Monday, May 25, 2009

180 Degrees of John Wayne

Noir Girl's Casey has tagged me, and charged me with the responsibility to "name an actor, actress or director that you started out despising (or just really not liking) but ended up loving. Or vice versa, someone you started out loving and ended up despising (or just really not liking) — and explain why."
(She went for Marilyn Monroe, who I've never really either loved or hated, just always liked a lot, while at the same time been mildly irritated by for reasons that are nothing to do with her so much as the industry that makes her the most boringly over-represented star in Hollywood history, and damns so many others to the shade. Read Casey on Marilyn here.)
For me... Well, there are plenty of stars that I thought I disliked, from a position of ignorance, and grew to love the more I saw of them: Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper to name just a few.
Then there are those that I didn't like then and still don't like now: especially Marlon Brando, James Dean, and that one-woman chamber of horrors, Elizabeth Taylor.
But stars for whom a positive dislike turned into a positive affection are rarer. In fact, I thought I wouldn't be able to think of any. But then it hit me. There is one. My grandfather's favourite actor: Big John Wayne.
When I was young and just getting into films, I rejected Wayne for three reasons:
1. Because I simply didn't like westerns very much.
2. Because of his politics.
3. Because he genuinely seemed like a bad actor to me.
Well, I'm still not a big fan of westerns. I can appreciate a good western, but it has to be a good western. I'll watch any old comedy. The only qualification that an old horror film needs to ensure my rapt attention is that it is, indeed, an old horror film. But westerns still have to be sold to me. It needn't take much. I watched Apache Drums and enjoyed it very much because it was produced by Val Lewton. (The siege at the end is unmistakably the work of old Mr Scary.) I watched Hannie Caulder because it had Christopher Lee in it. I watched The Outlaw for reasons you probably don't need me to explain to you.
My favourite westerns are usually not really westerns at all, but political parables (High Noon) or romantic comedies (Destry Rides Again) or vigilante thrillers (For a Few Dollars More). I’ve still never seen The Searchers or Rio Bravo or True Grit or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and while I would never look away should they come to me, I don't really see myself leaving the house to seek them out in any particular hurry. I saw Stagecoach in my youth; I’d appreciate that supporting cast even more now, though my tolerance for watching horses fall over remains easily exhausted.
But Wayne I have made friends with. As an actor and as an icon. But really, they're the same thing when it comes to Wayne aren't they? The Mount Rushmore status is indivisibly part of the package, part of what makes him memorable in the first place. That's why it's so fascinating to see him pre-Stagecoach now, to see this obvious divine pretending to be a mere mortal, especially when he's trapped like some tethered ox in a tuxedo or business suit. Watch him in the cheapo romantic comedy His Private Secretary or halfway down the cast of Stanwyck's Baby Love: he looks like a man in hiding from something.
His simplicity is his strength; it's the point of him. Where once I saw crashing lack of finesse I now see something of that granite-hewn integrity that places him in that select handful of old movie figures whose fame and appeal are effortlessly renewed with each generation.
And as with the man, so with his worldview. It's not so much that I've moved towards Wayne, more that I've moved away from my youthful idealism, and the default cynicism that characterises his detractors. Now I look at them and I see small fry. I imagine some great galvanising moment of major crisis, and I see them running for the windows and doors. What possible use Sean Penn would be on a desert island I dread to imagine. But the Dook would be putting up the bamboo shelters even before the last survivors had staggered ashore.
Jean Luc Godard, with that touching generosity of spirit so characteristic of Marxists, once said that he loathed Wayne for his right wing views but could forgive him anything for the last scene of The Searchers. (I'm the opposite: I find Wayne such an admirable figure it helps me sit through his westerns.) And Barry Norman never misses a chance to tell the stories of his two encounters with Wayne, both of which nearly ended with the Dook punching his blinkers out.
In the first (a press junket to promote True Grit) Norman decided to goad him into a political debate then feign outrage when he took the bait. In the second he made an insulting reference to McCarthy and thought it outrageous and hilarious that Wayne should defend one of his heroes, since the left are never fully able to believe that those with different opinions to theirs truly believe them. (Norman also insists on implicating McCarthy in the Hollywood blacklist; he was at it again in a recent issue of the Radio Times, telling us how McCarthy “presided over” the HUAC hearings. But McCarthy was a senator – ‘Senator McCarthy’, they used to call him – thus he had by definition nothing whatever to do with the HUAC. All McCarthy did was say that there were paid communist agents working for the US government, which there were.)
Get off your horse, drink your milk, and spark up a Camel.
Get off your horse, drink your milk, and help yourself to a cookie. You can't get a cookie jar shaped like Sean Penn, you'll notice.
The famous scene from The Searchers in which Wayne is abducted by Apaches and dragged to their reservation. Or possibly Glenna Finney, a tour guide at the John Wayne birthplace museum, taking the old boy for his morning constitutional.
I thought it would be amusing to take a picture of Wayne and photoshop a funny hat and Fu Manchu moustache on him. But Howard Hughes saved me the bother.

