Excerpt from Slouching Towards Bethlehem: ‘John Wayne: A Love Story’, by Joan Didion

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, dreams and fantasies and wishes – they themselves embodied wish-fulfillment fantasies. 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.

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46 Responses to Excerpt from Slouching Towards Bethlehem: ‘John Wayne: A Love Story’, by Joan Didion

  1. Todd Restler says:

    Great stuff as always Sheila.

    I love your response to the “he’s just playing himself” criticism. What nonsense. It reminds me of one of my favorite passages from an Ebert review:

    “Some say I’m an expert on the younger woman — since I’ve been dating them for 40 years.”

    Who’s talking here? Jack Nicholson, or the character he plays in “Something’s Gotta Give”? Maybe it doesn’t make any difference. After playing an older man entirely unlike himself in “About Schmidt,” Nicholson here quite frankly and cheerfully plays a version of the public Jack, the guy who always seems to be grinning like he got away with something. This has inspired scoldings from the filmcrit police (“This is Jack playing ‘Jack’,” says Variety), but who would you rather have playing him? ”

    It’s the “who would you rather have playing him” line that I love. Exactly. The ability to create a larger than life persona on screen is rare, and should be cherished. Jack also took some abuse for being “over the top” in The Departed, but wasn’t he just playing the role? Yes he was chewing the scenery, but so was his character. Who would you rather have playing him? I loved him in that role.

    I haven’t seen much Wayne, but if you watch him for 10 seconds in any movie that comes on, his star power is palpable. I felt the same way the first time I saw Bogart (not sure if you put him in this conversation).

    As you said about Spencer Tracy, most actors wish they could register like these titans “playing themselves”.

    • sheila says:

      Oh yes, Bogart. That first closeup in Casablanca. BOOM. Authority. Truth.

      He was another one who didn’t “hit it” right away – similar to Wayne. He had years in the trenches playing gangsters and villains. If you think about Bogart – with the lisp, and the shortness, and the balding head, etc. he is not at all a natural contender for a leading man. Thank God it went that way, though. Hard to picture the 20th century movie landscape without that particular leading man.

      • sheila says:

        Oh, and Todd, the overuse of the phrase “over the top” also annoys me and sometimes reveals a similar misunderstanding of … the history of acting, the nature of acting, that what is valued NOW is not what is always valued, that there are more than one Method Acting kitchen-sink-realism way to skin a cat, etc. etc.

        Whenever someone says something was “over the top” I often want to ask, “What do YOU mean by that phrase?” Let’s define our terms.

        If someone says “over the top” and they mean it in a negative way – then I need to know what they actually mean by the phrase. Some of my favorite performances have been called “over the top” – and the term is usually used as a criticism. If I use the term “over the top” it would be a compliment, if that makes sense.

        It’s lazy shorthand. “This performance was very dramatic, and very intense, and it was quite over the top.”

        Over the top of WHAT? Compared to WHAT?

        Some critics can be very very lazy – especially when it comes to talking about acting. They’re fine when it comes to directors and camera angles and shots – but they fall back on lazy boring (incorrect) cliches when they do their tired best to describe a performance.

        Ebert, as you point out, is not one of those people.

        But they’re rare.

  2. Dan says:

    //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 if everyone followed this rule, thousands of blogs would wink out of existence, for the better in some cases…

    Anyway, this and “Goodbye To All That” are the only Didion I’ve read to date. She IS on my TBR list, which these days seems to function as much a reminder of my own mortality (‘How will I ever read all these books?’) as a ‘to read’ list. Would you recommend Slouching as a good starting point?

    As always, love your defense of Wayne and insights into the craft and history of acting. Have you seen Sons of Katy Elder? It’s one of my favorite ‘second tier’ Wayne films.

  3. sheila says:

    // But if everyone followed this rule, thousands of blogs would wink out of existence, for the better in some cases… //

    haha so true.

    Slouching is a great place to start – that and The White Album are her two most famous collections of essays. It’s interesting because she’s writing from the 60s, she hangs out with the Doors and Joan Baez – but she’s really a 1950s kind of girl. So she’s almost a tourist in her own time, which gives her writing that odd-ness that I really love.

    I’ll be posting a couple more from Slouching!

