholy figure, always struggling for more respect from his critics, more time with his family, more money and better health.
He was born Marion Morrison in Iowa in 1907, but his parents moved him and his younger brother to Southern California seven years later in a vain search for prosperity. It was a bitterly divided household where money was scarce, with an affectionate but feckless father and a chilly, hypercritical mother who withheld affection from her oldest son throughout his life. His most cherished mentor, the great film director John Ford, whom he met after dropping out of the University of Southern California with a shoulder injury that cost him a football scholarship, constantly mocked and derided him, even after Wayne’s fame and fortune far outstripped Ford’s own.
For all his extraordinary success, it was Wayne’s failures that haunted him, in Eyman’s account. The devoted family man crashed through three marriages and reaped troubled relationships with several of his seven children. The self-styled super-patriot felt shame and guilt for dodging military service during World War II. The box office champion never felt financially secure because of bad business deals and unfaithful friends, and felt compelled to keep on working even as his health faded and his appeal diminished. Although beloved and admired by millions, Eyman writes, “he always seemed surprised and pleased by praise, perhaps because he received so little of it for so long.”
We all think we know John Wayne, in part because he seemed to be playing himself in movie after movie. Yet as Eyman carefully lays out, “John Wayne” was an invention, a persona created layer by layer by an ambitious young actor. Wayne did not write his parts, but he invented the character who played them.
“That guy you see on the screen isn’t really me,” Wayne once said. “I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.”
For many of us, our image of Wayne was forged in the 1960s and early ’70s, when he too often seemed a lumbering, overweight, toupee-wearing self-parody spouting simplistic, right-wing views and playing the same role over and over in largely second-rate Westerns. But before he became John Wayne Inc., Wayne was an actor of unusual authority who created a character of rough-hewn charisma, vulnerability and physical menace. Intuitively but brilliantly, the self-reliant character he created was the cinematic successor to a range of American frontier heroes, real and imaginary, stretching back to Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and James Fenimore Cooper’s Hawkeye. Or as Eyman puts it, “He came to embody a sort of race memory of Manifest Destiny, the nineteenth century as it should have been.”
Eyman narrates the familiar story of Wayne’s early days of grinding B Westerns for second-rate “Poverty Row” film studios such as Monogram Pictures and Republic Productions, all the while building his unique film persona. His brilliance was in understanding that movies, with their close-ups, were creating a new intimacy between actor and audience and a demand for authenticity. Modeling himself after men he admired like Western star Harry Carey Jr., character actor Paul Fix and stuntman Yakima Canutt, Wayne built his own character. The pigeon-toed walk, the hesitant vocal delivery, the slow-burning smile when angry — all became his acquired traits.
Ford saw his potential and eventually cast him in his breakthrough role as the Ringo Kid in “Stagecoach” (1939), liberating Wayne after nearly a decade of low-paying B Westerns. A bitter, lifelong alcoholic, Ford continued to verbally abuse Wayne throughout their long partnership. But he also came to recognize Wayne’s greatness. “Ford looked at Duke Morrison and saw John Wayne,” Eyman writes, “a capacity for strength and violence that coexisted with a dangerous beauty.”
Eyman recounts those successes and the building of the Wayne star machine, then moves on to his more ambitious failures. The worst was Wayne’s decade-long effort to make “The Alamo” (1960), an epic film that summed up his belief in the American character. Sadly the end result was too long, too preachy and — unusual for Wayne — too wordy. It ultimately cost him $2 million of his own money. “Everybody made money from it but me,” he would complain.
The other debacle was “The Green Berets” (1968), a piece of pro-Vietnam War propaganda that did well at the box office but permanently alienated a generation of young people who had little use for Wayne’s particular blend of piety and patriotism. (It’s fair to note that he had little use for them, either.)
When the great directors like Ford and Howard Hawks passed from the scene, Wayne increasingly took to micro-managing his films, overwhelming his directors and implicitly demanding “that his parts be modeled on the man he had become.” It wasn’t a pretty sight: He smoked up to six packs of cigarettes a day, consumed heroic amounts of food and drink, and became increasingly impatient and demanding of those around him. When he was home and not working, he would rise at dawn, then start waking up family members because he didn’t like to be alone. After cancer surgery that cost him part of a lung, he wheezed and lumbered his way through countless second-rate Westerns while turning down meatier roles like “Dirty Harry” that didn’t fit his self-image. And he began to mistake himself for the fictional character he had created.
Still, there were times when he knew who he really was — and wasn’t. When first told he had lung cancer, he recalled, “I sat there, trying to be John Wayne.”
Something terribly sad about that.
Glenn Frankel is author of “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend.”