The Syncopated Ladies are a tap-dancing group based in Los Angeles, headed up by Chloe Arnold (she and her sister Maud were both featured in the wonderful documentary Tap World). They have a Facebook group where you can see their latest videos.
Here is their tap-dancing tribute to Prince. Tapping away to “When Doves Cry.” I love the choreography, how those taps coincide with Prince’s background arrangement. It’s gorgeous.
His performances in these pictures [Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, The Wings of Eagles, Man Who Shot Liberty Valance] rate with the finest examples of movie acting, and his value to each film is immeasurable; yet none of them was recognized at the time as anything much more than “and John Wayne does his usual solid job,” if that — more often he was panned. The Academy nominated him only twice; first for Allan Dwan’s excellent Sands of Iwo Jima, an effective and archetypal John Wayne Marine picture of non-Ford/Hawks dimension. Yet I remember that Wayne’s sudden death from a sniper at the end of Sands was the first real shock — and one of the most lastingly potent — I ever had at the movies. The reason why this worked so powerfully for me at age ten, as well as for millions of all ages, was because of Wayne’s even then accepted indestrucability. In fact, Sands of Iwo Jima was the second of only five films in which Wayne dies. Still, it wasn’t until twenty years later, when he put on an eye patch, played drunk, and essentially parodied himself in True Grit, that anyone thought he was acting, and so with this over-the-top performance Duke Wayne got his second nomination and finally won his Oscar.
The particular quality in a star that makes audiences instantly suspend their disbelief — something men like Wayne or Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda naturally bring with them when they enter a scene — is an achievement which normally goes so unnoticed that most people don’t even think of it as acting at all. To a lot of people, acting means fake accents and false noses, and a lot of emoting … John Wayne was at his best precisely when he was simply being what came to be called “John Wayne”.
I have written at length about my issue with people saying “He/she is just playing himself” when talking about certain actors. That opinion represents a critical failure, especially when it comes from critics who spend their lives studying the film industry. They should know better. John Wayne is often painted with that brush and it actually pains me. I go into that at length here.
As a child he moved West and, after a football scholarship at the University of Southern California, Tom Mix got him a job at Fox. There he met John Ford and worked as a set decorator on Mother Machree (28). Gradually he edged into acting, by the storybook means of being a bystander. His first big part was in The Big Trail (30, Raoul Walsh). Walsh had seen him carrying a big armchair above his head – carrying it witih flair and flourish.
Stanley Crouch on The Searchers:
When Wayne, as Ethan, comes upon the black smoke and the orange flame of the burning house left by the Comanches, his face is one of absolute terror, panic, and rage. At the top of a hill, Wayne flings out his right arm to free his rifle from the long, colorful buckskin sleeve in which it has been sheathed. The force of that flung arm is one of the most explosive gestures in all of cinema, and also among the most impotent: No one down there is alive, and Ethan knows it. He is, at that moment, like the man in Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death who so impressed Hemingway because his choice was to draw a sword when faced with the irreversible horror of encroaching doom.
Natalie Wood on that moment in The Searchers when he picks her up – a moment that still, to me, this day, having seen it 20 or so times, takes my breath away.
John Wayne was a giant to me, and when he picked me up in that scene near the end of the picture, he was able to lift me as though I were a doll. It was pretty frightening because he had this look of hatred and I thought that he could easily crush me. But then there would be an almost indefinable gentleness that would come over him as he cradled me and said, ‘Let’s go home.’ Everyone had always told me, ‘John Wayne’s no actor. He always plays the same part.’ I can tell you, Mr. Wayne was a very fine actor. He said to me, ‘When I pick you up, I may seem a little rough, but I’ll be as gentle as I can be.’ I said, ‘You must pick me up without worrying about that or you might not give the performance you need to portray.’ He smiled and said, ‘Well, little lady, you’re a real professional, that’s for sure.’
Throughout the 1930s Wayne was a star of matinee Westerns, sometimes a singing cowboy, working his way round most of the smaller studios and making something like a hundred films. By 1939 he was with Republic when John Ford asked him to be the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach. The success of that film lifted Wayne from regular work to stardom. Republic pulled themselves together for a major vehicle for him – Dark Command (40, Walsh) – and Ford called on him again to play a seaman in The Long Voyage Home (40).
John Wayne started out as a prop guy. He was a college student, and he picked up extra cash doing props for movies and occasional extra work. This was how he met John Ford. He almost got fired from a couple of Ford’s films for various snafus. It took Ford a while to start “using” Wayne. It wasn’t immediately apparent that this gangly raw kid had movie-star potential.
From Who the Hell’s In it, by Peter Bogdonavich:
There’s a moment in Rio Bravo — which features, I think, Wayne’s most genuinely endearing performance — when he walks down the street of the jail/sheriff’s office toward some men riding up to meet him. Hawks frames the shot from behind — Wayne striding slowly, casually away from camera in his slightly rocking, graceful way — and the image lingers a while to let us enjoy this classic, familiar figure, unmistakable from any angle, Americ’as twentieth-century Hercules moving across a world of illusion he had more than conquered.
Mark Rydell, director of “The Cowboys”, and his star, John Wayne
Mark Rydell was about 30 years old when he directed (and produced) The Cowboys. It was 1972. John Wayne had been making pictures since the 20s. He had been a star for decades. Not just a star, but an icon. Rydell was a Jewish kid from the Bronx who had directed a couple of episodes of Gunsmoke and, I think, 2 feature films. What would the experience be like? Would John Wayne run all over him? How on earth would he direct John Wayne? There are a couple of great stories about the filming of this marvelous movie (and I also love Rydell’s image of John Wayne sitting, on break, trying to eat his lunch, while all the kids who were in the movie climbed over him “as though he was a monkeybar …” They loved and trusted him that much.)
Here’s one of Mark Rydell’s many moving memories of what it was like to direct John Wayne in The Cowboys. This is an anecdote about the filming of the beginning of the cattle drive – obviously a complicated shot, with horses and herds of cattle and camera equipment, and extras and cowboys and stunt doubles … not to mention John Wayne.
Here’s Mark Rydell on what happened on that day.
And we had 1500 head of cattle. And there’s an interesting story of the first angry moment that I had with John Wayne. I was sitting up on the head of a crane. We had 9 cameras, and we were shooting this scene which had to do with starting the cattle drive. And in the background of this 1500 head of cattle, we had all the families of the kids, and all the kids are in position getting ready to start this cattle drive, and being said goodbye to by their parents. And John Wayne was seated on his horse about 50 feet in front of me and I was facing all these cattle on the top of the crane, and the scene begins with him riding over to Roscoe Lee Browne who was sitting on the top of this six-up that he had to drive, and the dialogue, if I remember correctly, is he says, “Are you ready, Mr. Nightlinger?” and he says, “Ready when you are”, or something like that. And you know, you don’t start 1500 head of cattle by saying, “Go”. What happens is, you have to push the cattle in the rear and they move and they push the cattle in front and sometimes it takes 5 minutes for them to be going. So I didn’t roll the cameras because I didn’t want to waste film until the cattle were moving. There was an enormous amount of cattle. This was really a remarkable production achievement, with Wayne riding past hundreds and hundreds of heads of cattle, all which had to be handled. It was quite a complicated procedure that required a lot of attention. So Wayne decided it was time to go – so he rode up – I hadn’t even started rolling the cameras yet – so he rode up to Roscoe and said, “Are you ready, Mr. Nightlinger?” Well, of course, I hadn’t even rolled the cameras yet. So I lost my temper. I stood up on the crane and said, “Don’t you ever do that. Go back to your spot. I’ll tell you when we’re going to roll our cameras, I’ll tell you when ‘Action’ is!” and as I was talking to him, I was thinking: what a stupid thing for me to do, to yell at John Wayne, in front of all these kids and all these people, it was humiliating. And I was really sorry, but I had stuck my neck out – and I was right, by the way. And he knew I was right. He went back to his place, did the scene, got in his car – it was the end of the day – and drove into town. All of the crew came over to me one by one to shake my hand, as if to say goodbye, because they thought I would be fired for having contested John Wayne in any way whatsoever. And the Ravetch’s were there, and they were horrified, and I got in the car with them to drive back to our production office in Santa Fe, and I was just mortified with guilt for having done this! And they kept saying, “Why did you do that?” And I kept saying, ‘I just lost my temper!” And we got back to the production office and there were four calls from John Wayne. And I thought, this is it. I’m fired. I’ll be on my way back to Los Angeles in a moment and one of John Wayne’s former directors will be down here to take over the picture. So I finally got up my courage and I called him. And he said, “Mark, let’s have dinner.” And I thought, ‘Okay, there’s the kiss of death.” So we met, and, by the way, there was nothing more remarkable than the experience of going to dinner in Santa Fe with John Wayne, who was 6’5″ and an icon. He walked into the restaurant and the place gasped! We sat down for dinner and I am waiting for the axe to fall, for him to say, ‘Son, you’re a nice guy, but I think we’re going to be better off with a better director.” You know, I was waiting for that horrifying moment! Which never came, by the way. And he proceeded to tell me that I treated him the way John Ford treated him. I had yelled at him, and he was very impressed that I had the courage to tell him off. He knew that I was right, and he was wrong. Even though it was something I certainly never should have done, he was impressed that I had the courage to do it. And he called me “Sir” from that day forward, and for the rest of the 102 days we shot this picture. And that’s the kind of guy he was.