    It’s been years since I saw Sons of Katie Elder! There are some hilarious anecdotes in Didion’s essays of all these guys sitting aruond, shooting the shit – but, in a way, what Didion senses is their shared quiet dread about returning to Los Angeles. Not that their lives suck … but … John Wayne has cancer. somehow, being on location, they all could pretend that that wasn’t happening.

  4. sheila says:

    Oh, and none of this is to say that one needs to be an “expert” in order to appreciate acting – that is obviously not true at all! But it’s those in somewhat of a position of power, who should know better, who make broad ignorant statements along the lines of: “Spencer Tracy was good, but he was just playing himself – now Heath Ledger – THERE’S a REAL actor” – etc. ad nauseum, exeunt.

    Those are the people I have a beef with.

  5. Kate F says:

    “Dear Stupid Actor”–I love this so much.

    Sheila, once again, so astute and articulate.

    I love what you notice about how 90% of our opinions on this stuff is us projecting our own BS onto it. Does great art equal truth or does it equal transformation? I appreciate a good transformation and am fascinated by the smoke and mirrors behind it, but I’m with you: I’ll take the truth any day. Is it possible that, at bottom, there are two kinds of artists? Those who want to lie and those who want to tell the truth? Or, even more cynically, those who are there to give and those who are there to take? Shit, I don’t know, but it is interesting to think about.

    Thank you for all of this. Totally fascinating. xo, K

    ps: I heard part of an interview with Sissy Spacek yesterday on NPR. She has a memoir coming out. Sounds super.

    • sheila says:

      hahaha “so articulate” – Dear Stupid Actor. hahaha I’m so refined. I honestly didn’t even know what to say to the guy. I had to walk away.

      I also appreciate a good transformation – and I particularly love when my first introduction to someone is in a certain thing and then that person totally surprises me with their next role. I adore that. I felt that way when I saw Romper Stomper and then LA Confidential. That one-two punch was really when I became a Russell Crowe fan – although he has kind of fallen into some of the traps that I’ve mentioned here, lately. It’s hard to achieve the level of stardom he achieved during that Gladiator year.

      But anyway, yes, a transformation – when done artfully – is awesome.

      But don’t DISMISS those who never transform but who bring something else, something equally as indelible to the screen or stage!

      I am so excited to hear about the Spacek memoir – I had heard rumblings about it. I still haven’t read the Diane Keaton one, which I really have to do! Love both of those actresses – talk about two women with strong indelible personas. Like, such OOMPH of individuality and personality.

  6. Kate F says:

    And my most detested word that actors use when trying to rationalize a bit: Lazzi! So f’ing pretentious. I’m not rational about it at all. “so… when we do this lazzi here…”

    NO. You just forgot your lines.

    • sheila says:

      Lazzi!!! Oh man, that brings up memories.

      Remind me to tell you about “the Lazzi Window”.

      It’s sort of in the “Mexico- the flower of Europe” tradition.

  7. Dan says:

    //Oh, and none of this is to say that one needs to be an “expert” in order to appreciate acting – that is obviously not true at all!//

    I didn’t get that impression from this (or any other) post, more like you’re (correctly) separating opinion from informed opinion.

  8. sheila says:

    And to say he was JUST playing himself is the “tell”. There is nothing “just” in any way, shape or form about “playing one’s self”. Like Cary Grant once observed: it’s hard to play yourself even in real life – how many times do you go to a party and meet someone where it seems like they have chosen the “wrong self” to inhabit?

    It is not easy in real life for normal private citizens – and it is even more difficult to do with a script other than your own words, and a camera 5 inches from your face.

  9. Dan says:

    Yeah, if it was as easy as ‘playing one’s self,’ well, then we’d all be movie stars, or at least working actors.

    I’ve always liked old timey stars with personas (Wayne, Stewart, Grant, Bogart) so I never bought into that criticism (which seems to me to be leveled at Wayne more than others) but learning about different trends in acting throughout movie history was kind of a big revelation for me, with the proverbial light bulb and a-ha moment where things made much more sense.

    • sheila says:

      Yes – I’m so curious about the Wayne blind-spot, I agree – he really does suffer from that critically – and perhaps it has to do with the fact that he made it look easy. I think, too, there are some people who don’t like his acting for his politics, which is moronic, but whatever, people are idiots. Same as people saying they “don’t like Sean Penn’s acting” when you know that what they mean is “I hate his politics”.

