John Wayne: Screen Ladies–Dickinson, Angie, Rio Bravo

In the middle phase of his career, John Wayne was cast against young and attractive stars, half his age, most notably Angie Dickinson (“Rio Bravo”), Capucine (“North to Alaska”), Elsa Martinelli (“Hatari!”), Donna Reed (“Trouble Along the Way”), and Martha Hyer (The Sons of Katie Elder”).

Wayne’s Stronger and Older Women

In the last decade of his career, Wayne was paired with stronger and older actresses, such as Patricia Neal (“In Harm’s Way”), Colleen Dewhurst (“The Cowboys,” “McQ”), Lauren Bacall (“The Shootist”), and Katharine Hepburn (“Rooster Cogburn”).

Wayne was much more powerful and convincing as an actor when playing against strong-willed and intelligent actresses.  His casting against mature women prompted the distinguished film critic Molly Haskell to observe: “How many other maturing male stars have allowed themselves to be paired with women who were roughly their contemporaries, instead of dropping back one generation, then another”

Haskell’s statement is not exactly accurate, for most of Wayne’s co-stars, with the exception of Katharine Hepburn, were at least a generation his juniors. But she is right about the appeal of these stars: none was the typical Hollywood glamour queen.

Wayne was more aware of his progressing age and declining looks than other actors, as he said in 1957: “My problem is I’m not a handsome man like Cary Grant, who will still be handsome at sixty five.” “I may be able to do a few more man-woman things before it’s too late, but then what?”  He was determined not to play “silly old man chasing young girls, as some of the stars are doing.”

For the most part, he did not. In only a few movies, Wayne looked ridiculous, courting much younger women, as, for example, in “Donovan’s Reef,” in which his romantic interest was Elizabeth Allen, a former fashion model half his age.  Wayne conceded that, “Ford never should have used me in that picture.” “He should have picked some young guy,” he explained, “It didn’t require much of him. All he had to be was a good-looking young guy, and I wasn’t young enough.”

Another movie, exceptional in the incredulous way it treats Wayne’s sex appeal was “McQ,” in which he is pursued by women half his age.  Pauline Kael, film critic for the New Yorker, found it absurd that “women are all hot for this sex pot,” and that Colleen Dewhurst, playing a lonely waitress, had to apologize for being fat and ugly before dragging him to bed.

But other critics thought that Wayne still possessed “a more extensive sexual range than younger, ostensibly hipper studs like Paul Newman and Robert Redford.”

Describing Wayne as “the last movie star to make respect sexy,” Newsweek’s Jack Kroll claimed that there was “plenty of eroticism in the Duke, but it’s a friendly eroticism that takes any woman on her own terms.”