There is only one fitting way to end our discussion of The Quiet Man, and that’s with a whisper. No matter what part of the world I’m in, the question I am always asked is: “What did you whisper into John Wayne’s ear at the end of The Quiet Man?” It was John Ford’s idea: it was the ending he wanted. I was told by Mr. Ford exactly what I was to say. At first I refused. I said, “No. I can’t. I can’t say that to Duke.” But Mr. Ford wanted a very shocked reaction from Duke, and he said, “I’m telling you, you are to say it.” I had no choice, and so I agreed, but with a catch: “I’ll say it on one condition – that it is never ever repeated or revealed to anyone.” So we made a deal. After the scene was over, we told Duke about our agreement and three of us made a pact. There are those who claim that they were told and know what I said. They don’t and are lying. John Ford took it to his grave – so did Duke – and the answer will die with me. Curiosity about the whisper has become a great part of the Quiet Man legend. I have no doubt that as long as the film endures, so will the speculation. The Quiet Man meant so much to John Ford, John Wayne, and myself. I know it was their favorite picture too. It bonded us as artists and friends in a way that happens but once in a career. That little piece of The Quiet Man belongs to just us, and so I hope you’ll understand as I answer:
I’ll never tell.
One of my favorite reaction shots from him is Wayne’s body language when O’Hara whispers whatever it is she whispers to him. You can feel him go from 0 to 1000 in one second, and it is all he can do to wait until they get back to their house and into their bed. It’s subtle evocative and totally clear physical acting. Last moment of the movie, I’m sure fans will remember it.
Even at that stage [the late 30s, early 40s], Wayne had this virtue denied to Ford’s “stock company”: he did not ham. Universal put him opposite Dietrich in Seven Sinners (40, Tay Garnett) and Republic lowered its sights to more Westerns. For the next few years he made fodder at his home studio and more adventurous work outside, much of which only exposed his monotonous fierceness: Reap the Wild Wind (42, Cecil B. De Mille); The Spoilers (42, Ray Enright); Flying Tigers (42, David Miller); with Joan Crawford in Jules Dassin’s crazy Reunion in France (42); and The Fighting Seabees (44, Edward Ludwig). In 1945, he was in Back to Bataan (Edward Dmytryk), Flame of the Barbary Coast (Joseph Kane), and was overshadowed by Robert Montgomery in They Were Expendable (Ford). He was bizarrely paired with Claudette Colbert in a comedy, Without Reservations (46, Mervyn Le Roy), but Rebublic still pushed straight Westerns at him.
More from the transcript of the interview John Wayne gave with Peter Bogdonavich – I wish all action stars looked at their jobs in this way. We’d get some better movies.
Any time there was a chance for a reaction — which is the most important thing in a motion picture — he [John Ford] always took reactions of me, so I’d be a part of every scene. Because I had a great deal of time in the picture when other people were talking, and all my stuff was just reactions. They become very important throughout a picture, they build your part. They always say I’m in action movies, but it’s in reaction pictures that they remember me — pictures that are full of reactions, but have a background of action.
From head to toe he is all of a piece. Big head. Wide blue eyes. Sandy hair. Rugged skin – lined by living and fun and character. Not by just rotting away. A nose not too big, not too small. Good teeth. A face alive with humor. Good humor I should say, and a sharp wit. Dangerous when roused. His shoulders are broad – very. His chest massive – very. When I leaned against him (which I did as often as possible, I must confess – I am reduced to such innocent pleasures), thrilling. It was like leaning against a great tree. His hands are big. Mine, which are big too, seemed to disappear. Good legs. No seat. A real man’s body.
And the base of this incredible creation. A pair of small sensitive feet. Carrying his huge frame as though it were a feather. Light of tread. Springy. Dancing. Pretty feet.
Very observing. Very aware. Listens. Concentrates. Witty slant. Ready to laugh. To be laughed at. To answer. To stick his neck out. Funny. Outrageous. Spoiled. Self-indulgent. Tough. Full of charm. Knows it. Uses it. Disregards it. With an alarming accuracy. Not much gets past him.
He was always on time. Always knew the scene. Always full of notions about what should be done. Tough on a director who had not done his homework. Considerate to his fellow actors. Very impatient with anyone who was inefficient. And did not bother to cover it up.
Then came two films that radically enlarged his image: Fort Apache (48, Ford), in which he played a cavalry captain, and Red River (48, Howard Hawks). Not least of his achievements as a guide to players is the way Hawks was the first to see the slit-eyed obdurate side to Wayne’s character. Tom Dunson is a fine character study: a man made hard by an early mistake and by the emphasis on achievement with which he tried to conceal that mistake. With Ford again, Wayne was one of Three Godfathers (48), a truly awful movie. But in 1949, he was Captain Nathan Brittles at the point of retirement in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Ford), and in 1950 the trilogy was completed withthe leisurely Rio Grande (Ford). Asked to be older, a husband and a father, Wayne became human and touching.
More from Katharine Hepburn:
Life has dealt Wayne some severe blows. He can take them. He has shown it. He doesn’t lack self-discipline. He dares to walk by himself. Run. Dance. Skip. Walk. Crawl through life. He has done it all. Don’t pity me, please.
And with all this he has a most gentle and respectful gratitude toward people who he feels have contributed very firmly to his success. His admirers. He is meticulous in answering fan mail. Realistic in allowing the press to come to the set. Uncomplicated in his reaction to praise and admiration. Delighted to be the recipient of this or that award – reward. A simple man. None of that complicated Self-Self-Self which seems to torment myself and others who shall be nameless when they are confronted with the Prize for good performance. I often wonder whether we behave so ungraciously because we really think that we should have been given a prize for every performance. And are therefore sort of sore to begin with. Well, as I began – he is a simple and decent man. Considerate to the people who rush him in a sort of wild enthusiasm. Simple in his enjoyment of his own success. Like Bogie. He really appreciates the praise heaped upon him. A wonderful childlike, naive open spirit.
From Who The Hell’s In It, by Peter Bogdonavich:
In a lifetime of almost thirty years as a top-ten box-office attraction (plus twenty before that as a not unpopular star actor), Wayne’s accumulated persona had even before his death attained such mythic proportions that by then the most myopic of viewers and reviewers had finally noted it. He brought to each new movie (good or bad) a powerful resonance from the past — his own and ours — which filled the world with reverberations above and beyond its own perhaps undistinguished qualities. That was the true measure of a great movie star of the golden age.
Next, however, came The Searchers (56, Ford), one of his finest films – once more a study of an unapproachable stubborn man, finally excluded from the family reunion as a romantic but lonely figure facing the landscape. He coasted with The Wings of Eagles (57, Ford), Legend of the Lost (57, Hathaway), and The Barbarian and the Geisha (58, John Huston), before making Rio Bravo (59, Hawks). Once more, Hawks enlarged Wayne by concentrating on an alcoholic Dean Martin and having Wayne watch him “like a friend”. It worked – as did the application of Angie Dickinson’s talkative emotional crises to Wayne’s solidity – so that Rio Bravo is not just Wayne’s most humane picture but the one that makes him most comic.
His death moved nearly everyone, as had his brave walk down the Academy staircase, two months before death, to give the best picture Oscar to … The Deer Hunter (that’ll be the day, indeed.)
He made too many pictures, of course; but only because for so long he was a guarantee of profit.
Wayne and Bogdanovich again:
PB: One of the most memorable moments of any picture I’ve seen you in is a silent moment in The Searchers. After you see what’s been done to the white women, there’s a close-up of you, camera moves in —
JW: I turn back. Terrific shot. Helluva shot. And everybody can put their own thoughts to it. You’re not forced to think one way or the other.
PB: Your gestures in pictures are often daring — large — and show the kind of freedom and lack of inhibition you have. Did you get that from Ford, or did you always have that?
JW: No, I think that’s the first lesson you learn in a high school play — that if you’re going to make a gesture, make it.
That has to be some of the best acting advice I’ve ever heard.
“If you’re going to make a gesture, make it.”
Sounds easy, yes?
Try it. Just try it.
So much of bad phony acting is because people make gestures half-heartedly, or they PRETEND to make gestures …. hoping the audience won’t pick up on the fact that they’re not REALLY making the gesture … that the gesture is sketched-in, empty, or cliched …
but audiences always know the difference between phony and real.
But what a star, what a presence, and what a wealth of reserve he brought to that bold presence. (So you wonder if he couldn’t have played comedy.)
Nor has he dated. All one can say is that he filled the screen role of a necessarily difficult man as naturally as most actors wore clothes. There was an age when people could be stars without undue grandeur or self-mockery. Whether Wayne is looking at the land that may make a great ranch, or turning in a doorway to survey his true home, the desert, every gesture was authentic and a prized disclosure. He moved the way singers sing, with huge confidence and daring. You have to imagine how it all began in the way Raoul Walsh saw him carrying that armchair – as if it was a young girl in a red robe being lifted up in mercy and wonder.
John Wayne told Peter Bogdanovich:
A funny thing happened with Ford after The Big Trail. He was a strange character, you know. After I did that picture, I came back, and he was making Up the River. I went over and said, “Hi, coach.” Nothing. I thought he didn’t hear me. So I figured, Oh, well, he didn’t even see me. The next time I saw him I went, “Hi, coach, hi.” And again I didn’t get anything. So the next time I just went right up in front of him and went, “Hi, coach.” And he turned and talked to somebody else. I thought, That’s that — he won’t speak to me. I don’t know how the hell I can communicate.
About two years later, I was in Catalina with Ward, having a belt, and Barbara [Ford], his daughter — she was a little girl then — she ran in and said, ‘Daddy wants to see you.” I said, “Whoa, wait a minute, Barbara, you got the wrong boy — must be Ward.” She said, “No, it’s you, Duke.” So I said, “Yeah, honey, run along, you know this is a bar.” So his wife, Mary Ford, came to the door and she said, “Duke, come here. Jack is expecting you out there.” I said, “All right.” So I went out to the Araner, his boat, and I go aboard — I remember Jim Tully was there and four or five guys — and Jack was in the middle of a goddamn story, and he looked up at me and said, “Hi, Duke, sit down.” And to this goddamn day I don’t know why he didn’t speak to me for two years.