      I think, too, Dan – and this is one of the points I was trying to make with putting Elvis in there too – some people are so universally loved, in such a huge and personal way – that critics and formal writers, etc., feel left out of that, and so … need to nitpick away at that edifice. Because the love the fans feel for these figures exists whether they approve of it or not.

      Marilyn Monroe is in this grouping as well.

      My comments here are a bit mean-spirited and are certainly not meant to be taken in a broad way – certainly not everyone who writes about actors/acting/film makes these huge errors. It’s just something I’ve sensed, with years and years of reading writing about acting.

      Spencer Tracy is another one who really has suffered. Talk about making it look easy. It’s a huge mistake to dismiss him because of that!

  10. Dan says:

    //some people are so universally loved, in such a huge and personal way – that critics and formal writers, etc., feel left out of that, and so … need to nitpick away at that edifice. Because the love the fans feel for these figures exists whether they approve of it or not.//

    Great point, and not, I think, something limited to actors and movies. Certain books seems to come in for the same treatment – Lord of the Rings comes to mind.

  11. sheila says:

    Yeah, there’s just no way for critics to have an impact in those situations – I think there may be some buried resentment there. Not in ALL critics, but in some of them! That definitely happens with books, too!

  12. sheila says:

    Also with musicians/singers. A group that comes along and makes a splash without being “anointed” by insiders is sometimes given a hard time – or ignored, critically.

    There’s almost a sense of: “Hey, wait a minute!! Where did you guys/girls come from??”

    Critics HATE playing “catch up” with an already-exploding phenomenon.

  13. You’re so right about the “just”…and it’s amazing how often you can tell it’s being implied even when it’s not actually there. Even more amazing is how often it’s delivered as though it were a claim NO ONE has ever made before. I actually believe every critic who says John Wayne was just playing himself, has managed to convince himself/herself they are the VERY first person who has had the guts to tell you this….Always makes me want to say, “Uh, no, I really have heard this before…and I wasn’t too convinced by those other three hundred people either.”

    On Didion, I think one of the things that gave her sixties writings so much poignance was that she was one of the few writers of her own generation who really understood that the kind of massive changes underway would inevitably lead to a lot of good things being thrown away (along with the bad) and that once they were gone they would be irretrievable….That to some extent the baby was being thrown out with the bathwater. Not sure it could have happened differently and I don’t think she was sure either, but her ability to catch the world in flux was unique and invaluable. She might be the only essayist I ever consumed at one sitting (I think I read all her books inside a week when I discovered her in the early nineties). She’s always been acute, but those early essays were something special even by her standards.

    • sheila says:

      // would inevitably lead to a lot of good things being thrown away (along with the bad) and that once they were gone they would be irretrievable //

      NJ – God, that is such a good point. So true.

      I also inhaled her in almost one sitting and have read every book that’s come out since – she’s compulsively readable, I think!

      • sheila says:

        and when someone says “He just played himself” I sometimes say, “What do you mean by that? Could you elaborate?” The SECOND answer is ALWAYS more interesting than the tired cliche.

  14. bybee says:

    I am astounded that there are actors who have never seen a black-and-white movie! Shame on them. They are also to be pitied.

    • sheila says:

      I think it’s a general issue – but I’m always shocked when I see it show up in actors. Guys, this is your profession!!

      Totally to be pitied!

  15. ted says:

    Wonderful tirade, dear friend. Whenever people say that an actor was playing himself, I wonder how they know that. Did all these experts know Wayne, Grant, Tracy personally? Were they long and well enough acquainted to say they are really playing themselves? And which self would that be? It’s like Grant’s quip, if you know anyone well, you know they have many selves. If you doubt it, watch someone when you can’t hear them, take a business call, put that call on hold, and take a call from their lover or their mother. Then tell me you saw only one thing.

    If these people truly were “playing themselves,” I would suggest, as Grant did, that they are extraordinarily talented. Having tried to pretend to do something like that I had in my head once I’d say, Damn, that’s hard. To remain yourself over multiple takes when you’re being watched and when you have a reputation to live up to. That’s quite a challenge. It’s not the only thing I want from a performance, but it is definitely its own skill. I think that these critics can only say that they believed they were behaving like themselves, and if the actor convinced you that this is the case, I’d say there’s craft in that.

