John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life

John Wayne was the most popular and durable star in American film history. But was he a good, accomplished actor

Throughout his career, critics debated about his acting talent and range. Most critics referred to him as a screen personality, national symbol, cultural icon-—anything but a serious actor.

An exclusively screen actor, Wayne learned his skills in front of the camera. He belonged to a breed of self-made performers who began their careers at the bottom of the industry’s hierarchy. As critic Charles Champlin observed: “Wayne is a motion picture actor, first, last and always, who defined as powerfully as anyone else what that means.” Wayne’s association with film was so intimate so it looked as if he were born in Hollywood and belonged to the movies.

When Wayne was under contract at Fox, his bosses thought he should learn some acting skills. They assigned him a drama coach, a Shakespearean actor, who was instructed to give Wayne some classic stage training. “He wanted me to act like some of those fancy leading men they had on Broadway,” Wayne later recalled, “to mince on my toes, make sweep gestures with my right arm, roll my r’s like I was Edwin Booth playing Hamlet.”

Feeling ridiculous, after a few weeks, Wayne told his coach, “I don’t think I’m getting anything of these lessons.” To which the latter replied, “If you live to be a hundred years old, you will never become an actor.” Wayne then told Fox’s executives that if they wanted him to act like that, “I didn’t reckon I could cut the mustard.” Fortunately for Wayne, director Raoul Walsh happened to observe one of those classes and, after listening to Wayne’s complaints, urged him to stop taking them.

Walsh was impressed with Wayne’s screen test for “The Big Trail”, which was meant to be the actor’s big breakthrough movie. He thought that, “for a college man, Wayne read well enough, but he fell into the common trap of beginners. He overdramatized his lines.” Walsh’s advice to Wayne was to play his part “with a cool hand like you’d do on a football field.” He also told him to “speak softly but with authority, and look whoever you’re talking to right in the eye.”

Indeed, actors who worked with Wayne always marveled at his ability to listen and look at the other players straight in the eyes. Right after the screen test, Walsh knew that “all Wayne had to do was to be himself. His personality, looks, and natural mannerisms were made in order for motion pictures.”

For a whole decade, Wayne practiced his skills in mostly B-movies. He became known for his underacting, as Walsh noted: “Wayne underacts, and it’s mighty effective, not because he tries to underact–it’s a hard thing to do if you try–but because he can’t overact.”

Wayne subscribed to the naturalistic school of acting, as he explained: “I merely try to act naturally. If I start acting phony on the screen, you start looking at me instead of feeling with me. But you can’t be natural; you have to act natural, because if you’re just natural you can drop a scene.”

The closest thing Wayne came to having a coach on the set was Paul Fix, a character actor of the silent era whom Wayne had met through Loretta Young. Fix recalled that “Duke was bright enough, but he didn’t know how to prove it, what to do with his hands, and after three lines he was lost.” Wayne and Fix worked out a set of signals: when Wayne was overdoing his famed brow furrowing, Fix would put his hands on his head. Fix was on the sets of Wayne’s movies for years, but nobody ever noticed.

Wayne gave a lot of credit to Yakima Canutt, the distinguished stunt man, who taught him all of his tricks, including how to fall off a horse without getting hurt. “I took his walk and the way he talked, sorta low with quiet strength,” Wayne said. The waffled forehead, cocked eyebrows, and swivel-hipped walk were all modeled on Canutt’s techniques.

Wayne learned from Ford, his most frequent and favorite director, to let the other actors in his scenes guide his performance. He thought of himself as a reactor rather than actor: “I can react to a situation that has already been built up when I walk on, but I don’t like to explain that situation myself.”

For Wayne, the difference between good and bad acting, was “the difference between acting and reacting.” He explained: “In a bad picture, you see them acting all over the place. In a good picture, they react in a logical way to a situation they’re in, so the audience can identify with the actors.” However, Wayne insisted that reacting was a valid form of acting, and harder work than given credit to. Screen acting was “a matter of handling yourself, comparable to sitting in a room with somebody you know.” In film, “the audiences are with you–unlike the stage, where they’re looking at you–so you’ve got to be careful to project the right illusion.”

