You Don’t Catch Him At It

Katharine Hepburn on John Wayne:

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….

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.

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.

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44 Responses to You Don’t Catch Him At It

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  2. tracey says:

    My God, that is fantastic. It kind of takes my breath away.

    • sheila says:

      Isn’t it wonderful? I love the detail about his small pretty feet, and his dancing step. He does have a lightness to him, even with that swagger.

  3. Thanks for posting this, Sheila. I must admit I was pretty dismissive of Wayne for a long time. He’s grown on me, though. Still is.

    • sheila says:

      What was it in him you dismissed, if you don’t mind my asking? I realize that people have different tastes, and while I sympathize with DBW’s comment below, I don’t think it’s quite true that people who don’t like Wayne “just won’t allow it”. It reminds me of people who seem shocked that I don’t like Henry James and assume that I just haven’t read this or that book, that if I just “allow” myself to love Henry James, then OBVIOUSLY I would.

      I think some people just aren’t interested in Westerns or war movies, so Wayne might seem so attached to that genre that they don’t even check him out.

      • What was it in him you dismissed, if you don’t mind my asking?

        I don’t think I saw a John Wayne movie until after his death; by then, I was more accustomed to the parody of Wayne (the strut, the drawl) than the actor himself, and that colored my opinion of his talent. Additionally, I admired the 70s antiheroes and disdained what I regarded as the “macho crap” that Wayne and other stars purveyed before them. It took me a while to appreciate that what he was doing onscreen was, in his own way, just as layered, with doubt and regret and a fragile sense of mortality, as you stated.

        • sheila says:

          Thanks for answering, Craig. Right – he is so easily imitated, so easily parodied – To get past that and see what he was actually doing in these movies sometimes requires that you get those preconceived notions out of the way.

          I love the antiheroes, too. It’s really interesting in True Grit, for example, to see him act with those actors who would become known for those antiheroes – Duvall, Hopper. Or even further back, with Clift in Red River. LOVE seeing the two of them onscreen together.

          • sheila says:

            And The Cowboys, too – there he was playing with all of these counter-culture actors – Bruce Dern, Roscoe Lee Browne, Colleen Dewhurst, Sarah Cunningham (married to a blacklisted actor) – and they all (apparently) got along great, whatever their political differences may have been. You can see Bruce Dern trying too hard (in my opinion) to show John Wayne how macho HE is – but Roscoe Lee Browne is just wonderful in it. I love the relationship he creates with Wayne.

  4. DBW says:

    Great comment, Craig Simpson. I know people who have always been dismissive of Wayne, and always will be. He hasn’t grown on them because they won’t allow it…they can’t allow it.

    • sheila says:

      I get frustrated with people who can’t see John Wayne’s gift as an actor. Very often you hear dismissive comments such as “He just plays himself” – as though that is an easy task. So I don’t get that critique. He was interested in exploring his own persona, in movie after movie – that type of acting is out of style now, but God, just look at how much depth and subtlety he was able to explore in this very well-known persona. That is NOT EASY. It required him to take huge risks. I think The Searchers is one of the gutsiest performances ever given by an American actor. He does not telegraph to the audience, “Okay, let’s judge and condemn this guy” – he doesn’t protect himself that way. It is a very difficult film to take, still. And that’s why it’s so damn good. He does not soft-pedal the character’s bigotry, and his sexual hostility. Natalie Wood is “ruined”, in his eyes – she is no longer the little girl he loved. She is beyond the pale, tarnished forever. It’s DEVASTATING. And that makes that final moment when he lifts her up in the air …

      I mean, my God, it just takes your breath away.

      “He just played himself”?? PUH-LEEZE.

      I think, though, lots of people have problems with the movies themselves and their versions of the settling of the West. I think those are valid points. But it certainly has nothing to do with the quality of this man’s WORK.