I noticed that American actors always try to cut down their dialogue. They say, “I’m not going to say all this. You say that line.” At first I couldn’t figure out why; I came from theatre, where you covetously count your lines. But it’s a smart approach for an actor to give up lines in the movies because while you wind up talking about them, they wind up listening and reacting. It’s no accident that Rambo hardly speaks. Sylvester Stallone is not a fool.
I remember when I first went to America, right after I made Alfie. I met John Wayne in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel. He’d just got out of a helicopter, he was dressed as Hondo and he came over and introduced himself to me.
I said: “I do know who you are, Mr. Wayne.”
He said, “You just come over?”
He said, “Let me give you a piece of advice: talk low, talk slow, and don’t say much.”
Katharine Hepburn again:
As an actor, he has an extraordinary gift. A unique naturalness. Developed by movie actors who just happen to become actors. Gary Cooper had it. An unselfconsciousness. An ability to think and feel. Seeming to woo the camera. A very subtle capacity to think and express and caress the camera – the audience. With no apparent effort. A secret between them … Wayne has a wonderful gift of natural speed. Of arrested motion. Of going suddenly off on a new tack. Try something totally unrehearsed with him. He takes the ball and runs and throws with a freedom and wit and gaiety which is great fun. As powerful as is his personality, so too is his acting capacity powerful. He is a very very good actor in the most highbrow sense of the word. You don’t catch him at it.
From Who The Hell’s In it, by Peter Bogdonavich:
To me, Duke had always seemed slightly out of breath, as though he hadn’t yet caught up on the last twenty years, not to mention the last twenty minutes. Both [John] Ford and [Howard] Hawks truly loved him, of course, and even knowing him a little, as I did, it was pretty difficult not to like him. All this, and a lot more, obviously communicated itself to the public — still the top American star more than seventy years since his beginning. His visual legacy has defined him as the archetypal man of the American West — bold, innocent, profane, idealistic, wrongheaded, good-hearted, single-minded, quick to action, not given to pretension, essentially alone, ready for any adventure — no matter how grand or daring; larger, finally, than life or death.
I love how, in that first famous entrance in Stagecoach, Ford moves in quickly to his face, and there’s a slight moment where Wayne is out of focus. I love how Ford kept that imperfection.
A powerful actor, one I never get tired of studying: his walk, his line readings, his eyes, his reactions … He’s subtle, he’s physical, he’s funny, he’s in touch with his sex drive in a very grounded way, he’s fearless, he’s smart in his choices.
And then, of course, there’s the magic.
The movie magic.
You know it when you see it. It cannot be manufactured or created. You just have to have it.
This is one of the best things written about John Wayne. It’s not just an essay about who he was as an actor, or his biography – although it is that, too, but it’s a Didion mix of personal recollections (“What John Wayne Means To Me”), as well as her visit to the crazy set in Mexico of The Sons of Katie Elder in 1965. Wayne had been diagnosed with cancer (or “the big C” as he called it) in 1964. The news rattled a lot of people, Didion included. It was hard to remember that Wayne was mortal. He was a symbol of something. He still is.
Henry Hathaway directed Katie Elder and Wayne and Dean Martin starred. When Didion visited the set in Mexico, she entered the mainly male world of camaraderie, joshing, and total unreality that characterizes a movie set. Didion is great at describing the no-man’s-land of an in-between time, a mood she captures in a lot of her essays: the strange alienation and yet also coming-together that can happen during out-of-the-ordinary circumstances. That’s why she’s so good at reporting political campaigns. She picks up on behavioral nuances nobody else thinks are worth mentioning. Didion is interested in reality, yes, but I think that interest is secondary for her. She is interested in the narrative beneath the narrative.
One of her most famous lines is “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Even in something as prosaic or bureaucratic as a water board meeting in California, or the background information of the Getty Museum, she stands there with her ear to the ground, listening for the rumble of the other story, the one beneath it all.
Movie stars are the embodiment of that Didion line. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” What is it that makes one star “hit” over another? There are business decisions that are made, contracts signed, events that push this or that actor to the forefront. But John Wayne didn’t become who he was because of a business decision or a good deal. He didn’t even become “John Wayne” because of the opportunities he got early on. Plenty of people get good opportunities and don’t “show up” like Wayne did. Plenty of people get one chance and then are never heard from again. Wayne was in the trenches for a long time. Success was not a done deal for him. His star potential was not immediately apparent to everyone the second he walked into a room. People were not like, “Oh my God, yes, he is going to be one of the biggest stars of the 20th century.”
There are many reasons why John Wayne became who he was. I have my theories. There was a time-and-place factor going on with him. 20 years later, and it might not have happened. But even that cannot explain his overwhelming effectiveness onscreen. There’s that one quote from him in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich asks him about his gestures, and how bold they are – and Wayne replied, “Well, I think that’s the first thing you learn when you do a high school play. If you’re going to make a gesture, make it.”
There, we are getting close to the heart of Wayne’s genius onscreen, his unfailing sense of truth, his courage with being big, his bold-ness with putting himself – ALL of himself – out there. This is something that cannot be taught. You just have to know that that’s the gig. If you don’t know that from the get-go, you won’t get far and Wayne knew it from the start. He never hesitated. Gesture to be made? He made it. He launched himself out into the imaginary. He held nothing back. He also never lied. That’s one of the things that also cannot be taught. It can’t even be cultivated. You have it, or you don’t. His onscreen persona had such authority because of his honesty. You relax when you see him. Even when he’s acting like a son of a bitch, he’s coming from a place of truth. And truth, above all else, has authority. In the end, it is the ONLY thing that matters onscreen.
Sure, it helps to be beautiful. It helps to be subtle. The camera doesn’t like obvious phoniness. The camera picks up thought more than it picks up anything else.
But Truth is the hardest thing to capture or convey. If it weren’t difficult, we’d see it more often. Don’t underestimate how difficult the gig is. But it wasn’t difficult for someone like John Wayne. He just had to be given the opportunity to show what he could do, and when the time came, he SHOWED UP.
“He just played himself.” Damn straight he did. You think that’s easy? Try it. I dare you.
Although his star power is not denied, his chops as an actor are often dismissed, or taken for granted. Recently, I saw someone on Facebook – someone I don’t know, but a person who writes about film (for pay and otherwise) – say that John Wayne wasn’t “a great actor”. He then went on to babble the tiresome lazy bullshit about how Wayne “just played himself” and “just playing himself” can’t really be counted as real acting. I am sick of writing about my problems with this mindset, which I have been doing for years, but whatever, here I am (obnoxiously) going off on it again.
The “he wasn’t good, he just played himself” attitude represents a critical failure and the fact that so many people think that “he just played himself” is a valid criticism is an indicator of how deep the failure goes. Listen, I don’t pontificate on trade unions and financial institutions because I have the good sense to know that I would not know what I was talking about and it’s better to defer to those who actually know the topic at hand. But with acting, everyone considers themselves an expert because acting is seen as subjective, and we all go to the movies, right, we all have a part in it! True to some extent, but when I hear someone say, “Sure, he’s okay, but he just played himself over and over”, I know that that someone has actually not thought deeply enough about acting, perhaps they don’t respect it enough as a craft to study it on a deeper level, and therefore I think to myself, “Okay, well, you don’t know what you’re talking about, or, you haven’t taken the time to think it through in an indepth way, so you certainly won’t mind if I don’t take you seriously, right?” If you’re just a general audience member, it’s not so much an issue, but when I see it show up in professional writing, people who spend their lives observing the industry and watching movies, that’s when I get irritated. If I babbled on about Wall Street dealings in a tone of certainty, giving recommendations and opinions, then I would expect to be taken down a peg by those who actually know that world and understand its subtleties. I don’t run around “dismissing” other people’s opinions, but “he just played himself” is one I wholeheartedly dismiss. It’s actually helpful, it saves a lot of time.
To not understand that there are trends in acting styles, and that now the trend is to congratulate actors who go after total transformation (“I’m beautiful, therefore I will play ugly” “I’m tall, therefore I will play short” “My nose is perfect, therefore I will wear a putty prosthetic nose”, etc.) is to not understand the history of the industry and the artform. “Playing yourself” is devalued NOW, but it wasn’t in the beginning when the greatest stars were born. So at least admit that your comment “he was just playing himself” comes out of your own limited understanding of the history of the trends of acting. Don’t just pass that off as Truth. (It’s interesting: if you removed the word “just” from the sentence “He just played himself”, I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with it, although I still don’t like it. It’s the “just” that is so lazy, so wrong. The “just” is always there, though, which is the clue to me, the “tell”, that the person speaking has not thought about the issue enough and is coming from a deeply mistaken understanding of what acting actually is. Literally: They don’t know what acting IS. And they’re writing about movies! You see the problem. There is nothing, nothing, nothing “JUST” about playing one’s self.)
Let me put it to you plainly:
Once Upon a Time, Great Stars Walked the Earth. And they had specific Personae, personae that were cultivated by smart studio heads and smart directors, and projects were developed to keep that Persona in the public eye. That was How It Used To Be.
In our Current Day, we are in the Baroque phase of the Method Acting trend, where actors are congratulated for either starving themselves or gaining 120 pounds, where dramatic physical transformation is part of what is perceived as good acting. (I think much of this represents a misunderstanding of what Method Acting is, as well as a failure of the actor’s imagination, but that’s another topic.)
