For John Wayne’s Birthday: Hondo (1953) at MoMA: John Wayne in 3D

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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41 Responses to For John Wayne’s Birthday: Hondo (1953) at MoMA: John Wayne in 3D

  1. bainer says:

    Hi Sheila, I wanted to start watching John Wayne movies after your last post on him. Can you recommend a good one to start with?

    • sheila says:

      His best performance is in The Searchers, one of the greatest and darkest and strangest American movies. It’s a magnificent piece of work – this is Wayne willing to show the dark side of the heroes he portrayed. It’s tough stuff – especially for modern “enlightened” audiences – but what he is doing, the racism driving him on to horrifying lengths – is picking up a rock and showing us the underbelly of American life, of Western expansion, of all of those myths Wayne himself was so invested in. Phenomenal film.

      Other great performances: Red River! One of my favorites of his. Him and Montgomery Clift. Howard Hawks. GREAT scenes.

      Rio Bravo – another one directed by Hawks, which is loosey-goosey and charming, with Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson (ka-doink!) and Angie Dickinson as a prostitute named “Feathers.” Two musical numbers. Lots of comedy. Great.

      Hondo, of course – even if you can’t see it in 3D. He’s at peak power in Hondo.

      Stagecoach, in 1939, was his big break (or, his SECOND big break, the first big break having come years earlier in The Big Trail, which flopped). With that “star entrance” (in the clip above) – John Ford “set him up” to say: This is our new guy. This is a major personality. Here he is: John Wayne.

      He’s wonderful in it.

      Oh, and The Angel and the Badman!! John Wayne in a romance, a la Witness. He’s an outlaw, she’s a Quaker, what are they to do??

      :)

      Nobody quite like John Wayne. I’m sure there are some films I’m missing – but these are some of my absolute favorites!

      • sheila says:

        and enjoy!

        It’s a different style of acting – it’s “persona” acting, totally out of style now – except for those rare folks like Angelina Jolie or Julia Roberts – who work in the old-school way. Who work within an established persona, finding great variety in it.

        He just OWNED it, owned himself.

  2. Have to say I envy you this experience. So glad you had it. I’m not even gonna comment on walking out of Hondo and finding a bar called the Stagecoach. There’s a scene nobody would buy if you put it in a script!

    What you said about modern audiences feeling superior to the past is my equivalent of your anger at those who think “being yourself” is easy (a peeve we also share). I want to get out a megaphone and shout, “You’re here, with this chance to sneer, because, and ONLY because, of the sacrifices these people made!” Especially women like the one Page played here (and who are such a vital part of so many westerns in particular). God knows they got little enough credit in their own time and get less now. Looking down on them doesn’t seem all that “enlightened” to me, somehow.

    To bainer’s question, I would just add to your excellent suggestions two performances Wayne gave as second leads in They Were Expendable and Fort Apache. The study in contrasts between what it’s like to second under a good commander (the former) and a bad one (the latter) is really remarkable and Wayne, who famously never served in the military, captured every single nuanced difference so beautifully you could watch each movie dozens of times (I speak from experience) and never even imagine that he’s “acting.” His role is basically the same…how he’s required to play it is subtly but completely different.

    Thanks, as always, for helping those of us in the hinterlands share your experience.

    • sheila says:

      // God knows they got little enough credit in their own time and get less now. Looking down on them doesn’t seem all that “enlightened” to me, somehow. //

      That is exactly right. These women couldn’t vote, they died in childbirth, they spent their lives with a baby at their breast and a plow in their hands. If they married a bad man, they were stuck with him. They were powerful women who did their best in a sucky culture that didn’t value them. Individual men/husbands might have, but come on. Not enough. Snickering at them just pisses me off. It’s one of the common things that happens with audiences watching old movies together in art-houses that really grates. I walked out of a screening at High Noon, without seeing the whole thing, because the audience treated it like a Mystery Science Theatre episode. Privileged ignorant idiots.

      And ooh, many more excellent suggestions for bainer. They Were Expendable!! I love that movie – and just put it on the Netflix queue to watch again. Thank you for the reminder.

      And Fort Apache, yes!

      The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – I should have mentioned that one. And I also love She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Quiet Man, where he gets to really turn on the sex. Often John Wayne “gave up” the woman in his movies – in The Quiet Man, he got to “have” her, and boy, is it satisfying. That makeout scene in the cemetery with his wet shirt plastered to his body? Hubba-hubba.

      • Oh goodness…I like Hondo plenty, but if that stuff started happening in High Noon I might have real anger management issues. I think bainer’s gonna be busy!