      • DBW says:

        Oh, I agree completely with you. In my comment to Craig, I wasn’t talking about everyone who dismisses Wayne’s acting. I meant a certain group of people who won’t let themselves see past his politics, or what he came to stand for. I think there are plenty of legitimate complaints about his movies, the history they portrayed(not always accurately), and even Wayne himself, but the people I meant are those who won’t “approach” his acting for its own sake because of their problems with him, and what they think he represents. I know you hate this kind of thing, but I want to present an example in my own life. I really disagree with most everything Sean Penn believes politically, but it would be absurd for me to argue he can’t act based on my own political prejudices. I mean his performance in “Dead Man Walking”(just for example) is incredible. I guess I just know too many folks who won’t extend the same unbiased appraisal to John Wayne. And, again, I’m not talking about those who think Wayne couldn’t act because he “just played himself” all the time. Those people are misguided, too.

        • sheila says:

          The whole “he was just playing himself” thing drives me INSANE. Cary Grant gets the same critique. It is an ignorant critique, and it just drives me NUTS.

          People who knew John Wayne said that he was just like he was onscreen OFFscreen (except he swore like a truck driver – he had a filthy mouth). But his essence was exactly the same offscreen as it was on. He was that PRESENT in his life. People who think that’s easy just flat out don’t know what they’re talking about!

          He worked. Wayne worked HARD.

          And about the politics: I agree, the whole thing is tiresome. This is well-trod ground for the two of us. :) In my experience, it is the people on your (and sometimes my) political side of the fence who are the most intolerant and nasty when it comes to actors (the main reason I had to ban politics from my blog – because I found I couldn’t do both: politics AND art – not with mainly conservative folks reading me – they were literally UNABLE to have a decent conversation about movies – UNABLE). Now you know you were never a part of that “horde” for me. Never.

          But it was a big problem back in ye olde days.

          I remember back in the day I got an email from a big right-wing blogger (he’s still huge) who told me, as though he expected me to congratulate him or give him a medal, that he finally forced himself to go see Mystic River, “and dammit, Sean Penn was good, I’ll give him that.”

          Sean Penn’s been good for decades, nitwit, and he’ll be good whether you “approve” of his politics or not. And the fact that this guy somehow felt I should know – like he wanted a pat on the head for how “open minded” he was… Ugh!

          Oh DBW I’ve got stories like that by the truckload. And these weren’t driveby people – they were regular readers.


          I agree that there is an intolerance towards Wayne because of how he voted. And that hostility lingers.

          I think Charlton Heston suffered from a similar prejudice that you mention – I mean, the guy was just crazy good, in a very very specific way – but people were blinded to it because … why? His politics? What a shame. That kind of thinking just never made sense to me. But then again, I grew up in an educated family where art and literature were a part of the fabric of our lives. Do I “sign off” on every one of Yeats’s political views? Hell, no. Is he a genius? yes.

          I don’t know. It just never was an issue for me.

          I do think that part of the issue (with Wayne, more so than with Heston) is his identification with a genre that many people find distasteful, due to the myth-making aspect of it. So they can’t “sign on” to what he’s doing, because they don’t buy the “myth”. Again, I really do see their point there – and there are moments in some of the early Westerns where the racism and the dehumanization of the enemy is despicable.

          But Wayne was willing to really look at those things – and portray these guys without trying to put a modern gloss on it, without apologizing for who he was, and the views of his characters – He let US out there in the dark figure it all out.

          He was working all that shit out on screen, in role after role after role.

          There really is no equivalent to what he was doing back then in modern-day films. People are not expected to just keep exploring the same persona repeatedly – although Angelina Jolie appears to be the closest thing we’ve got to an old-school movie-star (in my opinion: she is a PERSONA actress, – not a crazy chameleon – she’s in line with Stanwyck and Wayne and all the others, in my opinion) –

          But that Wayne was able to find so much depth and complexity in exploring the same guy, over and over again. It’s amazing.

          • sheila says:

            And one of the many many MANY things I appreciate about you, DBW, is your passionate and emotional attachment to John Wayne. In case you didn’t know that. :)

  5. Nick says:

    Wonderful stuff. Hepburn is amazing—her Cavett interviews, for example—and her evocation of Bogart is apt.