But back in the 30s and 40s, you put on a fat suit and some old-age makeup, did your job, and went home at the end of the day, happy with a good day’s work. Today that would be seen as “cheating”. But it wasn’t back then. And that’s not even an accurate depiction, actually, of the situation because “back then” you were cast in terms of what you already brought to something, who you already were. If you were old and jowly, you played old jowly guys. If you were ugly, you played ugly people. If you were gorgeous, you were a lead. (This is still mostly true. It is only when people become giant stars now that they want to start messing with their personae, to get more “respect”, ie: “I made my name being a gorgeous babe who looks hot in a bikini but I want more ‘respect’ so now I will put on prosthetic buck teeth and walk with a limp and go for the Oscar gold!”) But back in the day, careers were cultivated around what was already there, and if you hit “paydirt” with your persona, you messed with it only in a very calculated and cautious manner (see the entire career of Cary Grant).
There were those who were able to find huge versatility within their own established personae. These are the people who became long-lasting stars, and then there were those who were so versatile that they were able to do anything, inhabit anything. They were beyond “personae”, in general. Bette Davis comes to mind. But you hire Errol Flynn, you get Errol Flynn. You hire Carole Lombard, you get Carole Lombard. Carole Lombard didn’t have to make herself “ugly” to get respect as an actress. That would have been an odd thought back then. James Cagney didn’t try to re-make himself in order to show his “range”. That would have been seen as totally bizarre.
So. Do you see the history of acting now? You see how trends happen? Robert DeNiro gained a ton of weight for Raging Bull and, in some eyes (but not in mine), “raised the bar” for other actors. After that, unless you drastically changed your appearance – even to the extent of gaining weight or losing weight – you were “phoning it in” and “faking it”. This attitude is so prevalent now that it goes almost unexamined and unacknowledged. But that is only because people are trapped in their own time, in the way everyone is trapped in their own time.
The goal, then, is to understand the history of acting, and how acting has been understood over the generations, but to do that, you would actually need to do some, you know, research, and actually try to look at moments other than your own time in the context of that particular time, and that would take work, wouldn’t it? This stupidity is also deeply engrained in actors as well, those who think movies began in the 70s. Those who think Robert DeNiro invented good acting, with maybe a shoutout to Marlon Brando. I remember hearing someone say something dismissive about Spencer Tracy in an acting class in grad school, and it was along the lines of, “God, he just did the same thing over and over again … he just played himself”. And this was an ACTOR speaking. Dear Stupid Actor, you WISH that you could be HALF as interesting as Spencer Tracy was “just” being himself.
You talk to any illiterate 19-year-old ballerina-in-training, and she may not know the history of the Spanish-American War, but she can tell you the history of her own artform, for God’s sake. Same with athletes. They are experts of their particular sport and those who came before them. Ask a high school-age baseball pitcher about Sandy Koufax. He’ll be able to tell you everything. He may have flunked his mid-terms, but he knows about THAT. But you can still find actors now who have no curiosity about the history of their own art form, and therefore misjudge acting from the past as silly, or lesser, or “surface-y” or just not, overall, as good as what is happening now. At long last, Robert De Niro came along and showed us all how it’s supposed to be done! You can actually learn a hell of a lot from the actors in the past who “just played themselves”. Watch Spencer Tracy think. There’s an acting class right there. You can learn a hell of a lot more watching Spencer Tracy think than from clinging to the belief that “Let me go on a crash diet so everyone can see how dedicated I am to my craft” = Good Acting.
I do not mean to sound totally dismissive of the current trend in acting. There is some great work being done. And those who achieve radical transformations – without being self-congratulatory or preening about it – have my greatest admiration. I love all of it. I do. But NOT at the expense of the “reputations” of those like John Wayne, or Spencer Tracey, or, hell, Elvis Presley, who showed up onscreen with an indelible personality specific to them, and continued to BE that personality in film after film after film. Because that is what the public wanted. And so that is what they gave. Understand that what is congratulated now has not always been congratulated. Understand that a trend is a trend. The fact that Jason Robards spoke dismissively of “the Method” does not say anything about his talent. The fact that Cary Grant always had the same haircut in every single movie does not mean that he wasn’t “dedicated” to his craft, or some such bullshit. You can certainly have a personal preference, but don’t be stupid about it.
How people talk about John Wayne
I have been writing about actors for a long time. I write about all kinds of actors. People show up here and comment on their favorite moments, their favorite movies, the roles they loved of this or that actor. But when I have written about John Wayne, people show up and tell me about themselves. In this, John Wayne stands (almost) alone. Yes, people talk about the movies they loved, but more people show up and say, “He makes me think of my grandfather …” “He makes me think of my father …” “My father loved John Wayne …” The reactions to John Wayne, then, are ultimately personal in a way that is unique. And the only other person I have written about that brings that same kind of personal response is Elvis Presley. People certainly show up and talk about Elvis’ movies, music, etc. But more often than not, I hear about the Aunt who had a shrine to the King, the grandmother who said “Elvis really loved his mother”, the father who fell in love with Elvis when he heard Elvis’ gospel music… People talk about Elvis the artist, yes. But what they are really talking about is themselves. It’s one of the reasons that I think Elvis is hard to get a handle on, culturally and critically.
The same thing is true of John Wayne.
One of my favorite actresses is Jean Arthur, and I have written a lot about her, and people LOVE this woman. Any time I write about her, people come pouring out of the woodwork. But they talk about her roles, favorite movies … they don’t talk about themselves. The same is true for Cary Grant, another favorite of mine, and clearly a favorite of a lot of people. Cary Grant gets under your skin, his fans are some of the most loyal fans in the universe, but what we talk about when we talk about Grant is his acting, his persona, his roles, his movie star mystique.
The point remains: The comments thread of a John Wayne post is very different than the comments thread of a Cary Grant post. With John Wayne, I hear about family members, childhood memories, the First Time I Saw One of His Movies, my mother loved him, my father loved him, my uncle who was a Vietnam vet loved him ….
This is unique, make no mistake. It’s one of the reasons that I equate John Wayne and Elvis Presley (I’ve written about this elsewhere). They are both important public figures, with important careers. They are both under-estimated and sometimes dismissed, as actors, because people don’t understand that having a “persona” like this is like hitting the Mother Lode of Movie Magic. “If only John Wayne put on a tuxedo … or gained weight … or knocked his teeth out … THEN we’d see if he could REALLY act.” (Ugh. As though what he did, what he brought, was not enough.) But there are many people who have had important careers. Both Wayne and Presley tapped into something unique, something wholly American: they tapped into dreams and fantasies and wishes – they themselves embodied wish-fulfillment fantasies. And somehow, doing all of that, they tapped into the universal and eternal. Not by making a big deal out of it, but by “just” being themselves. You see the problem? There is nothing “just” about John Wayne or Elvis Presley. The two of them were comfortable with wearing the mantle of their own myths. “Okay, okay, it’s a bit of a burden, sure, but you see this in me, so sure, I’ll carry that mantle for ya … ”
And both did so for a long period of time: Wayne for his entire career which spanned decades, and Elvis for the entire half of his life that he was famous. And it would have continued, had Elvis lived.
You can literally count on one hand the performers who have done that. An actor might tap into something important, trendy, and have a good 5 or 10 years at the top of the industry – but 40 years? 20?
Good luck with that.
And so Joan Didion’s relatively short essay about John Wayne is massive in scope. She writes it in the knowledge that Wayne has cancer, and there is an uncertainty about it all. Nobody speaks about it, but it’s there, underneath her prose, keening through it. “If the big C can get him … and it can … what will that mean for us? What will happen to our stories then?”
She begins with the story of the first time she saw John Wayne in a movie. It was 1943 and she was eight years old.
We went three and four afternoons a week, sat on folding chairs in the darkened Quonset hut which served as a theater, and it was there, that summer of 1943 while the hot wind blew outside, that I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, “at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.” As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.
I tell you this neither in a spirit of self-revelation nor as an exercise in total recall, but simply to demonstrate that when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams. It did not seem possible that such a man could fall ill, could carry within him that most inexplicable and ungovernable of diseases. The rumor struck some obscure anxiety, threw our very childhoods into question. In John Wayne’s world, John Wayne was supposed to give the orders. “Let’s ride,” he said, and “Saddle up.” “Forward ho,” and “A man’s gotta do what he’s got to do.” “Hello, there,” he said when he first saw the girl, in a construction camp or on a train or just standing on the front porch waiting for somebody to ride up through the tall grass. When John Wayne spoke, there was no mistaking his intentions; he had a sexual authority so strong that even a child could perceive it. And in a world we understood early to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, he suggested another world, one which may or may not have existed ever but in any case existed no more: a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it, a world in which, if a man did what he had to do, he could one day take the girl and go riding through the draw and find himself home free, not in a hospital with something going wrong inside, not in a high bed with the flowers and the drugs and the forced smiles, but there at the bend in the bright river, the cottonwoods shimmering in the early morning sun.
“Hello, there.” Where did he come from, before the tall grass? Even his history seemed right, for it was no history at all, nothing to intrude upon the dream. Born Marion Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, the son of a druggist. Moved as a child to Lancaster, California, part of the migration to that promised land sometimes called “the west coast of Iowa.” Not that Lancaster was the promise fulfilled; Lancaster was a town on the Mojave where the dust blew through. But Lancaster was still California, and it was only a year from there to Glendale, where desolation had a different flavor: antimacassars among the orange groves, a middle-class prelude to Forest Lawn. Imagine Marion Morrison in Glendale. A Boy Scout, then a student at Glendale High. A tackle for U.S.C., a Sigma Chi. Summer vacations, a job moving props on the old Fox lot. There, a meeting with John Ford, one of the several directors who were to sense that into this perfect mold might be poured the inarticulate longings of a nation wondering at just what pass the trail had been lost. “Dammit,” said Raoul Walsh later, “the son of a bitch looked like a man.” And so after a while the boy from Glendale became a star. He did not become an actor, as he has always been careful to point out in interviews (“How many times do I gotta tell you, I don’t act at all, I re-act”), but a star, and the star called John Wayne would spend most of the rest of his life with one or another of those directors, out on some forsaken location, in search of the dream.
