John Wayne: Centennial–Ten Great Performances

Part Two in a Series of Articles: Was John Wayne a Good Actor

Part One examined John Wayne’s Acting Range.

Movies that Withstood Test of Time

One way to evaluate a screen actor’s contribution to film history is to examine his or her output in terms of roles and movies that have withstood the test of time, the ultimate criterion of evaluation in the arts. Accordingly, John Wayne gave at least ten marvelous performances in movies that have become classics of their kinds. Allan Eyles has suggested that when the name of a screen role is as readily remembered as the actor who played it, it’s a measure of the impact of that part on audiences’ collective memory.

There have been at least ten such roles in Wayne’s career:

1. Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939)
2. Ole Olsen in The Long Voyage Home (Ford, 1940)
3. Thomas Dunson in Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948)
4. Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Ford, 1948)
5. Sergeant John M. Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima (Allan Dwan, 1949)
6. Sean Thornton in The Quiet Man (Ford, 1952)
7. Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (Ford, 1956)
8. John T. Chance in Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959)
9. Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)
10. John B. Books in The Shootist (Don Siegel, 1976)

These performances are considered to be among the best screen portrayals in American film, not just in John Wayne’s oeuvre. Significantly, five of these roles were in John Ford’s movies and two in Howard Hawks’. Seven of these roles were in a Western, Wayne’s defining genre.

These performances ensure Wayne a firm place among Hollywood’s immortal stars. Some may consider this to be a modest contribution. However, put in perspective, did Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, or Bogart give more than ten really good performances

Was Gable a Better Actor than Wayne

You really have to stretch the imagination to compile a list of ten achievements by Gable. We know about the top four: It Happened One Night, The Mutiny on the Bounty, Gone with the Wind, and his last film, The Misfits.

Gable was older than Wayne by a few years (born in l901), but began his career at approximately the same time. However, Gable became a star a few years after his debut, doing his best work during the first decade of his career–unlike Wayne. Gable appeared, of course, in many popular movies, such as Red Dust, San Francisco, Boom Town, and Mogambo, but it is doubtful that his work in these films would be considered exceptional.

Even Cooper, whom some consider an exception because he made better and more popular films than other stars, did not give more than ten distinguished performances. A list of Cooper’s achievements would include, chronologically, The Virginian, Morocco, A Farewell to Arms, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Mr. Dees Goes to Town, The Westerner, Meet John Doe, Sergeant York, The Pride of the Yankees, High Noon, and Friendly Persuasion, The Hanging Tree.

Note that like Gable, Cooper’s best films were in the earlier part of his career and that after 1942 he made very few good pictures, though he continued to be a box-office attraction for another decade or so. In contrast, Wayne was a late bloomer.

Next to Wayne, Gary Cooper is the actor who contributed most to the Western genre, but of Cooper’s best films, only four were Westerns.

Wayne’s Personal Favorites

Wayne’s favorite films, those he considered “up to standard,” to use his jargon, were usually those that got the critics’ strong approval. Rooster Cogburn was his all-time favorite character, perhaps because of the recognition and the Oscar Award he received for it.

However, asked if “True Grit” was his best picture, he said: “Two classic Westerns were better: “Stagecoach” and “Red River”–and a third, “The Searchers,” which I thought deserved more praise than it got, and “The Quiet Man” was certainly one of the best.”

Wayne also singled out The Long Voyage Home, “the one that all the college cinematography students run to all the time.” He named The Searchers as John Ford’s best film, but said he enjoyed working in two other Ford Westerns, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Horse Soldiers. “You like different pictures for different reasons,” he said, so judging by the joy of making a film, he had “the most fun making The Quiet Man.”

To his credit, he never denied making bad pictures, “I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of and I’ve seen a lot of pictures I wouldn’t be proud to be in.” If he refused to name his worst pictures, it was because, as he said, “There’s about 50 of them that are tied.” “I can’t remember the names of some of the leading ladies in those pictures,” he added, “let alone the name of the pictures.”

Wayne had his share of bad pictures in every decade of his lengthy career. But in the late 1950s, more than in other decades, he struck “bad luck” and his career reached its lowest ebb. Between l956 and l958, he probably made his worst movies since the 1930s: William Powell’s The Conqueror, Josef Von Sternberg’s Jet Pilot, Henry Hathaway’s Legend of the Lost, and John Huston’s The Barbarian and the Geisha.

These failures had an impact on his box-office popularity and 1958 was the only year between 1949 and 1974 in which he was not among the top ten money-making stars. Wayne’s worst picture in the 1960s was Frank Capra’s the misguided project “Circus World.” The two 1970s clinkers, “McQ” and “Brannigan,” accounted for his disappearance from the ten most popular stars in the U.S.

Fortunately, he improved his record with his last two pictures, Rooster Cogburn, which was a popular, though not artistic, success, and the critically acclaimed “The Shootist,” his swan song.

What distinguished Wayne’s screen career was not only its amazing durability and productivity, but also the fact that it had many upheavals, ups and downs and ups. Wayne probably made more bad pictures than other stars, but there seemed to be a recurrent pattern: a succession of bad movies was followed by an excellent performance so that the bad pictures were soon forgotten. Wayne always emerged undamaged from his disastrous movies.

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