    This preference for transformation over, what would you call it, relaxed natural charisma performance really seems an extension of whatever the particular audience member goes to the movies for and boy could we have some fun with that!

    • sheila says:

      // Were they long and well enough acquainted to say they are really playing themselves? And which self would that be? //

      That is such an excellent point and something I totally missed, so wrapped up was I in my tirade. yes: you can say, with 100% certainty, that Spencer Tracy was “playing himself”? You knew the guy? He was ALWAYS the same, in every situation? With his lawyer, his wife, his mistress, his director, his colleagues? Always the same?

      It’s just lazy wording, and besides my obvious problems with it (some of the greatest actors in the world “just played themselves”), that is a really good point.

      What I love is how much subtlety Wayne (and Grant, and Cagney, and Tracy, etc.) were able to get into these well-loved well-known personae. John Wayne is not at ALL the same guy in Sands of Iwo Jima that he is in The Searchers. Or Rio Bravo. Or The Cowboys. Watch those movies. That’s not the same character. It’s just not correct to say so! It’s fair, I suppose, to say you’re not a fan of his acting (although I think you would need to have your head examined if you think that) – but to say that he is just monolithically always the same is flat out not true.

      Same with Cagney. His early stuff – and then White Heat? Same guy? He didn’t go a little bit deeper in White Heat? Yankee Doodle Dandy? Same guy as Roaring Twenties?

      My problem, I guess, is that it represents a lack of critical awareness – and also shows that people have a hard time actually SEEING something. Like, literally – they can’t SEE it – due to biases, preconceived notions.

      This is something that is true of all of us, to some degree, in different areas.

      I mean, think of Gena Rowlands. She, to me, is always recognizably Gena – she isn’t a major chameleon like Streep – but … put Gloria side by side with Another Woman … Roger Ebert really goes into that in his review for Another Woman – how she really responded to different directors like a well-tuned violin. With her husband, she was raw and insane. With Woody, she was restrained and quietly pained. Brilliant!

      But, you know, she never “uglies” up, she is always beautiful, she never put on a wig, she usually wears beige colors, classic outfits – her hair is usually somewhat the same …

      But there is nothing at all lacking in her work!!

      Since what we value now is people being visually unrecognizable from role to role – it’s hard for some people to see the sheer skill of people who DON’T “transform”. I also personally think that some of the folks attempting transformations now are not very good at it – but they are going with the trend. You know, unless you’re Meryl Streep, you might want to think twice at trying to totally eradicate your own personality. You really need the chops to pull it off. Many actors today ATTEMPT, but FAIL. I give very few points for trying. Not when there are truly great people out there.

      That’s one of the reasons I love Angelina Jolie. And Julia Roberts. They’re movie stars of the old Persona School, and they seem totally okay with that. They resisted the pressure to “show their range”, Roberts, in particular. She hit pay dirt YOUNG and stuck with it. Smart. I know some people don’t like her work, but I do admire the sort of breezy acceptance of her own persona – the persona that audiences spontaneously fell in love with in Pretty Woman (so spontaneously that the studios and her own agent were unprepared for the UPROAR the greeted the film upon arrival – Julia didn’t even do press for it!!) – so she was a smart cookie, and stayed with what had worked. This may make her work seem monotonous – especially if you don’t care for her – but I think there is a great skill in what she does. She also finds great nuance in that “persona” – the girl in Pretty Woman is not Erin Brockovich. One thing she CAN’T play is dumb. She has been smart to never attempt it. Some smart actresses seem to want to slum it, to play unself-aware dumb characters – but unless you have the skill … you just look like you’re slumming. It’s embarrassing. Julia is always the smartest person in the room, and her characters reflect that. I think she has chosen very smartly, in an old-school studio way.

      This is obviously up for debate – but there are still some actors out there who have not buckled to the trend. Sometimes I find their work far more interesting than those who show up looking 100% different in every single film. Sometimes those transformations (phone call for Cate Blanchett) start to look a little facile, a little shallow.