Out where the skies are a trifle bluer
Out where friendship’s a little truer
That’s where the West begins.
Nothing very bad could happen in the dream, nothing a man could not face down. But something did. There it was, the rumor, and after a while the headlines. “I licked the Big C,” John Wayne announced, as John Wayne would, reducing those outlaw cells to the level of any other outlaws, but ten so we all sensed that this would be the one unpredictable confrontation, the one shoot-out Wayne could lose. I have as much trouble as the next person with illusion and reality, and I did not much want to see John Wayne when he must be (or so I thought) having some trouble with it himself, but I did, and it was down to Mexico when he was making the picture his illness had so long delayed, down in the very country of the dream.
Perfect timing: I’ve been absolutely loving Scott Eyman’s biography of John Wayne: John Wayne: The Life and Legend. It’s so good, people. It’s the biography that this icon deserves. I’m not done with it yet, and I’ll post more on it when I finish it. But Eyman GETS acting. This is the thing so many biographers, so many critics, DON’T get. They don’t understand technique and craft enough to talk about acting intelligently. Camera moves, they’re on solid ground. But how an actor is effective, and why? Crickets. And John Wayne is an especially interesting case for various reasons: his stature as a star, for one thing. It’s an untouchable monolith of fame, fame that lasted uninterrupted for 40 years. Why? HOW? There were many factors that went into it, time-and-place things, a break given to him by John Ford, etc. But how many actors are given good breaks, and are really good in whatever role the big break represents, and DON’T become John Wayne? Like, all of them. So the mystery goes deeper than one big break. You don’t become a star for 40 years, a top box office draw for forty freakin’ years, without some serious Mojo going on. Eyman breaks it down, and he does so specifically. He’s an excellent critic, not just of the films (background, production, post-production), but of the performances John Wayne gave IN the films. What is John Wayne actually DOING that is so good, besides “being John Wayne”? This loops into my pet peeve about the comment “he just played himself,” especially in regards to John Wayne, which I ranted about here to such a degree that there’s no need to go over it again.
As a huge John Wayne fan, it’s sad to me that I still haven’t seen many of his movies on the big screen (the way he is meant to be seen). Larger than life applies to him, who in real life was already huge, 6’3″, with broad shoulders, a lean waist, and long ambling legs. He towered over everybody. And yet, and yet, he was always graceful. His athleticism is extraordinary, his physicality smooth and controlled (and yet always natural). He was huge, but he was at home in his huge-ness (a lot of tall men are not). There is nothing more pleasurable than watching John Wayne’s gestures. But to see him on the big screen? He’s quite literally overwhelming.
What a treat, then, that MoMA has been playing the 1953 film Hondo, in 3D! New Yorkers, you have one more chance to get your ass there: July 4th – fitting, considering the patriotism of the man.
Directed by John Farrow (with John Ford doing uncredited second unit footage), with a script by Jimmy Grant (who emerges as quite an unforgettable character in the Wayne biography), Hondo was produced by John Wayne’s own production company. It featured Wayne, of course, as “Hondo,” the outlaw-gunman, part Apache, trying to round up settlers in the way of the Apache threat who are pissed off, and rightly so, at the betrayal of the white man who broke his promises to leave their land alone. Hondo has ambivalence about the whole thing, due to his kinship with the Apaches (both emotional and actual, he speaks longingly of his squaw, who died). He is the quintessential Wayne part: an individualist. Against conformity. His own man. He is 45 years old. He himself said that this was his prime, that he felt he never looked better than he did at 45. Which, considering his drop-dead-gorgeousness in The Big Trail over 20 years before, is saying something.
But he was right. At 45, he was seasoned, filled-out, but lean and perfect. His first entrance in Hondo, from out of the wilderness, with “Sam” the dog trotting beside him is a spectacular example of the undeniable fact that all John Wayne had to do was appear – and you HAD to look. Star power. We can talk more about that. It has to do with relaxation, first of all, and an ability to let us in on who he is. He does not worry about acting. He is too busy being. And being is hard. Regular people can’t manage it, let alone with a camera on them at all times.
To those who don’t watch Supernatural, and may be baffled at why I have written about it so extensively, and about Jensen Ackles in particular, it is because Ackles, one of the stars, taps into an old-school Movie Star Persona brand of acting that is reminiscent of the great Persona stars of old.
Ackles has been playing the role of Dean Winchester for 10 years, going on 11, and that one role has given him opportunities to show a diversity of emotions/character traits/flaws/weaknesses/humor/pathos, all poured through the filter of one Persona. This is difficult to do. Other actors would get bored. They want to show their range in more obvious ways, playing a variety of roles. But Ackles is no dummy and understands that his character is in a larger tradition, of Outlaws and Good/Bad Guys from Westerns (Spaghetti and otherwise), and 70s cop shows, and Tough Guy noirs. With some 1930s screwball thrown into the mix. That’s what he’s doing. His work, like Wayne’s, is the kind that is so solid and reliable that it is often under-appreciated. People don’t understand how good it is, how difficult it is, because guys like this make it look so easy. As easy as breathing.
And so in Hondo, Wayne appears, and everything stops. He is breathtaking.
Geraldine Page, already a New York stage star, made her feature film debut in Hondo, playing Angie Lowe, a sweet woman, alone on an isolated farm with her young son, waiting for her husband to return from herding cattle. Hondo shows up in the first frames of the film, dusty and exhausted, walking over the rocky field, no horse in sight. Who is he? Is he up to no good? Is he an outlaw? Will he rape and pillage? She’s on guard.
Meanwhile, the Apaches start circling. Angie has always had a good relationship with them. They water their horses at her creek, they shoot the breeze with her, they ride off. It is inconceivable to her that the Apaches could “turn” on her, not when she’s been so kind, not when they’ve always been so pleasant to her. Well, times are a-changing, ma’am, and the Apaches are fed UP.
Hondo’s equivalent on the Apache side is the Chief, known as Vittorio, played by Michael Pate, in a wonderful performance. He is tough, fierce, but – similar to Hondo – looks at this white woman living on the edge of the wilderness and thinks she needs protection. He has befriended her son, so much so that he puts the kid through a blood-brothers ceremony, and the two go off together, on what amount to “play dates.” Vittorio shows up at the door, on horseback, the kid comes running out, and Vittorio swoops him off for a day with his people. Angie totally trusts her child will come to no harm. But the other Apaches, behind Vittorio … will they play by his honorable rules? And etc. and etc. Hondo knew Vittorio, or knew of him, and knew he was a man to be trusted, but also a man to be feared. There’s a wary respect between the two men, especially since Hondo speaks their language and doesn’t treat them in a contemptuous racist manner. He’s still a white man, and therefore an enemy, but he’s an outlaw – like they are. They “get” each other. The situation could “turn” at any moment, and of course it does turn, but it takes a while to get there.
Hondo “moves in” on Angie pretty quick. John Wayne had confidence as a lover and romantic figure. He wasn’t a brute, like Clark Gable (I’m talking acting persona now, not who they were in real life – although Wayne apparently loved sex with great gusto). He wasn’t shy and sweet like Gary Cooper or tormented and cynical like Humphrey Bogart. Wayne pursued a woman with the same confidence and know-how that he used when he leapt on a horse or cocked his rifle. He wanted it, he went for it. But there was always a kindness there, a lack of contempt. Think of him and Angie Dickinson, bantering it out Hawks-style in Rio Bravo. Or the gorgeous scene in Sands of Iwo Jima when he goes home with a random woman, thinking of course that it’ll be a hook-up, and she wants to hook up too, the rules are clear, but when they get to her place, he discovers a baby boy in a crib. Instantly, he changes tactics, and starts making formula for the kid, helping her out. She, a lonely single woman, is so embarrassed, afraid he will turn on her, or judge her, or find her unattractive because she’s a mum, but none of that comes. His view is (and it comes instantly, because he has a moral compass): She’s a lady in a tough spot, she wants company, no judgment there – so do I, sex is part of life – she wanted it, so did I – no biggie – but she needs help, well, all right then, I’ll help. God, I love that scene. There are others. The love story of Angel and the Badman, its complexity, his kindness, but also his inability to compromise who he is. He’s his own man. He is not befuddled by love, and he does not run from it. He is a realist. He knows that loving a guy like him will never be easy for any woman. He’s tough, he’s independent. But he is not afraid of love. When it appears – either the possibility for something long-lasting, or a one-night thing, he goes for it.
And here, in Hondo, despite the fact that Angie Lowe is married and her husband is out there somewhere, he moves in on her. She puts him off. “I am a married woman.” But Hondo knows women, knows something is off about her situation. She needs help. Her husband has abandoned ship, in a time of great peril. He understands the Apaches, and understands that they are preparing for a war. He is caught in the middle a bit, due to his affiliation with them, but he’s also doing his best to warn the homesteaders in the way. Angie Lowe is slow to realize the danger.
