John Wayne: Conservative Aesthetics

Conservative traditionalism marked every aspect of John Wayne’s life, including his view of the film industry and the function of motion pictures.

Wayne was eternally concerned with the image of America and the film industry, in this country and abroad. First and foremost, he stressed the entertainment values of film. “I don’t think the motion picture business was intended to show the American Way of Life,” he said, “I think the motion picture business is a business of entertainment.”

“My whole conception of our business had been one of illusion,” he explained, and “I really try to stand by the theory of making motion pictures on the assumption that people go in there to escape their everyday problems.”
Wayne’s movies, more than those of other stars, became increasingly propagandistic, politically and sociologically, obsessively preoccupied with his” version of the American Way of Life.

Wayne was proud of his profession and of serving and being regarded as spokesman, official and unofficial, of the industry. In the 1950s, when
Hollywood conducted its big “Movie-Time U.S.A.” campaign its nascent competitor, Television, Wayne served as one of its major ambassadors, touring over twenty cities and giving numerous personal appearances. And unlike his colleagues, he was optimistic about the future of Hollywood, underestimating the competition from television.

“I don’t think the industry is going on the rocks,” Wayne said in 1958, regarding the decline of the foreign market for American movies–not television–“our great danger today.”

Obsessed with projecting a positive image of both Hollywood and America, Wayne denounced every film, which he felt, hurt the public’s notion of the industry and the country. Wayne deplored the new trend of “anti-hero” films, with “psychotic weaklings as heroes,” because they were “unfair to the He-Man.” “Ten or fifteen years ago, audiences went to pictures to see men behaving like men,” whereas at present, “there are too many neurotic types.”

Tennessee Williams’s Pervert Subjects

Wayne attributed the effect to “the Tennessee Williams’s plays and movies.” Williams went “far a field to find American men who are extreme cases,” Wayne reasoned, “these men aren’t representative of the average man in the country, but they give the impression that we are a nation of weaklings who can’t keep up with the pressures of modern living.” Wayne said he had no time for “pseudo-intellectuals who belittle courage, honor, and decency,” insisting that Americans “still handle their own problems today, but they are not being fairly represented.”

Wayne denounced the subjects of homosexuality and cannibalism in Tennessee Williams’s stage to screen Suddenly Last Summer” (1959) as “too disgusting even for discussion,” which he had not seen and had no intention of seeing. “It is too distasteful,” he claimed, “to be put on a screen designed to entertain a family, or any member of a decent family.”

Midnight Cowboy: A Movie about Fags

Similarly, Wayne considered Easy Rider” (1969), the youth-oriented, anti-establishment film, and Midnight Cowboy,” which to his dismay won the Best Picture Oscar, as “perverted” films. “Wouldn’t you say,” he told Playboy, “that the wonderful love of these two men in Midnight Cowboy” (played by Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight), a story about two fags, qualifies”

Wayne objected to any movie that, in his view, gave “the world a false nasty impression of us,” and was not “doing our people any good either.” Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men,” the winner of the l949 Best Picture Oscar, about the dangers of political demagoguery, was described as a film in which “every character who had any responsibility at all was guilty of some offense against society.” The film deals with the corruptive effects of political power and was based on the career of Senator Huey “Kingfish” Long. “To make Huey Long a wonderful, rough pirate was great,” Wayne said, “but, according to this picture, everybody was a shit except for this weakling intern doctor, who was trying to find a place in the world.” When

Wayne claimed he received a copy of the screenplay from his agent Charlie Feldman, apparently being considered for the movie, he sent it back with a note, “If you ever send me a script like this again, I’ll fire you.”

On the Beach: Kramer’s Defeatist Film

Wayne also detested Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach” (1961), concerning the threat of atomic bomb and the end of the world, because it has a “defeatist story.” “The growing attitude in the Cold War, imposed on us by the Soviet Union,” he claimed, “is a disgrace and it is disgraceful that any Hollywood film would reflect such an attitude.”

