For John Wayne’s Birthday
A second excerpt from the essay collection:
Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion
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.
Excerpt from Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion
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.