John Wayne: Acting Range–Narrow? Wide? Could he Play Shaksepeare?

Early on in his career, John Wayne, the greatest American movie star in history, wanted to establish himself as a versatile actor, to be playing diverse roles, not just cowboys and Westerners.

“Not that I thought of becoming a song-and-dance-man,” he once quipped, “but like most young actors, I did want to play a variety of roles.”

Looking back, of his five-decade-career, the 1940s were the most versatile years, providing John Wayne with the widest range of roles. Along with cowboys and soldiers, he was cast in sports pictures, comedies, and crime stories. That he did not display a great and natural talent for comedy was evident in Seven Sinners and Without Reservations; he lacked a sense of timing in delivering his lines and seemed to be a tad too stiff. It took another decade until he was comfortable in comedies.

John Wayne as City Lawyer in a Suit?

Wayne was also unsuccessful in playing lawyers or other modern-contemporary roles. In A Man Betrayed (1941), Wayne plays a backwoods lawyer arriving in the big city to investigate a friend’s death, claimed to have been a suicide. In the process, he smashes the corrupt political underworld and, after righting the wrongs, takes his girl, the city boss’s daughter, to the peaceful life of a small town. Based on a Jack Motiff’s story, the screenplay was unoriginal and Wayne was deemed  unconvincing as the small town man fighting the big city graft ring, the kind of role in which both of his fellow actors and friends, Gary Cooper and Stewart, excelled.

In The Lady from Louisiana (1941), based on the true tale of the rise and fall of loitering and racketeering in 1880s Louisiana, Wayne is cast as a young Northern attorney who comes, at the request of a crusading reformer, to eradicate the lottery controlled by the city boss. Once again, he is in love with a Southern belle (Ona Munson), the daughter of the lottery promoter. It was a modern crime yarn, dressed in period costumes, that did not work, primarily because of its casting. The N.Y. Herald Tribune critic wrote: “John Wayne, an Iowan boy by birth, who speaks with the slow drawl of a Texan, is an extremely likable leading man, but he doesn’t seem to fit the part of the upright young man from New England.” “Not that Mr. Wayne can’t throw a punch as well as any other rugged screen actor,” he continued, “but his characteristic easy-going way of playing betrays the person he is supposed to be.”

After Red River, however, his attempts to expand his range had declined and he was archetypically cast. He had found the kind of role he needed, and Borden Chase, the screenwriter of Red River, predicted that he could play such roles for the next twenty years. But this meant two things for his range as an actor. First, that his career became almost exclusively associated with the Western film. And second, that even within the Western genre, his roles became increasingly similar, to the point where critics and audiences could distinguish the John Wayne Western as an entity in its own right.

However, Wayne’s occasional comedic Westerns provided an opportunity to demonstrate different kinds of skills. Hathaway’s North to Alaska marked the beginning of a broader range, enabling him to demonstrate his newly-acquired flair for comedy. The critics seemed to notice this new trend, as the critic Archer Winston wrote: “Knowing, no doubt, that Mr. Wayne’s role as a big, brawling, hard-drinking American adventurer is as familiar to filmgoers as the Alaskian gold rush setting, director Henry Hathaway and scenarists have taken a refreshingly mocking attitude toward both.” This mocking attitude, or self-parody, was further expanded by Hathaway in True Grit, one of the funniest roles in Wayne’s career.

However, his sense of light comedy was also displayed in other Westerns, most notably McLintock! and The Comancheros.

Wayne as Dirty Harry

Wayne’s last serious, though abortive, attempt to expand his range was at the end of his career, when he tried to add new roles to what was increasingly becoming too familiar a gallery. He first appeared, as was the fashion in the l970s, as a cop-detective in urban crime stories, such as Brannigan and McQ. This new addition was neither welcomed by critics nor liked by his fans. “Surely Mr. Wayne should stick to Westerns,” a New York Times reviewer characteristically wrote, “he’s simply too slow (other critics thought too old) to play any kind of policeman.”

Limited Range

In retrospect, it seems that Wayne’s range as an actor was much more limited than that of Bogart, Fonda, and Stewart, but no more limited than Gable or Cooper’s. However, a fairer judgment of his acting abilities is to examine whether or not he was competent in playing his specialized roles. Most critics would probably agree with Vincent Canby’s assessment in the New York Times: “Mr. Wayne could never have played Lear, but Paul Scofield could never have played the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach or Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.”

Charles Champlin, critic of the Los Angeles Times, concurred with Canby: “What he did as an actor within his range, which is to say in his own image, he did with confidence and excitement and authority,” and “the roles he could not do, did not matter.”

Ralph Richardson on John Wayne Doing Skaespeare

Sir Ralph Richardson, one of the greatest British actors, who was supposed to appear with John Wayne in Brannigan, but withdrew from the project (the role was then assigned to Richard Attenborough) thought that Wayne could do even Shakespeare.  He once noted: “John Wayne is hypnotic. He conveys such a sense of mystery and that’s invaluable in Shakespeare.”