      • ted says:

        My critique wasn’t of you though. (I just love when you write about acting!) As you say, it’s a shorthand fan without critical skills can’t give other words – except that they know consistency when they see it. Tracy as you say was subtle, steady and yet he participated with honesty in every moment he played. It’s just that he didn’t do anything else, while Streep or Paul Muni get off on discovering stuff about the externals, or perhaps those interest allow them to participate with less self-consciousness than they would otherwise? I think even Streep, despite remarkable transformations exteriorly, had something consistent going on in her persona. I was struck just this weekend watching Kramer vs. Kramer for the first time in 20 years how you can trace a thread from Sophie through The Devil Wears Pravda. That brittle vulnerability – I always think I see a streak of self-loathing in it. BTW, Are you going to see Blanchett in Uncle Vanya in July? I’m going!

        • sheila says:

          Oh – I didn’t take it as a critique! It was so funny – I didn’t set down to go OFF on that Facebook guy – but the second I started that paragraph, I knew I would have to go there. One of those moments where I had to succumb even though I knew it meant the piece would be way longer than the Didion excerpt!!

          // I always think I see a streak of self-loathing in it. //

          Ted, that is fascinating and I want to hear you talk more about that. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone describe it in quite that way – but now that I think about it – I see it. Silkwood, too. She sure plays a great martyr.

          I need to see Uncle Vanya! She is so perfect for that part!

          • sheila says:

            and then there’s someone like Joan Crawford – who has a terrible reputation now merely because of her ingrate daughter’s book – but my God, talk about forcing yourself to stay on the top – by sheer WILL – there are stories of her literally begging Otto Preminger on bended knee to give her the part in Daisy Kenyon – she was very very very smart about what she could and could not do, and should not attempt. She very rarely misstepped. She kNEW her persona like the back of her hand and chose the roles that would bring out another level of subtlety, or nuance.

        • sheila says:

          I’m so pissed at Christina Crawford for her vicious book that when I learned that she was in a movie with Elvis – (Wild in the Country – she had a small part, and she sucks – you’re not your mother, dear.) – and she actually made this mild-mannered man who had good manners in his DNA blow his top – I was like, “Of COURSE. She’s AWFUL.” Every person who worked with him loved him, no one has anything bad to say about him – and SHE, of all people, drove him to a tantrum where he actually splashed his water in her face to get her OFF him. I’m sure that was better than she deserved.

  16. DBW says:

    As you might guess, I have loved every word of this–you and your commenters. Another version of the complaint about Wayne’s acting I’ve heard is, “John Wayne just played John Wayne.” Oh, did he ever. I once asked a guy who had said that about Wayne, “Can you name someone you’d rather see him play? That’s like saying Michael Jordan just plays Michael Jordan. It’s true, but it’s a compliment, and I don’t think that’s the way you mean it.”

    I also want to note Ted’s comment about the hint of self-loathing in Streep’s acting. I had never thought of that, but I see it now when thinking about a LOT of her roles– Kramer, Sophie’s Choice(though well-earned), Deerhunter, Prada, Madison County, Out of Africa–wow, I could go on. I think most of us have at least a little self-loathing inside of us. After all, we know all our dirty secrets. That might be part of Streep’s secret, and how she connects so deeply with us. Great observation, Ted.

    Plus, loved your comments about the personal nature of fans’ relationships with Wayne. I certainly fit that profile, and I even saw myself in the comments you mentioned. Don’t want to go overboard, but he captured something about America and Americans–maybe more than any other actor–maybe just the way we wanted to see ourselves. I don’t want to go political on you, but it is inarguable that many of the people who say they don’t like his acting, or thought he wasn’t talented, are just people who hated his politics–or didn’t like that vision of America that he represented. And, that is OK. I do, and think, stupid things for the wrong reasons, too.

    God, and I love Joan Didion. Just a fun, and thoughtful, post.

  17. jennchez says:

    Whoever saif that comment about Spencer Tracy just pisses me off. I love Didions line about “sexual authority”. I was watching a scene from the “The Quiet Man” and my eight year old looked at the screen and said “That is some serious man candy, but I still like Cary grant better”! Thats my girl, my parental pride glowing :). But even at her young age she realized how he was just in command!!

  18. Dan says:

    I read the Eyman biography earlier this year, based on your recommendation, and really enjoyed it, so much so that I passed it on to my Dad.