Louise Brooks thought Wayne the most beautiful man she had ever seen. They worked together on her last film, Overland Stage Raiders (1937), the last of the ‘Three Mesquiteers’ series of quickie B-westerns of which Wayne was one of the stars. (She’s very likeable with long hair and cheery demeanour – even in a film as throwaway as this we are reminded what a loss she was to American sound cinema.) Her description of him as an almost God-like vision of masculinity-in-perfection chimes more or less with his popular image in America. America loves Wayne, and I warm instinctively to any nation that warms instinctively to him. But I still prefer him out of his stetson and in less familiar environments.
My favourite John Wayne film is Big Jim McClain (1952), in which he plays an HUAC agent rounding up commies in Hawaii (I believe it’s George Clooney’s favourite, too) but I also like him in Dirty Harry mode in McQ (1974), and again in Brannigan (1975).
The latter, in which he is almost killed by a booby-trapped toilet, is set in an American tourist's fantasy of London, full of mindless civility and gentleman’s clubs, in which all the British players (headed by Richard Attenborough) cheerfully and shamelessly collude. Wayne is partnered by Judy Geeson as a WPC; by the end of the film we are asked to believe that she nurtures romantic feelings for him. It’s great fun for anyone, but sheer joy if you’re British.
And there's a wonderfully typical moment in The Longest Day (1962, in which Wayne triumphs during the Normandy landings despite having a broken foot before he even sets off): outlining the plans to a group of subordinates, he breaks off into a monologue and begins walking the length of the barracks as he talks, followed a pace behind by his junior staff. Occasionally he stops for dramatic effect and delivers a line or two without moving, then sets off again, his followers do likewise. Only Wayne could get away with this scene.
The flops are often more fun than the classics. I always enjoy him winning the Second World War in Flying Leathernecks (1951) and the Vietnam War in The Green Berets (1968), one of the two films he directed. (The other was The Alamo in 1960.) Then, of course, there is The Conqueror (1955), one of the great Hollywood follies, the last and most expensive film personally produced by Howard Hughes for RKO, with Wayne as Genghis Khan. The Medved Brothers are scarcely the most reliable sources, but there are four anecdotes about this film in their 50 Worst Movies of All Time which I hope are true but are good enough to repeat even if not.
One is that Wayne told reporters before production “the way the screenplay reads, it is a cowboy picture and that is how I am going to play Genghis Khan. I see him as a gunfighter.”
The second is that Wayne wanted the film to be premiered in Moscow but after a special screening at the Russian Embassy in Washington the authorities not only vetoed the idea but also banned the film throughout the entire Soviet Union.
The third is that Howard Hughes so loved the finished result that he watched it, often alone, over and over again, right up until his death in the seventies.
The fourth is that Wayne posed for a tie-in campaign to promote road safety, in which his image was accompanied by the message “JOHN WAYNE – THE CONQUEROR – SAYS YOU CAN CONQUER AUTO-ACCIDENTS – BY DRIVING CAREFULLY.”
The other thing I find fascinating about Wayne is that he has the world's oddest of all the world's odd ‘catchphrases they never uttered’. Bogart’s “Play it again, Sam”, Cagney’s “You dirty rat” and Sherlock Holmes’s “Elementary, my dear Watson” are all things they nearly said or might have said.
But in what possible circumstances could John Wayne have said, “Get off your horse and drink your milk”? Especially if he didn’t.