One of my favorite quotes about acting comes from John Wayne. It’s included in Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Hell’s in It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors:
Peter Bogdanovich: 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?
John Wayne: 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.
“If you’re going to make a gesture, make it.”
If you think that’s easy, try it yourself. I dare you.
So much bad phony acting comes from half-hearted gestures, cliched gestures, or sketched-in unfinished gestures. Audiences see the phoniness from miles and miles away.
Stanley Crouch, in his essay about a John Ford/John Wayne box-set talks about an unforgettable gesture made by John Wayne in a horrifying moment in the film:
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.
David Thomson wrote of John Wayne in his The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
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