    I love Duke Wayne. His reactionary politics don’t bother me anymore than Jimmy Stewart’s do (or Lionel Barrymore, or Robert Montgomery, or any number of others). I watch The Searchers, Rio Bravo, and the Calvary (non)trilogy twice a year, and Three Godfathers every Christmas.

    Know some people who don’t like him simply because of their prejudice against Hollywood films, or for his central role in the myth-selling of John Ford and Howard Hawks. As one who feels kinship with America’s aboriginal peoples, I understand that view, but cannot share it. As a Texan, some of those myths (for better or worse) are central to my identity. Besides, those who dismiss him (whatever the reason) are missing out on some damn good movies, aren’t they? Sometimes principle can be so far extended as to not make a lot of sense.

    (Though I don’t see myself watching a Mel Gibson picture for a long, long while)

    Glad to see you’re a fan, too.

    (Like i read somewhere just the other day, being a liberal don’t mean you can’t like red meat)

  6. Nick says:

    Just occurred to me another reason some don’t care for him these days. There’s not an ironic bone in his body—what you see and hear is pretty much what you get—and his sincerity registers as cloying and sentimental, to some. I heard a really terrific panel of poets the other day talking about just this issue (as it affects poetry, of course, though the principles involved are much the same), and Mark Wunderlich said a couple of really great things, one being that irony is always subservient to sincerity, and another being that to create valuable art—which must be sincere—we must be willing to risk sentimentality. To walk right up to that edge sometimes, and risk teetering over, because sincerity and sentimentality are first-cousins.

    As partakers of art, seems to me we face a similar dilemma. By avoiding that which is of a different tone than we’re used to, we are closing the door on the idea of illuminations and possibilities not forthcoming from the pen of a Franzen or the celluloid of a Tarantino or (even a Kubrick).

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  8. sheila says:

    He obviously brings up passionate responses. I don’t care about his politics, and I’m not a liberal myself. His work can be confrontational, yes – The Searchers is a very confrontational movie – and Wayne is fearless in going there, and not protecting himself.

    I think his sincerity is something that was almost what you could call his true essence, and you can see it blazing off the screen in that first amazing closeup of him in The Stagecoach (the image at the top of this post).

    His gestures, his reactions, his commitment to the reality of the moment – he’s a real actor, Hepburn was right. I think a lot of people dismiss him without having seen much of his work, although there is such a thing as personal taste. Maybe some people just don’t click with that kind of work. Shrug.

    But to me, he is THE movie actor. A real pro.

  9. sheila says:

    He also was the type of actor who makes other actors better. He brought up a sense of competition in other male actors, to bring THEIR A-game to the table. So many actors testify to this. That just standing in a scene with him was like being with a force of nature, and you had BETTER know what you’re doing just to keep up with the guy.

  10. sheila says:

    And yes, to DISMISS someone because of their politics means you miss out on so much. This was the original “battle” I had on my site, with a lot of conservative readers, who came to me because of my writings on politics. That’s fine. But they would sneer at my posts about actors, if the actor didn’t line up with their politics. It was the most BORING situation I have ever found myself in. I’m an actress myself, that’s my background. I basically don’t hang out in real life with people who give a shit about politics when it comes to the actors they like – my friends are actors. So to suddenly find myself defending Bogart or Sean Penn or whoever – to people who refused to even see their movies because of their politics was, well, gross to me.

    The same can be said for liberals and lefties, they’re just as intolerant and insufferable.

    When it comes to acting, I’m above that fray, although I recognize that some people do bring out these powerful responses – Charlton Heston, etc. People care about politics. So do I. But I’m bored already with those conversations. Go hang out at Big Hollywood if that’s the way you want to talk. I’d rather talk about the WORK.

    I’d have to dismiss most of my idols if I had a checklist of “correct” views they were supposed to hold in my narrow-minded brain.

    So let’s keep talking about the work, shall we?

    One of the things I love about Hepburn’s tribute here is her admission that she is invested in those Prizes for good performance. It’s a very honest moment from her. Especially the bit about being “sore to begin with” because she believes she should be given a prize for every performance. Kudos, Kate, for admitting that, and for generously showing that Wayne didn’t have that going on.

