From Who the Hell’s in It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors, by Peter Bogdonavich:
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.
David Thomson, from his lengthy entry on Wayne in his The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Expanded and Updated:
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 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.
Maureen O’Hara in her autobiography ‘Tis Herself: A Memoir on the last moment in The Quiet Man:
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.
Katharine Hepburn on John Wayne in her autobiography Me : Stories of My Life:
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.
Excerpt from Michael Caine’s awesome book Acting in Film: An Actor’s Take on Movie Making:
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.