John Wayne: Getting to Know the Man Behind the Hollywood Legend

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    • John Wayne: Getting to Know the Man Behind the Hollywood Legend

      CloserWeekly has an interesting interview online. I've posted some small portions of it below.

      Today, Scott Eyman is a journalist, adjunct professor and author of numerous biographies Opens a New Window. covering actors and filmmakers from the Golden Age of Hollywood, but in 1972, at the age of 21 and armed with only the knowledge that he wanted to “write about the movies,” he found himself sitting with legendary Western star John Wayne. That meeting would lead, over 40 years later, to his writing the biography John Wayne: The Life and Legend Opens a New Window. .

      “If I hadn’t met him,” Scott, who was born March 2, 1951, muses, “I probably wouldn’t have written the book. Over the couple of hours I sat with him, I found that there was an interesting gap between who he was as a human being and what he played. I mean, not 100% — there was definitely an overlap — but he was much more … thoughtful … as a person than his screen character was. He was much more contemplative than his screen characters. His body language was different as a person than it was on screen. So there were just all of these interesting differences between what he did and what audiences thought of him, and who he actually was.”

      Believing in the American Dream
      John Wayne was born Marion Mitchell (eventually changed to Robert) Morrison on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa, reportedly entering the world at 13 pounds. By 1916, the family had moved to Glendale, California, where he attended Glendale Union High School, doing well in both sports (particularly football) and academics. It’s also where he picked up his nick-name, Duke, given to him by a local fireman who called him “Little Duke,” because he was always accompanied by his huge Airedale Terrier, Duke. Not too pleased with the name Marion, he preferred people refer to him as Duke. All of this would put him on the road that would lead to his Hollywood career — and ultimately sustain his legend, despite his well known conservative views.

      “Kate Hepburn was a flaming liberal all of her life and never deviated from it,” says Scott, “and she worked with him at the tail end of their careers in Rooster Cogburn — and she adored him. Most people, even liberals, loved working with him, because he was a very good actor and he worked hard. He was the first guy on the set and the last guy to leave. He was a pro’s pro and actors like that. He wasn’t phoning it in. Politically, she said he was reactionary. She said his political philosophy was based entirely on his own experience. Because he made it starting from nowhere — the family was lower middle class on its best day, and there weren’t too many good days in that era for him — why couldn’t everybody else make it? Completely overlooking the fact that, A, he was extremely handsome, was six-foot four, had a skill set that was remarkable and was a powerful locomotive. He was extraordinarily ambitious. Well, not everybody has that group of characteristics. There are people who work really hard and don’t have his talent. They’re not particularly talented in a way that’s going to bring them a lot of money, you know? And she said he just couldn’t grasp that. He figured, it’s America. If you work hard enough, you can make it.” Well … not necessarily.”

      ‘The Green Berets’: Things Begin to Go South
      If there was a turning point in John Wayne’s career, it was probably 1968’s The Green Berets. In it, Wayne plays Col. Mike Kirby who allows a reporter (David Janssen), who lies in opposition of the Vietnam War, to accompany his team on a top secret mission, the results of which convince him that the U.S. is exactly where it needs to be. Right wing politics for sure.

      “I think The Green Berets cost him an entire generation of the audience,” Scott suggests, “but he didn’t care, because he was putting his money where his mouth was. He produced that picture himself and it did alright. Not a huge money maker, but it didn’t lose anything. He was going to tell it like he saw it, and he thought Vietnam was a wonderful idea and that we had to stop the commies or they’d overrun us.

      “Nobody believes that now, and nobody really believed it then,” he continues, “but there was a faction that did. Right after The Green Berets, True Grit comes out and that helps with some of the fans that he lost. But I was 18 when The Green Berets came out, and I thought it was just a godawful picture. Even aside from his politics, it’s a World War II picture he’s making about Vietnam, and they’re two totally different things. But he just didn’t care.

      “But you could see as the ’60s became the ’70s, his box office is beginning to deteriorate. Even though True Grit was a huge success, and Big Jake made money, nobody was going to retire off the returns from [modern cop] films like McQ or Brannigan or, for that matter, The Shootist, even though it’s a wonderful picture. He had not brought a younger audience into his pictures. Now most 65-year-old movie stars don’t, let’s face it. When you get to be a certain age and you’re a star, basically you’re working the audience you already have. It’s very hard to get 20 year olds, because they look at you and they see their grandfather’s hero and they don’t care about that. That’s the problem that George Clooney and Bruce Willis are having now. Every big movie star has the same problem, and Wayne was having that problem.
      “The other thing is that Westerns started to croak. He tried to do a cop film, but he’s the world’s oldest detective. He’s just too bloody old; he’s not 35-year-old Clint Eastwoodin Dirty Harry, and that’s what he’s trying to do, but his timing is off. And with Westerns starting to suck wind and losing their audience, plus the audience got old and kids were not going to see Westerns, that also had a big impact on him, because that was his fallback genre. He was gradually painted into a corner by the time of The Shootist and I don’t know what he would have done, frankly, had he not gotten sick and ended up dying. Where was he going to go? I don’t see him doing television. He could have done character parts; and I don’t think he would have retired. Movies were his passion, more than his wives or anything.” For the record, he was married three times and had seven children.

      The full article can be had at:…ok-at-his-life-and-films/
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