    He joked when he finally won his Oscar, “I should have put on an eyepatch years ago!”

    I certainly don’t think that True Grit was his “best performance”, but the Oscars rarely get it right in that regard. It was a sentimental choice, for a Hollywood icon, but with such a body of work as he had, it’s hard to choose a “best performance”. I am obviously attached to The Searchers, but his performances in Red River and Rio Bravo are also favorites of mine.

  11. sheila says:

    And there are small moments of his that I cherish. It’s the little details that make him someone to “watch”. There’s a quiet scene in the middle of The Sands of Iwo Jima when he goes home with a woman he has met – only to find that she has a baby. He obviously thought he was going to get laid, but he takes one look at the situation and goes to the sink and starts putting together a bottle of formula for the baby. The woman (Mary) is upset, and he calms her down, just by his presence – and his no-nonsense response to the complexities of her life. He doesn’t act disappointed, he doesn’t shame her – there may be a small internal feeling of disappointment, because he thought he would be having sex – but watch Wayne deal with the realities of that moment, putting the whole picture together, without one word.

    His kindness towards that sad single mother – how he throws out his Plan A and goes right for Plan B …

    It’s a masterful little scene.

    You can’t reach “icon” status without nailing those LITTLE moments.

  12. george says:


    As to Ms. Hepburn’s observation on Wayne and awards I’m reminded of a scene from She Wore A Yellow Ribbon where the soon to be retired Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is presented an inscribed watch from his men. Brittles responds much as Hepburn’s observation of Wayne attests – he is pleased; and with all deliberation takes out his reading spectacles and reads the inscription, savoring every moment.

    And in real life, when Wayne was named recipient of one of Harvard’s send up awards he arrived with that wit Hepburn spoke of – a wit as big and broad-shouldered as himself – he arrived in a tank and won the battle without firing a shot.

  13. sheila says:

    George – Oh, that lovely moment in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Yes: what is it about him that can be so moving?

    A friend of mine said to me once, “We all have magic in us, but some people have movie magic.”

    You know it when you see it.

    Love that story of him showing up in a tank! Ha!!! When Peter Bogdanovich interviewed him, they had a great conversation about acting (it’s included in Bogdanovich’s book Who The Hell’s In It) – and at the end of it, Wayne told him what a relief it was to talk about acting for a couple of hours. “These days, people only want to talk to me about cancer and politics.”

    He was an actor before he was anything else.

  14. Nick says:

    A case can certainly be made, and often is, that his best performance was The Searchers—so much conveyed, with so little. The hardness in him, the hurt and disillusion. The unspoken stuff going on—the tone he used, late that first night, when he asked Aaron if he was asking him to “clear out”, and tossed him the little bag of yankee gold pieces; the odd dynamic between he and Martha—the tenderness with which he kissed her forehead, the next morning. The incredible, incredible (incredible!) last scene, as you mentioned—the narrowed eyes, hate-filled, fueled by rage, informed by years of disappointment and loss—all melting away, in one moment, one sublime moment, when he lifts her up, looks at her—and blood tells. As he chased her down the ravine, I was Martin Pawly, racing toward her, certain I would be too late, and hating him for what he would do—and as he gathers her in his arms—Let’s go home, Debbie—he is heroic, and I love him. Defeating one’s own demons sometimes requires the most heroism of all.

    What you said about the rather uniform quality of his performances, and of the many quiet moments of excellence that buttress the larger ones, is well-stated and true. I think of Nathan Brittles kneeling to visit his family, of the aimless strut seen from out the door of the Jorgenson’s house, as the final music cues, Ethan blowing to the winds, it seems (is he completed now? will he recede into anachronicity?). It is impossible to choose one performance, isn’t it?