Watching a 3D movie at MoMA was somewhat hilarious. Because the vibe is so hushed and sacral, so to see all those people with their 3D glasses on, maintaining a sacred silence before the film cracked me up. It was great. As the lights went down, he said, “Okay, see you later!” his 3D lenses gleaming in rainbow through the darkness. Hysterical. After the movie, we wandered around looking for a bar to get a drink. We were like, “Look for a shamrock. That’s the kind of place we want to be.” Shamrock located, across the avenue, we waited to cross the street, and then I saw the neon sign in the window, blaring out the name of the bar: THE STAGECOACH. “Holy shit, look at the name of the bar.” “We are so going there.”
Now about the 3D. Except for a couple of scenes in the Lowe’s cabin, the entire thing takes place outside. The images are crisp and gorgeous, shimmering with clarity and depth. Wayne is usually filmed slightly from below, so he towers above the horizon, his head backed by blue sky and clouds. The fight scenes, one in particular, are superb (with Wayne clearly doing many of his own stunts). Wayne, at his best, made fight scenes seem real, and in this one – a contest between him and an Apache on top of a cliff – is actually gripping because (unlike in many other Wayne movies) – it’s an equal match. You’re not sure who’s going to win. There are a couple of incredible long shots of a circling wagon-train surrounded by Apaches on horseback. Stunning panorama. The 3D shows up with punches flying into the screen, arrows coming right at you, horses barreling towards you, but besides those “gimmicks,” the 3D is there to provide depth. It’s an extremely simple and effective use of the technology: it doesn’t take over or drive the story. It is part of making that long-lost world come to life (because that is one of the themes of Hondo: what we are witnessing is the death of a “way,” the Apache way, and there’s a mournfulness about that death felt by both Hondo and Angie).
There’s humor. Wayne was very funny, in general, and he’s relaxed about it, no pushing, it comes naturally. When he picked up Angie’s kid and threw him in the river to teach him how to swim, the audience erupted into laughter. Wayne does it in one continuous movement, swinging the kid back like a baseball bat and then letting him fly into the air. One shot – so the kid really needed to do that “stunt” and Wayne had to do it without hurting him. It’s all so fluid, and the position of both of their bodies, the kid horizontal – his limbs all starfish-ed out, and Wayne gigantic, imposing, and gentle (his gentleness the trick up his sleeve, the surprising thing about him), tossing him into the water like he’s a rag-doll.
The growing bond between Hondo and Angie is beautifully done. It goes through many phases. She’s a woman torn. He has secrets. He lies to her at one point and you can tell: he haaaaaates doing it. It feels wrong. He tries to come clean a couple of times, because he can’t bear it. Finally, there is a great confrontation scene between Page and Wayne, where she reads him the riot act about what he is about to do to her kid. She is the one who finally comes clean, about her life, about what has really been going on. She has a line about how a married woman has no truth of her own, her truth is that of her husband’s, and unfortunately the MoMA audience snickered, my least favorite kind of audience laughter, the oh-we-are-so-superior-and-enlightened snicker. But what she was saying was TRUE for women. Her statement wasn’t an endorsement of the attitude, so much as an expression of reality as WELL as a feminist critique of the same, for God’s sake. Women were helpless if their husbands were brutes, or malingerers, or abusive. They had no legal recourse. So it was essential that you pick a good man, a hard worker, and kind, someone whose “truth” was honorable. Her husband has left her helpless and alone. She is strong, but two is better than one, as any pioneer family would probably tell you (if they weren’t, you know, dead for centuries.) Her farm is falling to pieces because she can’t do it all, and she is left alone with her child, in a hostile wilderness with enemies circling around the homestead. Unforgivable, in the eyes of Hondo. Eff that loser, in other words. This is a simple woman, who has grown up in that wasteland, who knows no other life, who has lived a life of isolation, first with her parents, and then with her husband. Whatever man she lets into her world had BETTER be a good man, because there was no other social structure set up to support her, and women didn’t run around getting divorces in 1862 or whatever. You were stuck with the brute you got. So it’s crucial that her man be good, be fair. Why is that funny? Oh well, people like to feel superior.
One scene in particular stood out to me, and it comes early on.
Ready for an acting lesson? Here we go.
John Wayne and the “Reality of the Doing”
Hondo shows up, unannounced, out of the blue. He warns her that she needs to haul ass out of there. She’s like, “The Apaches are my friends. I’m waiting for my husband. I don’t know you. No. But still, you can stay here and get some warm food and have a bed – on the floor – to sleep in – until you can get yourself back together.” Hondo immediately starts making himself useful. Teaching the little boy how to shoot. Doing chores, chores that the man is supposed to do, because the woman is too damn busy hauling water, cooking meals and washing clothes. Everybody worked hard. You can’t do it alone. This is when Hondo guesses that her husband isn’t just herding cattle, gone for a couple of days. The horses are neglected, their horseshoes have fallen off. The man has clearly been gone for weeks, maybe months. He calls her on it, but she is defensive, sticking up for her husband against this bossy-pants interloper with the mean dog. Hondo shrugs it off, suit yourself, ma’am, and gets to work doing the things that need to be done.
In one lengthy scene, filmed in one almost unbroken take (there are only a couple of cuts, I think – I’d have to see it again), Wayne makes horseshoes in the little outdoor smith in the yard. She hovers nearby. He talks to her about the Apaches, and what they are up to, he talks to her about everything. She argues back, resisting him, resisting the danger, standing up for herself. John Wayne is actually making horseshoes, though – that’s the thing that really struck me. This is about continuous physical action, what my acting teacher in college called “the reality of the doing.”
When Dennis Hopper first started out, James Dean was an idol. Hopper had come up in a theatrical tradition, more classical and declamatory, that was his training, but when he had a small part in Rebel Without a Cause, he watched Dean’s work with amazement and awe. He started copying Dean’s attitude and mannerisms. Dean noticed, and clocked Hopper on the falsity of it, pulling him aside and saying, “If you’re going to smoke a cigarette onscreen, don’t act like you’re smoking a cigarette. Just smoke the cigarette.” It was like a light bulb went off in Hopper’s mind. Dean’s comment set him free as an actor. It helped him know what to DO. It relaxed him, totally.
A quote along these lines from Sam Schacht, my acting mentor in grad school: “Remember: the name of the job is ACT-or. Not FEEL-er.”
This goes along with Wayne’s famous comment about how he did not see himself as an “actor” but as a “RE-actor.” He partly said that because he was invested in the narrative that he had somehow “fallen into” acting, that he started out as a prop guy, that he had no ambition to be an actor. Uh-huh, Duke. Whatever you say. But the fact remains that he was right: As much as Wayne DOES onscreen, he never forgets the RE-actor part of it (which is the “listening and talking” element of acting. I’ve said it before: ALL good actors are world-class listeners. There are no exceptions.)
What does “the reality of the doing” mean? It has to do with James Dean’s advice to Dennis Hopper. Sanford Meisner, an original member of The Group Theatre, who became one of the most famous acting teachers in America through the Neighborhood Playhouse, was obsessed with “the reality of the doing.”
He thought the Method, at least as taught by Lee Strasberg, was too focused on feelings. Meisner’s definition of good acting was thus:
… behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.
Notice that word “behaving.” Not “feeling” or “being.” Behaving. Doing. And “truthfully” is just as crucial to the full thought and concept. None of it matters if what you are doing is lazy, unmotivated, or phony.
Elia Kazan, another Group Theatre alum, described his job as a director as “turning psychology into behavior.”
Again with the “behavior.” I don’t mean to beat the drum so repeatedly, but the focus on emotions has a way of taking over, at least in acting classes, when actors are susceptible and eager to learn. Gena Rowlands has said that she “can’t cry.” “Crying” is not her thing as an actress. Who cares. She’s one of the greatest actresses who ever lived.
Meisner created all of these great exercises, now known as “The Meisner Technique” (which was my training) to help actors click into “the reality of the doing.” Actors get swept up in the emotions: they worry about whether or not they will be able to cry, they are concerned with what kind of anger to bring to a scene, they obsess on emotional backstory. These are all necessary things for an actor to know how to do, I don’t mean to dismiss them, and neither did Meisner. But what about the DOING? Remember: the name of the job is ACT-or. Not FEEL-er.
If all an actor does up there is feel, the audience will be left cold. It is the DOING that makes scenes come alive, “pop.” The doing can be physical, backed up by objective: “I am going to wash these damn dishes like MAD because I am so pissed off at my husband right now and don’t want to deal with it.” (Joan Crawford was a master at this. Her waitressing behavior in Mildred Pierce. Her meticulous preparation for escape in Sudden Fear, or the scene with the dictaphone. Wow. Her glasses-behavior in Humoresque, her coffee-pot/artist’s-smock behavior in Daisy Kenyon. Business, business, business. All motivated, all figured out by her, all flowing with her lines and her emotions.) The doing can be purely emotional, what people mean when they talk about “objective”: “What I am DOING in this scene is trying to get THROUGH to you/trying to fuck you/trying to comfort you.” Everything you say, every gesture you make, comes from that objective. (John Wayne knew this on a truly remarkable level. He was a natural at playing an objective.)
Sam Schacht again: When actors were “stuck” in a scene in his class, unsure of how to make it happen, he would throw out the reminder: “Every scene is either Fight or Fuck. Pick one. See where it gets you.” “Fight” or “fuck” were objectives, things to do. Or at least ATTEMPT to do, because your scene partner, with his or her own objectives, may not want to fight you, may not want to fuck you. If you both play your different objectives 100%, then Voila. You are doing what Tennessee Williams wrote, or Shakespeare, or whoever. It’s amazing to watch when it clicks. I still think of that “fight or fuck” thing when I’m trying to break down a scene and analyze what the actors are doing, how they are going about achieving their objectives.
If you want to witness a group master-class in that kind of “doing”, watch episodes of Thirtysomething.