      • Maureen says:

        Sheila-not sure if my reply will be in the right spot-but your comment on the scene in the cemetery in The Quiet Man-I couldn’t agree more.

        I grew up watching John Wayne movies shown on TV-loved him in all his Westerns. The funny thing is I never really thought of him as sexy, until I was in my 20’s-watching The Quiet Man and in that scene, when his shirt starts to get see through, while he is holding Maureen O’Hara-YOWZA!! Gave me a whole new appreciation of him!

        • sheila says:

          // in that scene, when his shirt starts to get see through, //

          I mean, my God, it’s sexy, right?

          And the passion in the embrace? Crazy!!

          He was so relaxed about being a sexual creature. Many men aren’t – they get tense about it. Or they puff up their peacock feathers. I mean, sexuality is private and it’s our own private world, and so this is true for a lot of people. What you do behind closed doors is just for you to know about. But actors need to have access to that stuff, and can’t be shy about it.

          It’s a very interesting element of his Persona – because he’s so damn manly, and cranky, and bossy, and all that – ha! – but he can be so gentle too. The way he kisses his brother’s wife (whom he loves) on the forehead in The Searchers. It’s a feather-light tender touch, filled with longing and love. Unbelievable actor. Just soooo sensitive.

  3. DBW says:

    Just a beautiful post, and so, so true. I would add The Cowboys and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to your list of favorites—the latter more focused on Jimmy Stewart, but just a great movie. I get so excited when you write about Wayne, Sheila. You put words to my feelings. Hope you are well, and recovered from your recent medical issues.

    • sheila says:

      Oh, The Cowboys!! I love that movie!

      and yes: should have mentioned Liberty Valance, totally. Lee Marvin is unforgettable and actually almost steals the movie from Wayne, a nearly impossible task. He’s awesome!

      And thanks, DBW – the recovery has been quick. There’s more to come, unfortunately, but Phase One is complete.

  4. Rinaldo says:

    Sheila, others have made good comments on your excellent words about John Wayne here. I wanted to chime in to say how happy I was that you mentioned thirtysomethibng. I don’t think it gets its due (I wrote a guest article on someone else’s blog about it), and although its writing and direction was consistently high quality, the acting was too, just as you say. I’m especially pleased that you (by implication from your chosen photo — I hope I’m right!) include Mel Harris in your praise, because critics have tended to look down on her a bit (“just a model” — “only there because she’s pretty”), and I maintain that she was right up there with the rest of them as an actor. So thanks for that.

    • sheila says:

      Rinaldo – Yes, thirtysomething!! I remember we discussed it before!

      Wonderful show. I actually included that picture because there aren’t all that many pictures from actual episodes in Google Images – just promotional pictures of the whole cast. Weird. I liked this one though because there Mel Harris is, “doing” something, folding baby clothes.

      I agree with you about Harris: My opinion of her changed once I grew older. As a 20-something, I thought she was a judgmental drip. As an older lady now, I see that she’s got a hell of a lot more going on, and she’s fabulous.

      Interestingly enough – on one of the commentary tracks (I can’t remember which one) – the directors/writers/whoever were discussing this whole “business” aspect of the show – the flow of physical action and kitchen business and all of that – and how the whole cast really got into it, coming up with their own ideas. One person said that Mel Harris was the best at it. She just had a way of finding something to DO, and making it totally real.

      So yes: I am in agreement with you!

  5. Dan says:

    So jealous of you – but thanks for writing and sharing!

    I love this movie. I’m a huge Wayne fan, and I’ve seen all his ‘major’ films, the Searchers, Stagecoach etc, and some of them I love (hello Rio Bravo) but the Wayne films I really adore are his ‘second tier’ movies. These aren’t the ones that critics and film historians focus on, but they’re all such solid entertainment, such straight up old school show business.

    Hondo is one, The Cowboys is another. bainer, all the films mentioned up thread are fantastic, and worth your time. I would add these:
    The Sons of Katy Elder – because the Duke and Dino go so well together. Makes an excellent double feature with Rio Bravo.
    The Train Robbers – Sheila broke this one down for us, post is in her archives somewhere.
    Big Jake – my favorite Wayne film, hands down, for many reasons I won’t get into here. But – it’s Wayne’s last film with Maureen O’Hara, and while the role for her is a minor one, it is essential – the whole plot rests on it – and call backs/makes use of the relationship the two established in prior films in a lovely way.

    • sheila says:

      Dan – love your comment!!

      Train Robbers is super fun. Wayne and Ann-Margaret? Plus Ricardo Montelbaun? Come ON!!

      Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne were dynamite together.

      There’s a movie he did with Joan Crawford called Reunion in Paris (I think?) – which I actually have never seen. That’s also on its way via Netflix.

    • Maureen says:

      Dan-I love the movie Big Jake. It has one of my favorite scenes ever-when they are going in to rescue the grandson, Jake and Sam have a moment-when they talk about going hunting when this is all over. The music score all of a sudden gets really lovely, and when Sam mourns the passing of the buffalo-Jake says “Yep, times change…” and something about Wayne’s delivery of that line has me in tears every single time I see it.

      • sheila says:

        // something about Wayne’s delivery of that line has me in tears every single time I see it. //

        Maureen – you make me want to see it again!

      • Dan says:

        That’s a lovely little scene Maureen. Underscores the whole movie, but you can blank and miss and the moment…

  6. carolyn clarke says:

    I am so happy I’ve found your website. The way you write about John Wayne is so clear and informative and fun. I am going to run out and get the Wayne bio you spoke about. I would add “The Quiet Man” or “The Shootist”. Would you add “El Dorado” to the list, though the supporting cast isn’t anywhere near as good as in “Rio Bravo”. I also like “McClintock” because he could do comedy so well. Even something as “second tier” (or maybe “third tier) as “Hellfighters” is fun and entertaining because he makes you believe that he is THE expert in fighting oil fires.

    Your comment about “thirtysomething” is so right. They should have gotten more credit and recognition. re Would you put “The West Wing” in that category, at least for the first four years. I think it lost something after that.

    I also agree with your comment about Jensen Ackles. I think all of the actors on “Supernatural” are excellent but Ackles does seem to have that old school glamor/presence and talent. It will be interesting to see what he does after “Supernatural”.

    • sheila says:

      Carolyn –

      Yes, the bio is excellent. So many bios of Wayne focus on his politics, with the typical liberal shivers of horror. Boring. What about the ACTING. And how did his politics, which were very personal to him, inform his acting? Eyman understands context, and is respectful and fair. But he’s also incredible on Wayne’s technique. The chapter on The Searchers is a masterpiece – as is the Prologue, which discusses in detail his famous entrance in Stagecoach, which made him a star (clip included in the post).

      McClintock is great! And it’s wonderful to actually watch his early stuff – pre-Stagecoach. He’s sometimes stiff and out of place – which should definitely intensify the admiration for what he willfully decided to become. He had to CHOOSE to become John Wayne. he wanted so badly to be good.

      I love him in Baby Face, as one of Barbara Stanwyck’s lovers. He’s to die for, just gorgeous as hell – and kind and sweet – and she eats him up and spits him out, because she’s just that kind of dame. Interesting shading to the Wayne persona.

      West Wing is a good call as well: everyone always doing doing doing. I think, though, that Sorkin sometimes makes a fetish of behavior (as well as dialogue). It’s a subtle difference – but it’s there – Sorkin’s stuff can feel very showoff-y to me, and lacks the everyday grounded reality of something like Thirtysomething.

  7. carolyn clarke says:

    One more. Blood Alley with Lauren Bacall. TCM runs it occasionally.

  8. sheila says:

    Oh, and of course True Grit – which finally won him an Oscar. He joked that he should have put on an eyepatch years earlier.

    He is, essentially, doing a parody of himself in that. It borders on the absurd. But it’s effective and humorous.

    I also enjoy the banter with Katharine Hepburn in Rooster Cogsburn.

  9. Paula says:

    One thing I always love about your posts is the amazing tangents that tie it together, moving from JA to Gena to Thirtysomething back to Wayne. The art of doing it. Now I need to see that scene again where he is making the horseshoes in Hondo which I haven’t seen since high school. The reality of acting in Westerns never struck me before this and the commitment those actors had (God knows I would freak out if I had to jump on a horse and wasn’t use to it.) not to mention the dirt and heat of filming in those locations.

    It also made me think of scenes with JA where he is talking while cleaning guns, making bullets, loading bags during talky scenes. Does that draw out a better performance because they are grounded in action?

    And that pic of young John Wayne – he was truly beautiful. Not handsome, not manly there. But a thing of beauty.

    • Paula says:

      Talking during talky scenes?! How eloquent. I need another cup of coffee before I send these.

    • sheila says:

      Paula – thank you so much for the compliment! I was joking on Facebook that when I set out to write this post, I basically just wanted to say, “OMG Hondo is totes awesome, you guys” and then THIS happened. Ha!

      And yes, it was the horseshoe scene I started out wanting to talk about. As it was happening during the screening, I was clocking it to myself: “Okay, his physical business here is so amazing. That’ll be your way in.”