    One other thing, relating to his physicality. You’ve heard the expression, to haul off and kiss someone—he even says it to John Agar, in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, regarding Joanne Dru (Haul off and kiss her, blast you, or somesuch). Has anyone, though, in movies ever hauled off and kissed like Duke Wayne? I think of his embrace of Dru, earlier in that film, of Gail Russell, Angie Dickinson, Charlene Holt, Maureen O’Hara—like no other actor I can think of, he did not embrace so much as envelop, sort of gather in. It moves me when I see him do it, because it indicates a certain guilessness to me. It is another in a long line of gestures that comprise his sincerity. And as you said, that is his essence, isn’t it?

  15. sheila says:

    Oh Nick – that whole Martha subtext in The Searchers – I mean, it flat out would not be the same movie without it. Because without the sense that he had given up on domestic happiness (somehow) – but that he had loved once (her) and then had to give her up … then Ethan would be just an outlaw. The last scene wouldn’t have the same impact. He is barred from the homestead. This is a tragedy for him. But he accepts it. He accepted it a long time ago when he “lost” Martha. Imagine if the movie had given him a floozy girlfriend in town whom he visited on occasion … I mean, it certainly could have gone that way – but it would have lessened the impact, don’t you think??

    And I love that: haul off and kiss someone. YES. He was fearless in expressing ALL aspects of his personality – and I think there are those viewers who are invested in him as the “tough guy” – but they miss the subtelty and courage of those more vulnerable moments. So when it came time to turn on the sex, John Wayne went there. I mean, that kiss in the rain in Quiet Man?

    Hubba hubba. Passion. Raw passion.

    Ah, God love him, he’s the greatest. :)

    I love his dynamic with Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo – he was great with strong sassy dames.

  16. sheila says:

    // It moves me when I see him do it, because it indicates a certain guilessness to me. It is another in a long line of gestures that comprise his sincerity. /

    Nick, that is a really perfect way to put it. Thank you.

  17. Clara says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Sheila. I didn’t know her writing style was so good. Great description.

  18. sheila says:

    Clara – this is from Me, her autobiography. The choppy style sometimes gets a bit much, in a full-length book – but there are gems throughout!

  19. D. C. says:

    I’ve found myself at times just wanting to haul off and kiss someone. Several someones actually. Can’t rightly do that nowadays or you’d be hauled away as a pervert. And that’s a shame really, if you think about it. What if a guy has no ulterior motive, other than just wanting to kiss a gal, rather than wasting words. Consider yourself good and kissed. Where did I hear that one before?

    Anyway, I digress. Sorry. I have always liked the Duke and I have a lot of his movies. There’s just something friendly and unassuming about the guy. I believe this is why everyone liked him. He was a guy with no pretense. Someone you could easily confide in.

    • Nick says:

      Consider yourself good and kissed. Where did I hear that one before?

      That Thing You Do. Final scene. At the bar.

      I remain, though, bewildered by what you intend to say. I don’t believe I’ve ever asked permission to kiss a woman, and I have never been arrested. Some modicum of judgement is required, though.

  20. sheila says:

    // Can’t rightly do that nowadays or you’d be hauled away as a pervert. //

    For real?

    I suppose if you “haul off and kiss” some strange woman on the subway who has never seen you before in her life, then yes, you should be expect to be arrested. But in a situation with a woman you know, where it is clear there is interest between you? Really? You’d be “hauled away as a pervert”?

    Perhaps one should remove one’s giant CHIP off one’s shoulder before “hauling off and kissing someone”.

    Maybe you’d get better results.

  21. The Siren says:

    You know how I feel about Wayne, and I admit that despite my sincere belief that True Grit is probably at least as good as most say, I am foot-dragging a bit. Because the condescension toward Wayne and his performance in ill-informed article after article (starting, I’m sorry to say, with one in the Times) has gotten up my nose something dreadful. I happen to think he’s great in True Grit. (And if anyone wants to know, yes I’ve read the book! And still loved Wayne.)