The entire show was built on emotions, shown through everyday behavior like making dinner or getting the kids ready for school. That was the rhythm of the show, and those actors were brilliant at accomplishing it, inhabiting it. That’s why the group scenes in that show were so incredible and the sheer amount of DOING going on was often overwhelming. It always felt like dinner was REALLY being made, the kids’ backpacks were REALLY being packed.
Dean’s advice to Hopper again: Don’t act like you’re making dinner. Make dinner.Thirtysomething devoted itself to physical behavior in a way that is unique – definitely something for actors and directors to learn from (especially those master shots, with people coming in and out of the frame, going to the fridge, searching through cupboards, exiting out the back door for a second, re-entering holding a bike helmet, or whatever – so there was clearly a REASON to go outside, all as everyone is talking, and acting, and living. It’s unbelievable ensemble work: very difficult to accomplish and choreograph.)
Everything we do has a reason behind it, either large and urgent (“I must board up the windows of my house before the typhoon hits/before the aliens arrive/before the serial killer comes up the driveway”) or small and non-urgent (“I am a neat-nik, therefore I must place coasters on all of the tables before the guests arrive.”) If you do physical business without a reason behind it, then you got nothing.
Watch Gena Rowlands walk into her huge penthouse suite in Opening Night with Cassavetes or Gazzara or whoever trailing behind her (the scene repeats).
What she wants, what she is DOING, in that purposeful walk, is going to get a drink. She doesn’t take her coat off. She makes a beeline for the bar. She cannot wait to get there, why is the room so HUGE, why are the drinks so far away? Get me over there NOW. In every single scene, every. single, scene, her desire for alcohol is so imperative that it drives everything she does. You can FEEL her need for a drink. THAT’S “doing.”
If an actor only focuses on emotions and forgets the DOING part of it, not to mention the whys of the doing, you don’t have a scene. Much of acting class, in general, is helping actors click into “the reality of the doing.” (The bad acting teachers only focus on emotions. You can clock those actors from miles away. They can cry, but they cannot walk and talk at the same time. When they are asked to do “physical business” at the same time as they are having a catharsis, they are unable to do it and will always prioritize the catharsis.)
The great actors understand all of this intuitively. They’d think all this talk about it was silly. Either you DO it, or you don’t. Don’t sit around TALKING about it.
John Wayne did not become a star right away. He made many many B-Westerns before The Big Trail and then many many many after, until Stagecoach came along and made him a star. He was not a natural “actor”, but he was a natural personality. Once he figured out he didn’t need to “act” at all, and he could just “be” onscreen, everything clicked into place and there was no more awkwardness. His personality was so strong that everybody felt it, in real-life and onscreen. But to OWN that? To understand it, and be able to utilize it? To be able to channel it into roles as diverse as the ones he played? Ethan Edwards, Ringo, Hondo, Thomas Dunson? These are not the same guys. Wayne used himself and his personality consciously and with humility. But he always knew what he had. Only the great ones can pull that off.
Gary Cooper once said that he enjoyed doing Westerns so much because it was real. You have to really ride the horse. You can’t fake it. You have to really get on the horse. You have to really tie up the horse. While all that “doing” is going on, there’s no time to worry about acting. It’s funny: if an amateur actor (a talented and coachable amateur actor, that is) is flailing a bit in a scene, unsure of what to do with his emotions, give him a physical action to perform and then have him play the scene. A talented albeit green actor will suddenly understand, get the Dennis Hopper light-bulb. Ohhhh, okay, so if I play the scene AS I am sewing a button on the sweater, and if I focus just as much on sewing the button as I do on my lines, and my scene partner, suddenly we’ve got a SCENE. I’ve seen such moments in countless acting classes, and have had such moments myself. It’s great. Because in real-life, the whole world does not stop because you are arguing with your wife, the entire world does not take a pause so that you can burst into tears at your leisure. You are still driving your car, or boiling water, or herding sheep. You have to do BOTH. Simultaneously.
Sounds elementary, right? Well, actors will understand how much of a challenge all of this is (and Wayne had to figure it out too, he didn’t stride out of the gate as his confident glorious self, although he brought to the table many natural attributes like grace and beauty and fearlessness – those things help.) Actors have to understand this concept and master it QUICK, or they will find themselves being acted off the stage by their scene partner who already gets it.
My point, ultimately, finally(?), is this:
In one mostly unbroken take, John Wayne makes horseshoes, all as he banters and scolds and flirts with Geraldine Page. It’s a very talk-y scene. If they had been just standing in the corral, doing nothing else but talking, the audience would not only fall asleep, but it would feel phony. In general, people do not stand in the middle of an open space and talk at one another about their lives for 20 minutes. They’re doing other things. Making horseshoes is a complicated multi-step process. Wayne’s doing it all: hammering out the shoe, heating it up, pumping the bellows, plunging the shoe into the cold water – a hiss of steam accompanying it – hanging the shoe up for later, starting in on another one. It’s an archaic piece of business too: it’s a 19th century kind of thing, although horses still need to be shod today. Wayne does it with the grace and ease of a man who has been around horses all his life, and knows how to take care of them, knows what he is doing. His actions are as automatic as a practiced and experienced cook making Thanksgiving dinner for a huge crowd all by herself. She’s got the turkey going, she’s mashing potatoes, she’s boiling water for green beans, she’s got the biscuit batter all mixed … and as she’s doing all of this, she’s chatting with her kids, giving them chores, talking with her guests, whatever. I myself could never pull off such a feat, and my cooking-for-guests usually end up being more like Warren Beatty trying to cook dinner for Diane Keaton in Reds. In other words, a disaster.
John Wayne is doing multiple things at the same time in this wonderful scene. He is taking over Angie Lowe’s life, in a peremptory manner, even when she says, “I don’t need you” because he doesn’t care, she DOES need it, and her husband is a loser/loafer who has left her in peril, whatever great things she may say about him. He is also drawn to her, physically and emotionally, and he’s been alone a long time, probably his only sex life is fucking the whores in town whenever he makes it that way. So … he likes her. You can tell he likes her. Right away. The scene ends with him coming up behind her and grabbing her. Because dammit, she’s a good woman and he wants her. She deserves to be taken care of and man-handled. With care, of course. She’s flustered, saying, “I know that I am a homely woman.” The way he looks at her though … she’s the most gorgeous thing in the world. Through all of this emotional stuff, though, grounding the scene, and giving it its structure, is the horseshoe-making Grand Pantomime. Only it’s not a pantomime. It’s the real thing.
Wayne never stops. He walks and talks at the same time. He plays multiple levels of emotional reality with every line. He throws lines over his shoulder. He has a comeback for everything she says. When he pauses, you hold your breath. Because this man does everything deliberately. And Wayne makes those damn horseshoes right before our eyes.
This is the sort of acting moment that rarely gets pointed out and praised. (I think this is partly because many folks writing about movies care most about direction, to generalize. And so they don’t understand how important/rare/difficult/beautiful such a scene is for an actor to pull off – and also how crucial it is that these details are set, and present, and it is up to the ACTOR, not the director, to accomplish that.)
Watch him make the horseshoes. And carry on a conversation. And have multiple objectives. And be attracted to her. All at the same time. And as you watch, understand that what he is doing looks easy, because it is easy for him, but it is not easy for others. Also: it’s not just that it’s easy. It looks easy because Wayne prepared. He was meticulous in his preparation. If he had to do something onscreen, he learned how to do it, he practiced it, so when the cameras were rolling, he was confident, he had done it 100 times before. The rifle-twirl that he does in his famous first entrance in Stagecoach is a perfect example.
He had to practice that, he had to have a stuntman show him how to do it, the rifle had to be slightly sawed off so it wouldn’t catch under his arm, and he did it over and over and over again, until it was automatic. Business like that has to be worked out. An actor has to devote himself to the smallest details. The camera is tuned into truth, and phoniness and fakery come across as though blasted through a megaphone.
Similar to the bad acting classes where the folks who cry loudly and lustily in every scene get the most attention/praise, the more histrionic “showy” acting gets the most attention. Wow, she was really crying. Wow, his anger was so loud. Wow, she was super-drunk in that scene. ACTING with a capital A! I wonder if this is because acting and the use of the imagination in such a powerful childlike way is still such a mystery to many folks, who couldn’t even begin to do something like that. It’s the “how do you memorize all those lines” school of audience-member (and there’s no judgment in that. That comment never bothered me because it seemed like an acknowledgement that acting was a weird and challenging and cool thing to do.)
But none of that emotional stuff has any “oomph” whatsoever if the actor is not clicked into some “reality of the doing” that pours into the overall Story as a whole. The “reality of the doing” occurs in the big moments of catharsis and crisis, helping us understand the stakes, helping us invest. But, even more importantly, the “reality of the doing” has to be present in the small moments as well. Moments like diligently making horseshoes as you talk to a woman you desperately want to kiss.
When Wayne, as Ethan, comes upon the black smoke and the orange flame of the burning house left by the Comanches, his face is one of absolute terror, panic, and rage. At the top of a hill, Wayne flings out his right arm to free his rifle from the long, colorful buckskin sleeve in which it has been sheathed. The force of that flung arm is one of the most explosive gestures in all of cinema, and also among the most impotent: No one down there is alive, and Ethan knows it. He is, at that moment, like the man in Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death who so impressed Hemingway because his choice was to draw a sword when faced with the irreversible horror of encroaching doom.
He moved the way singers sing, with huge confidence and daring.
Wayne was so good physically, so … eloquent … physically … that he’s the kind of actor where you remember him from how he moved, from the gestures he made. I have my favorites. The fight scene in Red River. The aforementioned gesture with the rifle in The Searchers. His stunning first appearance in Stagecoach where his body/facial express/emotion/adrenaline course off the screen in one continuous wave (captured by John Ford’s very quick push-in to Wayne’s face – so quick that the image blurs out for a second.)
