John Wayne: The Life and Legend
Simon & Schuster, 2014
I've always admired John Wayne's performance in the corrupt cop crime flick Brannigan (1975). It's not even close to his best movie, Wayne admitted that himself, but it demonstrates beautifully what made him great. Here he is in poor health, jumping into a new genre to juice up his image, and he owns it.
|Wayne and Diane Muldaur in McQ (1974)|
Everything about John Wayne was and is big. This is a man with an airport named after him, who elevated and became the face of the western and who was for many a symbol of America itself. Even people who don't care for the kind of film he made, or who loathe his unyielding conservative politics, loved and continue to love him. If he didn't dominate with his handsome face and 6'4" frame, his charm and determination took up the slack.
In his scrupulously detailed biography of Wayne, Scott Eyman unpeels the many layers of this simultaneously complex and straightforward legend. He captures every aspect of his life, from the personal to the blindingly public.
An impressive number of interviews with family, friends and co-workers lend an added richness to the better-known details of Wayne's life. These reminisces can be repetitive, you hear over and over about the screen cowboy's remarkable strength, temper and passion for playing, and sometimes cheating at, chess, but the overall effect is of establishing, and then reinforcing, the essence of the man.
|The young cowboy. With Marsha Hunt, 1937.|
Cranking out flicks six days a week was grueling. Wayne was making a living, but he was ambitious. A friendship with director John Ford led to his casting the young actor in Stagecoach (1939). That was all it took to make him a star in a genre he would continue to mold for an entire career. Wayne would be forever grateful to Ford for his belief in him. He would take abuse from the director with a nonchalance that stunned his co-stars and crew members, who were outraged on his behalf.
One of the most common claims made about Wayne is that he wasn't much of an actor, because he always played himself. Eyman concedes that the star did craft a persona which suited his values and reflected much of his true personality, but also shows how that was simply a starting point for a diverse group of characters. The real Wayne was rarely obscured by his roles, but he worked hard to craft distinct performances with a combination of skill, strong work ethic and an instinct for knowing what worked on the screen.
|The iconic cowboy. Rio Bravo (1959)|
Eyman packs his text full of stories of Wayne's daily life, giving a good feel for what it was like to be in his presence, something he actually managed himself before the actor's death. Some are elaborate, others just brief moments. He weaves these elements together well, crafting a portrait rather than just throwing together juicy tidbits.
You can see the way Wayne's persona remained the same in essence, but was subtly altered throughout the years, adapting to changes in his life and the world around him. He didn't always adapt well, but because he was sensitive to other people and their reactions to him, he never totally lacked self-awareness. It is this mixture of down-to-earth compassion and personal complexity that made him intriguing to his audience and is why he is admired to this day.
Many thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a copy of the book for review.