Over the years, Wayne mastered the art of natural acting, which also characterized the style of Cooper and Gable. John Ford these performers as “great actors, because they are the same off the screen as they are playing a part.” As for Wayne’s distinctive style, Ford said: “He’s not something out of a book, governed by acting rules. He portrays John Wayne, a rugged American guy. He’s not one of those method actors, like they send out here from drama schools in New York. He’s real, perfectly natural.”

Lee Strasberg, of the Actors Studio and Method acting, also believed that “good acting exists when an actor thinks and reacts as much to imaginary situations as those in real life. Cooper, Wayne, and Tracy, try not to act but to be themselves, to respond or react. They refuse to do or say anything they feel not to be consonant with their own characters.”

Katharine Hepburn, who appeared with Wayne in “Rooster Cogburn”, once described Wayne as an actor with an extraordinary gift. A unique naturalness, developed by movie actors who just happened to become actors.” What impressed her about Wayne was his “unself-consciousness, and very subtle capacity to think and caress the camera–the audience, with no apparent effort.” For Hepburn, Wayne and other actors of his kind developed a technique similar to that of well-trained actors from the theater, arriving at the same point from an entirely different beginning.” Wayne’s acting was based on “the illusion of a total reality of performance, to the point where the acting does not appear acting, and becomes as powerful as his personality. Hepburn thought “Wayne was a very, very good actor, in the most highbrow sense of the word, because you don’t catch him at that.”

“I read dramatic lines undramatically and react to situations normally,” Wayne once described his approach. But he didn’t let critics underestimate it: “This is not as simple as it sounds. I’ve spent a major portion of my life trying to learn to do it well and I am not past learning yet.” As for tricks, Wayne said he had only two: “One was to stop in the middle of the sentence, so they’ll keep looking at me, the other was not to stop at the end, so they don’t look away.”

Director Howard Hawks who made some of Wayne’s best Westerns, including “Red River” and “Rio Bravo”, felt that, “ironically, Wayne became a much better actor since he suffered his bout with cancer.” “Because of the lung Wayne lost,” he explained, “he reads his lines differently. He pauses in the strangest places simply because he hasn’t got the breath he used to have.” This device was “terribly effective,” because you keep your eyes on him and wait for him to finish, because you don’t know what’s coming next.”

Wayne developed other devices to express the unique qualities of his screen image, honesty and sincerity. He had a distinctive voice that stressed every word in its own candid space. And he raised his eyebrows suddenly, so that his forehead crinkled with sincerity.

Wayne’s style stood in sharp contrast to Method acting, as embodied by, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean. He did not like to be overly emotional or too expressive, and preferred a minimum of dialogue–“one look that works is better than twenty lines of dialogue.” Wayne deplored “mannered” acting, which he thought characterized many stage actors from New York. “Let those actors who picked their noses,” he once said, “get all the dialogue, just give me the close-up of reaction.”

Wayne’s first Best Actor nomination, for “Sands of Iwo Jima” in 1949, didn’t do much for getting recognition as an actor. In subsequent years, Wayne received many popularity awards from the film industry but no critical acclaim as an actor. He never had a picture in a major international film festival. In l967, when the Cannes Festival showed interest in Hawks’s “The War Wagon”, “Universal was chicken, and there went my chance for glory.”

Wayne received his second Oscar nomination in 1969, for True Grit. It was another year of intense competition, with Wayne up against Richard Burton in “Anne of the Thousand Days”, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, both for “Midnight Cowboy”, and Peter O’Toole in “Goodbye Mr. Chips”. Earlier, Voight was cited Best Actor by the New York and the National Society of Film Critics, and O’Toole received the National Board of Review award.