One would not expect Wayne to like or to praise Ernst Lubitsch’s urbane, sophisticated comedies, but he did. “Lubitsch used to make pictures that were as risqu as any that are made today,” he said, “but they didn’t offend because they were subtle and skillful. They didn’t hit you over the head like these crup do today.”

Wayne reminded that, “Movies used to be the cheapest and best entertainment for the masses,” and were once made “for the whole family.” At present, however, “with the kind of junk the studios are cranking out and the jocked-up prices they’re charging, the average family is staying home and watching TV.”

He also denounced the trend of many 1960s movies to take “all the illusion out of it and let the blood pour and show all the sweat and the flesh.” In the 1970s, Wayne became concerned about the undesirable changes in the structure of the film industry. He put the blame for the decline of movies on the breakdown of the studio system, the loss of leadership, and the manipulation of the industry by bankers and stockbrokers whom he despised.

“I’m glad I won’t be around too much longer,” Wayne said in 1971, “to see what they do with it.” “The men who control the big studios today are stock manipulators and bankers. They know nothing about our business. They’re in for the buck.” He missed the old-time moguls, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Jack Warner, who may have been “strange,” but “they functioned consistently through habit.” The moguls took “an interest in the future of their business. They had integrity.” By contrast, those who control the industry now reminded him of “high-class whores.”

As reflection of the moguls’s integrity and civil responsibility, Wayne cited the crime-gangster film. When they realized “that they’ve made a hero out of the goddman gangster heavy in crime movies,” he said, and “that they
were doing a discredit to our country, they voluntarily took it upon themselves to stop making gangster pictures,” out of responsibility to the public and “with no censorship from the outsider.” By contrast, today’s executives “don’t give a damn,” for “in their efforts to grab the box office that these sex pictures are attracting, they’re producing garbage.”

Ridiculous Rating System

Wayne did not believe in the rating system, describing it as “ridiculous,” since “Everytime they rate a picture, they let a little more go.” “There was no need for rated pictures,” he explained, “when the major studios were in control.” But being an optimist, he was “quite sure that within two or three years, Americans will be fed up with these perverted films,” citing Myra Breckinridge” (1970), which he described as a film about the deflation of the American male, as an example.

Wayne really wanted to believe that the conglomerates would reach “the point where the American public will say, ‘The hell with this!'” At the same time, he realized that “once they do, we’ll have censorship in every state, in every city, and there’ll be no way you can make even a worthwhile picture for adults and have it acceptable for national release.”

Endowed with conservative taste, he also deplored the use of profanity in film, believing that its proliferation derived from the filmmaker’s idea of what adolescents liked to see. He rejected the notion that “foul language is a sign of machismo,” and the feeling that “by using four-letter words they make somebody manly or sophisticated.”

He was against “filthy minds, filthy words, and filthy thoughts in films,” regarding movies “a universal instrument at once entertaining people and encouraging them to work toward a better world, a freer world.”

Repulsive Movies

Wayne had strong ideas about Hollywood preserving “morality standards” and making films with a positive point of view. He tried not to make films that exploited sex or violence, deploring the vulgarity and violence in Rosemary’s Baby,” which he saw and did not like, and A Clockwork Orange” or Last Tango in Paris,” which he had no desire to see.

Wayne thought that Deep Throat” was repulsive because, “after all, it’s pretty hard to take your daughter to see it.” And he refused to believe that Love Story” “sold because the girl (Ali MacGraw) went around saying ‘shit’ all the way through it.” The American public wanted to see a little romantic story.”

Wayne took a strong stance against nudity: “No one in any of my pictures will ever be served drinks by a girl with no top to her dress.” It was not sex per se he was against. “Don’t get me wrong. As far as a man and a woman are concerned, I’m awfully happy there’s a thing called sex,” he said, “It’s an extra something God gave us,” but “no picture should feature the word in in unclear manner.” He therefore saw “no reason why it shouldn’t be in every picture,” but it had to be “healthy sex.”