    Anyway, happy birthday John Wayne!

  19. Dan says:

    Yes, although I have to admit it’s the only Wayne biography I’ve read to date. I thought Eyman was very even-handed, both in his judgement of Wayne’s performances and his politics. And of course I learned a lot about his personal life. I had no idea about the Dietrich affair – what a fascinating couple they must have been! And how close he remained with his first wife.

    • sheila says:

      I think it’s the only Wayne biography worth reading – because of the two things you mentioned. It’s really good on his acting and really fair on his politics. What a relief!

      And I know, he and Dietrich – hot couple!! Wasn’t there some moment in the book – late in his life – when someone asked what had been the best/most memorable sexual experience in his life? And he said something like, “I took Marlene on the stairs.” Whatever the hell he said, it is a memorable image!!

      I loved all the details about all his kids too – and yes, all of his wives! He loved being a family man.

  20. JessicaR says:

    I’m finally reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem and I almost have to put the book down sometimes, the lacerating perfection of her prose is too much. This essay was particularly hard to get through. John Wayne was my Dad’s favorite movie star too, so I get that feeling of possessiveness/protectiveness people feel/felt about him. And there’s the added poignancy of I finally got into Wayne and westerns when it was too late to share that with my dad. Brilliant book.

    • sheila says:

      Yeah – like the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” she articulates the complete dissolution of everything even remotely sane in the late 60s (John Wayne excluded).

      Have you read The White Album yet?

      • sheila says:

        and I hear you on the bittersweet feeling about getting into something after someone has died, something you’d like to have talked with them about.

        Everything is a tribute. That’s how I try to look at it. Every Bloomsday celebration I go to (and it’s coming up!) is a tribute to my Dad. But it’s hard.

  21. Jeff says:

    I suppose the musical equivalent would be someone who says “I don’t like that artist – all of their music sounds the same.” I don’t even bother to respond to that anymore.

    • sheila says:

      That’s a good point. It’s a ridiculous and boring argument. Anti-art, actually – or betrays a deep misunderstanding of what art actually IS.

  22. Johnny says:

    Great article once again Sheila.

    Funny thing is, John Wayne DOES remind me of my dear grandfather. He loved western films so much that it ended up being some sort of a running gag in the family. The man loved his horses and even in his late 70s he would still dream about being a cowboy. For me, mentioning John Wayne is an immediate reminder of my grandfather and all those precious moments watching westerns together.

    Looks like I did write about myself!

    Thanks Sheila!

    • sheila says:

      Johnny – your comment really really moved me.

      It’s one of the most moving things about John Wayne – the associations people have with him that don’t really have to do with his films, but with what he meant to people in their lives. It is a profound connection with an audience – profound – that very few entertainers – like count-on-one-hand few – have.

      Thanks so much for commenting!

  23. Dan says:

    // 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.//

  24. Neal Umphred says:


    You had me at, “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.”

    The you added, “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!”

    We are soulmates!

    For “acting,” substitute just about anything: “popular music” or “baseball” or “politics” or “sex” or “history” or …

    Recommended reading: the Dunning-Kruger Effect (Rational Wiki has an accurate nutshell definition but the original research paper by Dunning and Kruger is very readable) and “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.

    Keep on keepin’ on and don’t forget to do the clam once a day!


  25. Stephen Fox says:

    Hi Sheila

    I’m only 7 years late on this thread and do not know your blog but I see you were still accepting comments 2 years ago so I’ll write this.
    I’m English, grew up in the 50s and 60s and always loved westerns. Especially like Shane, The Searchers, The Man who killed Liberty Valance and so on.
    I read that article by Joan Didion when it was printed in a newspaper over here in the 90s. I think it’s special not least because Didion epitomized maybe the opposite of the world of John Wayne, a world of cocktails and smart parties in New York. The idea that someone like her could still have underneath all the sophistication that simple love for the dream of America is astonishing to me. I have the actual paper article in a box of special stuff, and still well up when I read it:

    ‘In a world we understand 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 there at the bend in the bright river, the cottonwoods shimmering in the sun.’
    Westerns are special because they try (at their best) to capture that, and America is special because it was the last ‘location’ where the attempt was made.

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