John Wayne: Finally Wins the Oscar for True Grit

John Wayne and the Oscar Award

John Wayne’s status as an actor did not change much after finally winning the Best Actor Award for True Grit in 1969, but it increased his popularity all over the world.

Wayne was nominated twice for the Actor Oscar. His first Best Actor nomination, for Sands of Iwo Jima, did not do much for his recognition as a performer. But 1949 was a year of strong male performances, with Broderick Crawford winning for All the King’s Men, over stiff competition from Kirk Douglas in Champion, Gregory Peck in Twelve O’clock High, who won the New York Film Critics award, and Richard Todd in The Hasty Heart. Note that Wayne, Peck, and Todd were all nominated for a role in a war movie.

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, for example. In 1967, when the Cannes Film Festival showed interest in The War Wagon, “the studio (Universal) was chicken,” according to Wayne, and “there went my chance for glory.”

In 1969, Wayne received his second Best Actor nomination. It was another year of intense competition, with the other contenders being: 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. Burton, Hoffman, and O’Toole have been nominated for an Academy Award in the past. Earlier, Voight was cited as Best Actor by the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics, and O’Toole was singled out by the National Board of Review.

Asked how he felt about the possibility of winning an Oscar, Wayne’s response was cynical: “You can’t eat awards. Nor, more to the point, drink them.” Nontheless, friends and colleagues detected a good deal of frustration in his statement, “My pictures don’t call for the great dramatic range that wins Oscars.”

In 1969, when rumors began to circulate about his chances of winning, Wayne became more cautious in his public utterances about the prestigious award. He did not want to alienate the film colony; after all, it was his last chance to win.

At the Oscar telecast, Wayne was so moved when Barbra Streisand, the previous year’s winner (for “Funny Girl”), announced him as Best Actor that he had tears in his eyes. In a brief, humorous acceptance 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.” Wayne held that his previous nomination was also “worthy of the honor.” “At 42, in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I played the same character that I played in True Grit at 62,” Wayne said, “But 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, he was deeply appreciative of the award and said it was “a beautiful thing to have.” “It’s important to me,” he explained, “it symbolizes appreciation of yourself by your peers.” Wayne had never realized the worldwide importance of the award. “What opened my eyes to how much it means to people,” he said, “was 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, and to the Academy,” which fortified his belief in “the power of movies.”

Some critics felt that Wayne’s previous performances, in Red River or The Searchers, were more deserving of the Oscar than True Grit, and that it was unfortunate that neither role had been nominated. Others charged that the 1969 Oscar was awarded as a sentimental recognition for his lengthy career and lifetime contribution to American films.

People within the industry saw the Oscar as Hollywood’s confession that it had underrated Wayne as an actor for too long. Director 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,” was the way director Andrew McLaglen expressed his view, “Well, he always was.”

Wayne’s work in True Grit was almost unanimously acclaimed by the critics, even by his greatest detractors. Richard Schickel reflected this change in the critics’ opinion, when he noted: “Every bit as much as Bogart, Cooper, et. al. 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 also wrote that “Wayne has done work that for years has represented a kind of modest excellence in a very special line of endeavor–movie-star acting.” “You don’t survive as long as he has,” he reasoned, “without intelligence and a certain subtlety or self-understanding.”

Similarly, Andrew Sarris stressed the fact that True Grit “has apparently accomplished the difficult feat of making John Wayne a respectable culture hero east of the Mississippi.” And Jay Cocks pointed out that after this movie, Wayne was “at least taken seriously because he did not seem to be serious about himself.” “Since I had always taken Wayne seriously,” he added, “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.”