John Wayne: Screen Image–Star as Auteur

Film is a collaborative art, the work of a creative team of producer, screenwriter, director, actors, and technical crew.  However, not all team members are of equal authority, power and importance.

There have been different theories concerning the question of which element is the most influential in shaping the final contents and form of motion pictures.  According to the auteur theory, which originated in France in the 1950s and was propagated in the United States by the distinguished film critic Andrew Sarris (Village Voice), the film’s director is its auteur, because the other production members are subsumed under his power and abide by his notions.

For auteurists, the film oeuvre of a particular director is both more important and more revealing than any of his individual films.  The auteurist critics have been concerned with depicting thematic consistencies and stylistic continuities in the works of major directors, such as Lang, Hitchcock, Ford, and Hawks.

There have been different variants, or emphases, of auteurism as an approach to film history.  For example, in contrast to those stressing the role of the director, others have singled out the role of particular producers or screenwriters as auteurs.  The importance of players to and in film has been underestimated by many auteurists, holding that players’ influence is usually limited because they are involved just in one element of the filmmaking process–acting.  Furthermore, some critics claim that most stars have been studio creations, images fabricated and manipulated by their studios’ publicity machines, thus lacking control over their choice of screen roles and, by implication, their careers.

Richard Dyer‘s 1982 work has been one of the few attempts to examine the role of specific actors as auteurs. Dyer proposed to distinguishing among those who controlled their images, those who contributed to their images, those who were part of collective teams, and those who had very little or no control over their careers.

However, even Dyer did not examine systematically how and under what conditions stars have controlled or contributed to their screen personae.

Some of the auteurists’ notions can be extended and applied to a small group of movie stars who were auteurs because they–not their directors or producers–were the primary source of influence over their screen images and careers.  Some of these stars became auteurs with the assistance of their studios (Clark Gable at MGM), others without any studio assistance (Cary Grant as a free-lance actor), or even against their studios (Humphrey Bogart at Warners).

During the golden age of Hollywood, what is known as Classic Hollywood Cinema (1930-1960), a small minority of stars possessed, relatively speaking, more power than the writers or producers of their pictures.

Significantly, most of the recent stars who were in control of their films, such as Clint Eastwood, Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn, and Barbra Streisand had their own production companies, entities that initiated good projects and vehicles for them, and facilitated greater control over their film products.

A defining characteristic of movie stardom is the possession of a distinct and distinctive screen image over a prolonged period of time.  Among other things, this particular screen image enables a more intimate identification between the stars and the mass audiences.

A powerful screen persona is established when audiences bring to each new movie they see memories of that star’s previous movies, to the point where each successive film supports the preceding one.

Many of the great movie stars, James Cagney, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, tended to play similar roles in similar narratives so that they gradually developed quite consistent screen images.  These images were also powerful because they were based, to a large extent, on their lives off-screen, with the cumulative effects of audiences’ inability to separate between their public and private personae.

The great movie stars function as cultural icons and points of reference and stability in an otherwise changing industry and society.  As such, they stand in sharp opposition to players who display a wide range of abilities in diverse roles.  The latter, the actors’ actors, prefer to conceal, rather than reveal, their personalities by immersing and submerging themselves as completely as possible in the specific role they happen to play at the moment.  And their screen assignments differ considerably from one film to another.

Thus, it is possible and makes sense to describe “a John Wayne movie” or “a Clark Gabler movie” or to claim that Cary Grant tended “to play himself,” but it is impossible to describe a “typical Laurence Olivier film” or to discern a consistent Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman, or Meryl Streep screen persona.

John Wayne’s career provides a unique case for examining the creation and maintenance of a powerful screen image for over half a century.  Wayne has probably been the truest auteur of his films, as critic Andrew Sarris observed in 1971: “In this, the age of the director, there still are a few actors whose strong personalities can inform the mood, pacing, and structure of an entire film.”  “Mr. Wayne’s presence, physical as well as emotional,” critic Vincent Canby concurred, “shaped his movies as much as the contributions of the writers, directors, producers, and cameramen.”

Of all the star-auteurs, Wayne was probably the only one to exercise such degree of control over the construction and continuity of his image.  Indeed, a distinguishing feature of Wayne’s work was his determination to carve his own career, which he did quite effectively, from the 1940s on.