    He was an extremely calculating actor; one of the reasons I loved Garry Wills’ book on him was for his analysis of so many effects, like a comparison of Wayne’s stance with a Donatello statue. I am always dealing with the “played himself” canard as well and it drives me equally crazy. To me it’s like a director bringing a visual style to each film; Wayne brings a set of physical and vocal tools to each role, but there is no way you can say he’s the same character in 3 Godfathers as in Red River (my own favorite Wayne performance, and another where an opening scene of domestic possibility is rejected and informs the whole movie, as you’re saying above with the Searchers).

    Wow, that was … rambling. I do love him so. Thanks for this post and thread, Sheila.

  22. sheila says:

    Siren – I just saw the new True Grit yesterday (review to follow!) and it’s fascinating to see the two performances side by side. I love Wayne in True Grit, too. I love how she wakes him up in the back room after a bender – and he lies there in the bed, obviously hungover – and he sort of smacks his lips a couple of times, one eye closed. This is the kind of detail Wayne is so good at – it’s why his work is so good and so intelligent: When one is hungover, one has dry mouth. He doesn’t make a “bit” out of it. I totally believe that he has woken up with the feeling of cotton balls in his mouth. Wayne just did this kind of stuff casually, because his sense of reality is so damn strong.

    John Wayne is able to do more with ONE eye than most actors are able to do with TWO. And that last shot? With him, and his one damn lung, doing that stunt, jumping over the fence? Exhilarating. That is there for the audience pleasure in him, I am sure of it. People brought (and bring) so much baggage to John Wayne movies – and he was unembarrassed about that (something that so many actors today struggle with, in their desire to be important or relevant or whatever it is) – “Okay, fine, let’s have me have a great exit line, whoop and holler, and gallop around in a circle – all in one take so they know it’s me – and then yeah, let’s have me jump over a high fence and ride off into the sunset. That’s what they want of me, so let’s give it to them.”

    I think this kind of generosity is sometimes dismissed – and what a shame it is. People forget that this is an entertainment business. Wayne carried such reality with him, such LIFE, that all he has to do (“all” I should say) is show up. We, out there in the dark, fill in the rest. But that would not be possible if he hadn’t been “showing up”, year after year after year, in all of these films – some worthy of him, some not – and his own investment in the audience identification with him.

    I absolutely LOVE that about him.

    I love that you call him “calculating”. I think that is spot on – and something Hepburn references as well – and something people often miss about Wayne. That’s the pitfall of being so damn talented that you make it look that easy.

    I am avoiding all current reviews of True Grit until mine goes up – I got a new gig reviewing movies for a new site – I’m excited about it – stay tuned, it should go up tomorrow or the next day!

  23. sheila says:

    Oh, and this goes along with your beautiful comment on your site about John Wayne showing his grief through his back:

    How about the scene in The Searchers when he returns to the homestead, to find it burned and everyone dead – and he goes to the smokehouse, knowing what he will find, but he has to look anyway. He is completely silhouetted in the doorway – one of those great doorway shots – so we are inside looking out. He is completely dark, we cannot see his face – but what an effective moment: John Wayne is not “off the hook” because the camera isn’t closeup on his fully revealed face. He acts the HELL out of that moment – the slight defeated stoop of his shoulders, his head hanging down a bit – The fact that he is in the dark is a beautifully rendered John Ford moment, and Wayne tells us all we need to know in his posture.

    He was a full body actor.

  24. I’ve read your blog off and on over the years without comment, but feel compelled to do so, now.

    Much has already been said in the comments that I won’t rehash, but I will say this: For me, The Searchers could very well be John Wayne’s best performance, but The Cowboys and True Grit are two of his best films.

    As a side observation, I recently purchased the Blu Ray of The Searchers and the image quality is so damn stunning that I found myself so fixated on the absolute beauty of the film as to not pay much attention to the story. There are some vistas of John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley that are jaw-dropping.

  25. sheila says:

    Daniel – thanks for commenting.

    The Searchers really is one of the most beautiful-looking movies ever made.