      So good!

      // It also made me think of scenes with JA where he is talking while cleaning guns, making bullets, loading bags during talky scenes. Does that draw out a better performance because they are grounded in action?
      //

      Yes! Business always makes things better – especially if it is focused, and – like James Dean’s advice – you get the sense the actor is REALLY doing it. Like JA beneath the car in Everybody Loves a Clown. I believed he was working on that car, and that JA knew what he was doing under that car, and what part he was working on, and what tool he needed when he got up to go to the tool bench. Without these specifics, acting can become general. I mean, that’s just one example of a good “business” scene – but yes, all those cleaning guns scenes. So real.

      It’s just one of those weird tricks of the trade: If you focus only on emotion, it can cause you to freeze up, dry up. But if you focus on physical business, suddenly the emotions start flowing – without you having to work on it. Scenes “pop” when actors are doing real things.

      Even JA eating. A spectacle in and of itself, but it helps him come alive as a character in the scene.

  10. Maureen says:

    Such a wonderful post, Sheila! I will definitely be looking for that biography at my library-it sounds great. I feel a John Wayne marathon movie fest coming on…

    It actually made me sad to read that people snickered in the movie-I would have such a hard time with that. So disrespectful in a way, because as you said-that was the reality of a woman’s life back then.

    • sheila says:

      Maureen – yes, the snickers were quite upsetting. HONDO, in general, was free of that – maybe because MoMA is a better behaved audience? I don’t know. But yes, everyone just needed to show how “above” such sentiments they were. When of course the snickers just showed their narrow-mindedness.

  11. I really enjoyed the Eyman book, too, Sheila. I remember when reading it, thinking that you and he were mostly simpatico in regard to Wayne’s acting ability. Glad you’re reading it!

    I would add to the list of favorite/top notch Duke performances:
    IN HARM’S WAY (1965)
    THE SHOOTIST (1976)

  12. I’m still hoping to see Hondo in 3D in my lifetime. I got the DVD as soon as it was issued. Can you imagine, I had to persuade a mutual acquaintance to Hondo when it played at the TCM festival a couple years back?

    As for Wayne, the actor, some might be surprised by the credible performance, and with a Swedish accent, in The Long Voyage Home.

    • sheila says:

      Peter – yes, The Long Voyage Home!

      There’s a funny story in the book about someone making a comment to him about O’Neill – kind of explaining O’Neill to Wayne – and Wayne just gave the person a LOOK and said, “I went to college. I know who Eugene O’Neill was.”

      Burrrrrrrrn!

  13. carolyn clarke says:

    I so appreciate you. Your blog posts and essays are like my more interesting lectures in college and I learn so much. Since you discussed the “reality of the doing”, I have been noticing it more when I watch TV and movies. It’s so much fun to be aware of what good actors do. I noticed it an episode of “Mike and Molly” when the actress who plays the grandmother was fixing breakfast while reading her lines. She was stirring eggs and cutting tomatoes, etc. and it made the scene so real and so funny at the same time. Thank you.

    • sheila says:

      Carolyn – Thanks! Glad to pass observations along.

      If you just have emotions as an actor, then honestly you don’t have much. But if at LEAST you have physical business/doing – even if the emotional part isn’t quite there, you are at least attempting to replicate reality, or – as Shakespeare said it better – hold the mirror up to nature.

      Because nobody just stands around talking and feeling. That’s not how human beings behave. AND – if there are roles that are written in an inactive way it is up to the actor to make it ACTIVE.

      Edmund in Long Day’s Journey Into Night comes to mind – he is written to sit around and listen to others, and feel a lot of things. I mean, it’s a tremendous part, with some great monologues – but compared to his parents and his brother, it’s the passive role. Nobody cares about Edmund if he sits around boo-hooing that he has tuberculosis and his family is awful. That role is a challenge and I have seen many an actor SUNK by Edmund because even though it’s a gigantic part, there is a serious lack of things to “do.” Just feeling is not enough.

      I am happy to say, though, that Dean Stockwell, in Sidney Lumet’s film version, made all that feeling/listening/thinking totally active – and was able to hold his own with the three other Giants onscreen. His performance was touching and often – as the other three are having the big histrionic moments in the foreground – my eye is drawn to the background, to him sitting there, holding a bottle, head in his hands, or whatever.

      That’s a very challenging role because it’s all emotion. And in that way, it is passive, and unlike real life. The actor has to really work to make that part active. In a specific way, too – you can’t just “make yourself busy” – you have to really figure out what that guy is DOING back there all that time, while the other three are screaming and fighting and monologuing and drinking.