Asked how he felt about winning an Oscar, Wayne said cynically: “You can’t eat awards. Nor, more to the point drink them. I really didn’t need an Oscar. I’m a box-office champion with a record they’re going to have to run to catch. And they won’t.” However, friends detected frustration when he stated: “My pictures don’t call for the great dramatic range that wins Oscars.” In l969, with a strong buzz about his chances to win, Wayne became more cautious in his public utterances. Realizing that it might be his last chance to grab the statuette, he didn’t want to alienate the film colony.

Wayne was so moved when Barbra Streisand presented him the Best Actor Oscar that had tears in his eyes. In a brief, humorous speech, he said: “I thought some day I might get some award for lasting so long! But I never thought I would get this particular award. I feel grateful, very humble.” And he concluded: “If I’d known what I know now, I’d put a patch on my eye thirty five years ago.”

Asked if the Oscar meant a lot to him, he replied: “Sure it did–even if it took the industry forty years to get around it.” Like other actors, after winning, Wayne’s Oscar scenario changed: “The Oscar symbolizes appreciation by your peers.” Wayne had never realized the award’s importance until “the flood of wires, phone calls, and letters I’ve been receiving from all over the world.” He regarded them as a tribute to the industry itself, which fortified his belief in the power of movies.”

Some critics felt that other Wayne performances, in “Red River” or “The Searcher”s, were more deserving of the Oscar than “True Grit”, and that it was unfortunate that neither had been nominated. Others charged that the Oscar was awarded as a sentimental recognition for his lengthy career and lifetime contribution to American films.

But people within the industry saw the Oscar as Hollywood’s confession that it had underrated Wayne as an actor for too long. Howard Hawks, for one, insisted that Wayne’s Oscar had nothing to do with sympathy or sentimentality but with good acting. “All of a sudden, they’re saying he’s a good actor,” said Hawks, “Well, he always was.”

Wayne’s acclaimed performance in “True Grit” prompted critics to reevaluate his career. “Time”s Richard Schickel wrote: “Every bit as much as Bogart and Cooper he had created a subtle heroic American archetype and had done so well with a skill deserving of as much interest as has been lavished on them posthumously.” Schickel noted that “Wayne has done work that for years has represented a kind of modest excellence in a very special line of endeavor–star acting. You don’t survive as long as he has without intelligence and a certain subtlety or self-understanding.”

Jay Cocks pointed out that after the Oscar, Wayne was “at last taken seriously, because he did not seem to be serious about himself.” He added: “Since I had always taken Wayne seriously, I wished the affectionate recognition had come sooner, and for something, not better necessarily, but closer to him, closer, anyway, to my idea of him and all he represented. “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, say, or “Red River”. “The Searchers” would have been best of all. But I settled for “True Grit”, and gladly.”

Wayne always enjoyed the respect of the auteurist critics–Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, Peter Bogdanovich. Haskell held that Wayne has been “abused by the Eastern intelligentsia, and more judged for his politics than his performances.” Similarly, Sarris claimed “It’s unfair to brand Wayne as a screen fascist, on the basis of his off-screen politics, when it is Sam Peckinpah who’s the foremost fascist in this particular woodpile.” The charge was targeted at Pauline Kael, who admired Peckinpah but never like Wayne and his Westerns.

Sarris observed that “True Grit” “has apparently accomplished the difficult feat of making John Wayne a respectable culture hero east of the Mississippi.” He deplored “the unyielding resistance to the Wayne legend among New York sophisticates, the rabble-rousing temptation to dump on the Duke in this citadel of enlightenment.” He suspected that many of Wayne’s detractors “have never seen more than a handful of the 40 or so Wayne projects that deserve preservation, over the l00 or so truly stereotyped time-killers on which he was employed.”

The time is ripe now, 25 years after his death, to reexamine John Wayne as one of Hollywood’s most accomplished actors.

If you want to know more about Wayne, please read my book, “John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life” (and paperback), one of the first books about this uniquely American actor.