He makes an electric impression of vitality, breath, readiness, just standing there.
But there’s one moment I’d like to discuss and that’s from The Angel and the Badman (1947). It’s a sweet movie about an outlaw, Quirt Evans (Wayne), with people on his trail, wanting to kill him or arrest him. He who holes up with a Quaker family (shades of Witness). Naturally, there is a beautiful Quaker daughter (Gail Russell), and the two fall in love … but she’s an angel and he’s a badman, and what are the star-crossed lovers to do? Will he give up his gun? Will he be able to resist the siren call of vengeance? There are scenes of action (a thrilling chase through Monument Valley), shoot-outs, and a hilarious group fight scene in a saloon (“Hey, Quirt, how ya doin’?” says his friend in the middle of the fight, before getting punched out of the frame) but it’s really a romance. John Wayne is wonderful in romantic material. He’s so open with that part of himself.
There’s a scene where he is recovering from an injury in the Quaker house. It’s night. He’s upstairs talking to the Quaker girl, and there’s some flirtatious banter going on that also has about it a sense of their philosophical differences. They discuss things. She’s forthright. He’s not used to that in women. She just comes right out and says stuff. He likes her. A lot. Outside though, darker forces gather. He is being tracked by a U.S. Marshall as well as a group of outlaws, looking to take him down. He hears the sounds of hooves approaching. The Quaker family has taken his bullets, and there isn’t time to retrieve them.
Wayne, clutching his useless gun, rushes down the stairs.
Director James Edward Grant places the camera at the back of the room in the downstairs area, facing the front door. So here’s the moment, which is more a one-man ballet/symphony of movement than anything else:
John Wayne comes barreling down the stairs, glances around in a panic, sees the situation, makes a decision, and launches to his left to grab his hat off the wall. Then, in two successive swoops, he swipes his hat at the first lantern to put it out, and then the second lantern. The lamps are far apart, so this requires him to fling his body around. The gesture is magnificent, and all of a piece. Once the lights are out, he grabs a chair, swings it around, and sits on it, facing the front door, ready for who is about to enter. All done with no cuts.
That is what Wayne was talking about when he said “if you’re going to make a gesture, make it.”
That’s what it looks like. In the gesture there is everything: there are about 5 objectives, interspersed with moments for improvisational thought. This is how people actually behave in the middle of a crisis, although perhaps they are not as graceful as Wayne. But you have to problem-solve in the moment. You don’t always know what to do next since in reality you have no “blocking”. You’re making it up as you go. Quirt Evans, grabbing his hat to get those lights because he doesn’t have time to methodically turn out each one, is making it up as he goes.
Because John Wayne is a graceful actor, these gestures flow, one to the other, in a beautiful ballet of motivated movement.
Down the stairs.
Glance around – too much light – too much light –
See hat. Get idea. Grab Hat.
Put out that first light – SWOOSH.
Put out that second light – SWOOSH.
Grab chair, swing it around, plop his ass down.
It’s a glorious pantomime.
The entire movie is on Youtube and the sequence in question starts at 29:10
More later, but I just wanted to say: Don’t miss it. It’s in theaters now. It got great reviews. But nobody went to see it. It should be seen. This is old-fashioned buddy-cop entertainment with so many great elements (comedy, stunt-man-stunt-driving work, complicated plot, humor, great chemistry between the leads) that it was pure FUN watching this thing, and I have to say, I saw it at a matinee and it had a nice-sized audience and the thing plays like a bat out of hell. How often nowadays do audiences actually rock with laughter, as one, missing the lines of dialogue that follow? RARELY. It’s up there with Shane Black’s other film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, my favorite, with which it shares a lot of similarities. Black’s DIALOGUE. His obsession with Los Angeles. His obsession with Christmas (read my pal Kim Morgan’s gorgeous and melancholy interview with Black), and … Black’s almost old-fashioned wish for a simpler world, a world where manners matter, where those poor lost girls in Los Angeles, drawn into the underworld, are saved/protected/respected (Russell Crowe: “The porno star?” Ryan Gosling, upset: “Yes. The porno … young lady.”) Everything about it works. I absolutely loved it. It won’t be in theaters long, and in this world dominated by empty block-busters, re-boots, and blatant cash-grabs, a film like this should be supported. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but there’s something refreshing about that. Stop trying to re-invent the wheel because it already was invented. 800,000 years ago. Create memorable characters, throw them into a situation, give us a chase-scene or two, give us some high stakes, give us some legitimate comedy, trust slapstick – TRUST IT – but you have to know how to film it – Black does – and then let it roll, see where it takes you. Gosling: “I was busy. I had to question the mermaids.”) Plus: Ryan Gosling has a battle with a bathroom-stall door worth the price of admission. See it.
Kwouk’s most well-known role was “Cato”, the ninja-manservant of Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther franchise. I was a child going to the Pink Panther movies (they were major Events in our lives. “That was a priceless Steinway!” “Not anymore.”) and I totally got the humor (which, although it’s slapstick, is also pretty sophisticated in its absurdity.) I was obsessed with Cato. The mere FACT of Cato blew my mind. Every so often, Cato would come into my mind, and I’d have a moment of awe yet again. I used to say that I wished that I “had a Cato.” By total coincidence, I dated a guy later on who used to behave like Cato – kind of – (without me ever prompting him to “act like Cato”) and it was so hilarious and entertaining although it annoyed my roommates and I did punch him in the face once because I thought he was an intruder, but it was awesome. So I guess I did end up “having a Cato” after all.
Cato brought so much joy, even to a little kid like myself sitting in a movie theatre with my friends: those scenes when Clouseau came home and snuck through the house, on high alert, were cliff-hangers of hilarity.
As I scrolled through the comments section of the first link, the only “post” I ever wrote about Cato, I am struck by the 2004-ness of it all. But also, I came across a comment from my father (it happens sometimes and it always catches my breath in my throat.) This is a particularly good one:
Dearest: one of my favorite movie lines is “Not now Cato!” love dad
“When I first heard Elvis Presley’s voice I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody and nobody was going to be my boss. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.” – Bob Dylan
“Nobody was going to be my boss” is one of my favorite comments from a fellow musician on the impact Elvis had. There’s also this from Keith Richards’ great memoir. My favorite comment about Elvis very well may be George Harrison’s response to the question from an interviewer about his musical roots. Harrison, surprisingly, said he didn’t have any musical roots. The only “root” he could think of was from when he was a kid in Liverpool, hearing “Heartbreak Hotel” from out of an open window.
But Dylan: hearing a song, hearing a singer, on the radio, and suddenly knowing that “nobody was going to be my boss”?
Bob Dylan considering Elvis
Elvis recorded Dylan’s song “Tomorrow is a Long Time” in 1966. Dylan had written it, and recorded a demo of it in the early 60s. He played it in his concerts, and others started recording it. (Everyone recorded it, including Odetta, which is how Elvis heard it.)
No matter. Elvis’ cover was buried on the soundtrack album for the movie Spinout, and it didn’t make a splash of any kind (and it should have, it’s a high point of his 60s recordings, and different from anything else he ever did, before or since.) Elvis sang a couple of other Dylan songs during his live shows in the 70s, “Don’t Think Twice,” and “I Shall Be Released” – and he liked “Blowin in the Wind”, and would sing it around the piano with his buddies (there’s a tape recording of this), even though it seems like Elvis and Dylan would have had nothing in common, especially socially/politically. But “Tomorrow is Such a Long Time” is the best of all of these. It’s haunting, eerie, meditative. Dylan officially released the song in 1971, I believe, after a decade of performing it live, and a decade where everyone and their grandmother had recorded it. It was one of those songs.
Bob Dylan: “The highlight of my career? That’s easy, Elvis recording one of my songs.”
Born in 1910, Margaret Wise Brown always wanted to be a writer, but her journey towards the almost unprecedented success she eventually achieved, was not direct (how could it be? If you set out to create a children’s classic along the level of Goodnight Moon, you couldn’t do it). Brown went into education, and was disheartened by the books for kids that she saw out there in the publishing world, in school libraries. She had other ideas, radical for the time: Maybe there didn’t need to be a Sunday School lesson in a children’s book (“Be good,” “obey your parents”, “don’t tell a lie”, and etc.) Maybe a child learning to read would thrill to a story made up only of observations of what the child looked around and saw in his or her own life. After getting her degree in education, Brown worked as a teacher, and eventually became connected to Harper & Brothers, as an editor of children’s books. From there, she started to write her own.
Margaret Wise Brown died unexpectedly from an embolism, very young. She was 42. She was an interesting and bohemian woman, independent and intelligent, clear-thinking and creative. Along with Goodnight Moon, she also wrote The Runaway Bunny, another hugely popular children’s book. Goodnight Moon, though, is the real show-stopper.
And the red balloon
And goodnight mittens
And goodnight socks
Goodnight little house
And goodnight mouse
That is a list of objects. No commentary. Very straightforward and almost banal. But a whole world flowers into view, and they stop being “just” objects, but symbolic of the love infused in the whole scene. “Bears” “chairs” “kittens” are not banal at all to a child who loves them. The book is a child’s prayer (“And God bless mummy and daddy, and God bless the bears, and God bless my mittens …”) It is a compulsive list, the child’s eyes scanning the room, listing each object as it comes into view. This is the child’s whole world.
And I am not overstating things when I say that the final three lines give me goosebumps every time I read them (and as an aunt of many small nieces and nephews, I read this book constantly).
Goodnight noises everywhere
Happy birthday, Margaret Wise Brown.
Goodnight Moon is one of the most successful children’s books of all time.