      • sheila says:

        Speaking of holding the mirror up to nature – Hamlet is, of course, perhaps the most famous example of this challenge for an actor. He talks a lot. He thinks a lot. He feels a lot. He has brief bursts of activity, followed by scenes of brooding and fooling around. He can’t get to the point. He can’t take action. He puts it off.

        It’s super hard to be effective as Hamlet, because of this built-in inactive challenge – which is a great commentary on action itself, and what “objective” means, and all that – Shakespeare knew that this kind of shilly-shallying represented something entwined in our DNA as a race of beings.

        But still: I’ve seen more bad Hamlets than good Hamlets, because of that passive thing. A lot of actors prioritize the emotions – everything is about the feelings. It’s a trap. The language is a trap, because it is so deeply emotional – it seems like that might be all you have to do. Is FEEL stuff. If you FEEL all that stuff, then you’ll automatically be Hamlet, right?

        WRONG.

        What if Hamlet’s objective was to try – with all his might – NOT to feel all these horrible feelings? Think these horrible thoughts? What if every moment – all the procrastinating – was about pushing back the darkness of his own mind, and what he thinks is happening? Well, that’s a place to start anyway. That gives you something to DO – during all of those monologues (5 in total! Five!!).

        And so everything comes out of that denial/resistance. I’ve seen self-pitying Hamlets and Hamlet is a long play already, but with a self-pitying Hamlet it feels 10 hours longer.

        What if Hamlet normally was a man of energy and action? (Supposedly he is. Everyone notices something is wrong with him.) What if he is in the process of resisting everything – that what he WANTS to do is so horrible and scary and beyond-the-pale – that he will do ANYTHING to put it off? He will act crazy! He will direct a play! He will get into a fight with his girlfriend! He will accuse his mother of all kinds of awful shit. He will talk to himself, he will walk the castle walls all night, trying to NOT feel the things he feels. That’s a hell of a lot more interesting than “Let me sit around and feel all this horrible shit for three hours.”

        I guess this might sound like “Well, duh, of course!” – but the traps in Hamlet the role are really strong. Those feelings are so seductive, the language is so emotional, it lulls actors into thinking that that’s all there is.

        There’s a reason every actor wants to play Hamlet. It’s one of the most challenging roles ever – for many reasons – but mainly because of the character’s infuriating inactivity.

        • carolyn clarke says:

          Two observations. I saw that version of “Long Days Journey Into Night” during a college course that I took. It was an elective and I remember that my professor loved it. I must admit I was almost too young to appreciate it but you are right that Dean Stockwell more than held his own. I don’t really remember the movie detail and I’ve never seen a “live” version but I seem to remember that he spent most of his time in a chair almost in the background and you still had to watch him. It was almost like he was the restful place in the middle of the storm that was generated by the other three actors.

          2nd observation. Your comment about Hamlet is interesting. It might be blasphemy to say this, but that’s why I liked the Mel Gibson version. In my opinion, (and maybe I’m seeing “Lethal Weapon” in his performance) Gibson played him like a weird action hero who just wanted to raise hell.

          • sheila says:

            Carolyn – I loved Mel Gibson’s version too. It was an interesting “take” on Hamlet, I thought.

            and yes, Dean Stockwell was always PRESENT in the background. He had no lines for sometimes 10, 15 minutes, but he never slacked off. He was always a part of that family unit. That role is difficult – as with Hamlet, I’ve seen more bad Edmunds than good Edmunds. But Stockwell was great – because in a way that entire family focuses on him – and his mother’s morphine addiction. His illness, his approaching death, has created a cloud of agony over the whole family. And everyone drinks, to escape it. But he’s the key, in a lot of ways. He was the hope for the family, he was supposed to survive – he was sweet and kind – as the others are not – and everyone valued him. But now he’s dying. Nobody can deal with it.

            I am totally biased – Dean Stockwell is my favorite living actor – but I just love that performance.

  14. I liked the stuff in Eyman’s book from Page about her relationship with Wayne while shooting the movie – the political differences and how they overcame them, or at least ignored them and got along. “Aww, you’re not gonna be mad at ol’ Duke, are you?”

    • sheila says:

      Yes, the stories with her are great. Peter Frechette, a friend of mine and actor (who had a recurring role on Thirtysometing, coincidentally) left a comment on my FB page about this post. He said he did not know Geraldine Page but he did have a long conversation with her once, and he brought up Hondo – and she referred to JW as “Mister Wayne” throughout.

      Respect.

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