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John Wayne (1907 - 1979)


John Wayne, one of the cinema's greatest stars, was also one of the cinema's greatest problems. His image as an icon of American individualism and the frontier spirit has overshadowed his career to such an extent that it is almost impossible for viewers and writers to separate Wayne the legend from Wayne the actor and Wayne the man.

Born Marion Michael Morrison, in Winterset, Iowa, he played football for USC and held several behind-the-scenes jobs at Fox before moving in front of the cameras in the late 1920s in a series of bit roles. Director John Ford, who had befriended "Duke" Wayne, recommended him for the lead in Raoul Walsh's 1930 western epic, The Big Trail. But stardom did not materialize and Wayne spent the rest of the decade slogging through a series of low-budget oaters whose meager budgets and rapid shooting schedules did little to sharpen his acting skills. Still, even in the unsophisticated world of the Poverty Row studios, his easygoing authority and physical presence could command attention.

John Ford gave Wayne another career break in 1939 by casting him as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, thus rescuing the actor from a life in serials and cheap action pictures. The role propelled Wayne into the top ranks of box-office stars and during the 1940s his legend began to take shape. Excused from military service because of physical ailments, Wayne became the film industry's exemplar of the hard-bitten, decisive soldier who could be compassionate when necessary. Wartime releases such as Flying Tigers (1942), The Fighting Seabees (1944) and Back to Bataan (1945) placed Wayne squarely in the larger-than-life, heroic mold.

But it was the movies he made at the end of the decade that established him as an actor of merit, something more than just a star of tremendous stature. Howard Hawks emphasized the willful side of Wayne's screen persona, taking it to extremes in Red River (1948). As the inflexible Tom Dunson, Wayne was able to eschew mock heroics and concentrate on the psychology of a man obsessed. Giving an uncompromisingly hard-edged performance, Wayne created a difficult, unlikable, yet compelling character. Two other John Ford films from the period gave Wayne the opportunity for greater depth Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) — the latter a particularly moving portrait of a man and an era reaching a turning point.

For most of the 1950s and 60s Wayne ambled through a number of mediocre pictures, standard westerns and action movies made watchable, and financially successful, because of his participation. When the script was poor and the role ill-considered, the results could be disatrous: witness The Conqueror (1956), which featured the unfortunate Duke as Genghis Khan. But with a carefully tailored part and a director at the top of his form, Wayne always rose to the occasion — Rio Bravo (1959) for Hawks, and The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) for Ford. The Searchers, now considered by many to be Ford's greatest picture, also features Wayne's best performance, perhaps because in the driven character of Ethan Edwards viewers can negotiate their private terms with Wayne the man, super patriot and defender of the conservative faith. Ethan is a grotesque figure, the essence of patriarchy, a victim of his personal prejudices and blinded by an extremist code. But at the same time his skill and tenacity are admirable. Finally, one must feel compassion for him, realizing that he will never be integrated into the mainstream, will never be thought of in terms of human scale. Understanding the character of Ethan helps demystify Wayne the icon.

Although he won the 1969 Best Actor Oscar for True Grit, a light-hearted if not particularly impressive performance, Wayne's best role in his last decade on screen was also his last. In The Shootist (1976) he played a dying gunman who is just beginning to understand his own life and legend. It was the perfect elegy for Wayne, who was himself dying of cancer, and a role which he invested with a touching simplicity and directness — the hallmarks of both his acting career and personal popularity.