Biography examines life, legend of big-screen great John Wayne

05/10/2014 11:15 PM

08/08/2014 10:24 AM

“John Wayne: The Life and Legend” by Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster, 658 pages, $32.50)

He was the strong, forthright hero: authentic, stubborn, sometimes pigheaded but dedicated to justice and capable of tenderness and sacrifice; a solitary figure, called upon to defend the homestead or rescue the girl, but often exiled, in the end, from the post-frontier civilization that no longer needed his hard man’s brand of competence and courage. Whether he was a gunfighter, a cowboy or a cavalry officer, he became, for many moviegoers, the very avatar of the American frontier: the embodiment of James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer, Emerson’s American Adam or what Garry Wills called fans’ sense of what “was disappearing or had disappeared” from American life.

The narrator of Walker Percy’s novel “The Moviegoer” talks about the memory of him killing “three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in ‘Stagecoach’ ” as more real than memories from the narrator’s own life. Joan Didion called him the “perfect mold” into which “the inarticulate longings of a nation” were poured.

John Wayne put it more simply: “I’ve found the character the average man wants himself, his brother or his kid to be,” he said. “It’s the same type of guy the average wife wants for her husband. Always walk with your head held high. Look everybody straight in the eye. Never double-cross a pal.” Later in his career, he would turn down roles – like that of the conniving and corrupt Willie Stark in “All the King’s Men” – that violated his belief system. “He intended to play only men,” says Scott Eyman, the author of a new biography of Wayne, who “mirrored his own beliefs, his own values, either partially or completely.”

As Eyman’s detailed and at times long-winded new book, “John Wayne,” makes very clear, the man Duke Morrison – born in 1907 with the unlikely name Marion Robert Morrison in the small town of Winterset, Iowa – was not synonymous with the John Wayne character he created on screen. “In Wayne’s own mind,” Eyman writes, “he was Duke Morrison. John Wayne was to him what the Tramp was to Charlie Chaplin – a character that overlapped his own personality, but not to the point of subsuming it.”

A conscientious and tireless student, Duke started out as an extra and prop man, and spent a decade before his breakthrough role as the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939), toiling away in B pictures, made in three, six or 10 days. During those years, he honed his craft and put together the pieces of a screen character – his distinctive start-and-stop phrasing; his low, slow growl of a voice; his graceful, rolling walk. It was a character that drew upon his easy charm and faith in self-reliance, but it was also modeled, he once said, on “the kind of man I’d liked to have been.”

Eyman says the screen persona that Wayne devised for himself – of a man who was at once an outsider and an authority figure – helped transform an awkward, insecure boy into “the emphatic representation” of an “American masculinity” that was sure enough of itself to encompass a certain melancholy and vulnerability beneath the steadiness and self-assurance.

This story of John Wayne’s invention of himself has been told many times before. “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend,” Glenn Frankel’s succinct and powerful 2013 book about John Ford’s masterwork, discussed how the young Wayne studied the western star Harry Carey’s slow, soulful manner, and the lessons he learned from the accomplished stuntman Yakima Canutt, a former rodeo star. (“I studied him for many weeks, the way he walked and talked and rode a horse and pulled a gun.”) And Wills’s 1997 book, “John Wayne’s America,” which was less a biography than an extended essay about the dynamics of celebrity, also covered much of this same ground.

Eyman’s book aims to be far more comprehensive than those earlier works; at times, it feels too comprehensive, doggedly chronicling more forgettable Wayne movies and offering tedious asides about the financing of various films. The author also spends an awful lot of space on issues that have been debated for decades (like the relationship between Wayne’s conservative politics and his choice of movies) without shedding new light on them.

But what this book does expertly is give the reader a spirited portrait of John Wayne – er, Duke Morrison – and the Hollywood he worked in, while doing a nimble job of charting his growing mastery of his craft. It traces his transition from the eager, boyish roles he played in early movies to confident leading man; from John Ford’s “perfect Everyman” to “everyone’s father”; and, eventually, “everyone’s grandfather,” in pictures like “True Grit.”

Eyman – the author of a biography of John Ford (“Print the Legend”) – gives us a vivid sense of the mentor-protégé relationship that endured between Ford and Wayne, and Ford’s proclivity for belittling the actor on the set, while taking care of him on screen. He recognizes the skill and intimate knowledge of the filmmaking process (the result of all those years in B movies) that lay beneath Wayne’s easy screen demeanor. And he appreciates, too, the ambiguity and layered complexity of roles like Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers” (a man possessed by vengeance and racist fury, and yet true to his moral code of honor) and the deep sense of loss or isolation that informed characters like Nathan Brittles in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and Tom Doniphon in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

The Duke Morrison portrayed in this book is a consummate professional, always on time on the set, quick to apologize when his temper got the best of him, and given his own humble start, solicitous of the crew and extras. He was a heavy smoker and hard drinker, like many of his characters, but also an avid chess player and book lover who could quote Shakespeare and Dickens (and who, Eyman reports, “had a surprising taste for Tolkien”). He collected Eastern woodblock prints and kachina dolls, and his impoverished childhood left him with a love of catalog shopping, buying so many presents for his children and friends that “mail order packages would arrive in bunches, 10 or 20 at a time.”

Beginning in 1951, with “The Quiet Man,” Eyman writes, and continuing for the rest of his life, Wayne “indulged in a beau geste of ordering personalized coffee mugs for the cast and crew of each of his films.” One side would say “To xxxx from Duke”; the other would feature a line of dialogue or a scene from the film. Wayne would “rough out the artwork himself,” Eyman writes, before giving it to an artist for a final version.

Eyman also observes that “for the sake of psychological clarity,” the actor always asked people to call him Duke, not John. “I’ve always been Duke, or Marion or John Wayne,” he said in 1975. “It’s a name that goes well together and it’s like one word – JohnWayne.”

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