  26. Carl says:

    I have seen the new TRUE GRIT and I think it is an excellent and engaging film. What bothers me greatly though are the myriad of reviews that feel the need to accept the Coen brothers’ rather disingenous and condescending pronouncement that they are remaking the novel, not the 1969 John Wayne movie. It is if they are saying the earlier movie was just a John Wayne romp that bore no resemblance to the source novel. Nothing could be further from the truth. I read the novel in 1968 and again just a few years ago. After seeing the new film, I watched the original. Time and time again, many scenes were almost identical, down to the dialogue. Why? Because they BOTH were true to the Portis novel! I have been a passionate Wayne fan for many years and honestly thought that over thirty years since his death, the ignorant and quasi-elitist criticisms of his talent would have dissipated. Thank you for posting the Hepburn piece–I have read it before. It is echoed by similar takes on Wayne by Coleen Dewhurst and Lauren Bacall. John Wayne was an actor and a damned good one at that.

  27. sheila says:

    Carl – I love him too. :)

    I do think the remake is closer to the book, but I still love the original!

  28. Carl says:

    My B.S. meter goes off when I hear the Coen Brothers stating they had not seen the 1969 movie. To hear them and the stars of the movie stress in nearly every interview that the new film is “going back” to the source material and is not a remake of the original movie is a slap to the original ; albeit, with a velvet glove. This had to be stressed in the marketing plan for the movie. Why? I think one reason is to lure those that did see the original movie to the theater ; however, I feel it was also to distance the production from John Wayne. It is sad to say that many still have a visceral knee jerk reaction to his politics. I thoroughly enjoy the new movie. I think it is probably a better “film” in the total than the original. That being said, I still get great enjoyment from the older film. I much prefer the ending in the 69 film with Duke Wayne waving his hat and jumping a fence. Aided by a great Elmer Bernstein flourish, it never ceases to bring a joyous tear to my eye. In the new film, I was also greatly moved by the haunting soundtrack based primarily on the old hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. The end credits utilize the wonderful Iris Dement recording of that song and the effect is mesmerizing. As I was typing this, I suddenly remember some dialougue from RIO BRAVO when Dude is questioning Chance on whether Colorado is a better gun hand. Chance replies ” I would hate to live on the difference”—I will let that be my view on the issue of these two movies.

  29. Thanks to you Sheila, and to all commenters. Duke still casts a giant shadow in Hollywood. Looks like everyone here agrees on one thing – the films are still worth
    watching, still being watched. That continued interest will carry their images an ideas forward to future generations. If the characters he portrayed were larger than life – there were many real men – and women – who rose to meet the tests of those times – of exploration and conflict – who lived lives that certify the validity of the widespread unselfishness that led to the heroism and leadership we still admire, whatever our own political viewpoint may be.

  30. Donna S says:

    I just finished watching rooster cogburn and wondered what Katherine Hepburn thought of John Wayne. I had never seen her quote before and it brought such a smile to my face and a tear to my eye. I grew up on Wayne and his movies, and his movies were my first to collect. if I have missed one I would be surprised! His talents; his humor; his sincerity; his Presence is unparalleled. His movies give me a feeling of comfort like a cozy blanket. The greats: Wayne, Cooper; Stewart; Fonda; Scott; Bogart; Hepburn; Bacall; O Hara; Tyrone Powers; Flynn….. goodness the more I add the more I think of! You don’t get that forever kind of talent anymore. Mel Gibson and all his good looks will not be watched and re-watched with the same respect, admiration, and enjoyment as the golden age actors and actresses.

  31. JimOConnor says:

    John Wayne said he doesn’t act he reacts

  32. Aideen Leonard says:

    I was gobsmacked and deeply moved by Ms. Hepburn’s evocative and devastatingly observant description of her Rooster Cogburn co-star. It left me thinking what a pleasure it must have been to have known either of these stellar actors. I’ve always loved John Wayne’s performances ( I’m 53 and Irish). His incredible intuition, the nuances of his performances and the generosity with which he allowed his fellow actors to shine alongside him, were inspiring. He had something very special and rare I imagine in many Hollywood greats; the ability to put his ego aside and to allow his spirit to shine forth. Thank you for sharing this wonderful piece of writing by the irrepressible Ms. Hepburn!

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