John Wayne: Greatest Movie Star in Film History–Acting Style

Throughout John Wayne’s career there have been controversies over his acting skills and abilities.

Some critics considered him to be a screen personality, a movie star, not an actor. However, even his detractors had to admit that there was “something” special about his acting style.

Unlike many actors and stars, Wayne did not attend a drama school or even a workshop; he learned his skills in front of the camera.

He belonged to a breed of self-made performers who started their careers at the bottom of the industry’s hierarchy and went one to become exclusively screen actors, uniquely movie performers.

“Wayne is a motion picture actor, first, last and always,” the Los Angeles film critic Charles Champlin once observed, who “a man who defined as powerfully as anyone else what that means.” And because his association with this medium was so intimate, it looked “as if he were born in Hollywood and belongs to the movies.”

When Wayne was under contract to Fox, his bosses thought that it would be a good idea is he learns some acting skills. To that extent, they assigned him a famous drama coach, a Shakespearean actor.  “This coach wanted to give him some classic stage training,” Wayne said in later years, “he wanted me to act like some of those fancy leading men they had on Broadway.”

He recalled that the coach had him “mincing on my toes, making sweep gestures with my right arm, rolling my r’s like I was Edwin Booth playing Hamlet.”  Feeling “ridiculous,” after a few weeks, Wayne told his coach, “I don’t think I’m getting anything out of these lessons. I think I ought to stop them,” to which the latter replied, “If you live to be a hundred years old, you will never become an actor.”

Wayne also told his bosses that if they wanted him to act like that, “I didn’t reckon I could cut the mustard.” Fortunately for Wayne, director Raoul Walsh happened to see one such class and, after listening to Wayne’s complaints, he had to agree that Wayne should stop studying.

Walsh was impressed with Wayne’s screen test for The Big Trail.  He thought that “for a college man, he read well enough, but he fell into the common trap of beginners. He over-dramatized his lines.”  As a result, Walsh’s first advice to Wayne was to play his part “with a cool hand, like I think you’d do on a football field.” He also told him: “Speak softly, but with authority, and look whoever you’re talking to right in the eye.”

Raoul Walsh: Wayne Was Made in Order for Motion Pictures

Indeed, actors who have worked with Wayne have always marveled at his ability to listen, his capacity of looking the other players in the scene straight in the eyes. Walsh later recalled that, “from the day of the screen test, I knew that all he has to do was to be himself. His personality, looks, and natural mannerisms were made in order for motion pictures.”


One of Wayne’s strengths as a screen performer was understatement. “He underacts,” Walsh said, “and it’s mighty effective. Not because he tries to underact–it’s a hard thing to do, if you try–but because he can’t overact.”

During the shooting of The Big Trail, Wayne would sometimes get discouraged. “I can’t do the part that way,” he would say, “it’s too hard. I’m not good enough for it.” But Walsh learned to handle this problem by “letting him do the thing the way he feels he can, and he’s fine.”


If there is any school of acting to describe Wayne’s performance style, it is naturalism.  As he explained: “I merely try to act naturally. If I start acting phony on the screen, you start looking at me, instead of feeling with me.”

Nonetheless, Wayne insisted, “You can’t be natural; you have to act natural,” because “if you’re just natural, you can drop a scene.” He said that his ideal was to act in such way so that “the plumber sitting out there, and the lawyer next to him, and the doctor, don’t see anything wrong.”

Paul Fix

The closest thing Wayne came to having an acting coach was Paul Fix, a Hollywood character actor of the silent and then sound era, whom he had met in the 1930s under the suggestion of his friend-actress Loretta Young.  Fix recalled that “Duke was bright enough, but he didn’t know how to prove it, what to do with his hands, and after three lines he was lost.”

While working together, Wayne and Fix worked out a set of signals: when Wayne was overdoing his “famed furrowing of his brow,” for instance, Fix would put his hands on his head. Fix spent time with Wayne on his movie sets for years, but “nobody ever caught on.”

Yakima Canutt

Wayne also gave a lot of credit to Yakima Canutt, the distinguished rodeo rider and stunt man, who taught him most of his tricks, including how to jump quickly onto a horse, or how to fall off from a horse without getting hurt. “I took his walk and the way he talked,” Wayne said, “sorta low with quiet strength.”

Wayne claimed that his furrow brow, which became a distinctive mannerism, was a family trait. because his younger brother, Robert, also had it.  But close friends have testified that the waffled forehead, cocked eyebrows, and swivel-hipped walk were all creations modeled after Canutt’s techniques.

Reactor rather than Actor

Wayne also learned from Raoul Walsh and John Ford to let the other actors in their scenes together guide his performance. He liked to think himself as a reactor rather than actor: “I can react to a situation that has already been built up when I walk on, but I do not like to explain that situation myself.”

The difference between good and bad acting, he once observed, is “the difference between acting and reacting.” “In a bad picture,” he explained, “you see them acting all over the place. In a good picture, they react in a logical way to a situation they’re in, so the audience can identify with them.” But Wayne insisted that reacting is a valid form of acting, and also harder thing to do than given credit to, due to the concentration it required.

For Wayne, screen acting was “a matter of handling yourself,” comparable to “sitting in a room with somebody.”  Except that in movies, “the audience is with you–not like the stage, where they are looking at you–so you’ve got to be careful to project the right illusion.”

Over the years, Wayne mastered the art of natural acting, which had also characterized the style of fellow thespians Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. John Ford described all of these performers as “great actors,” because “they are the same off the screen as they are playing a part.”

Wayne is Not One of Those Method Actors

As for Wayne’s distinctive style, Ford said: “He’s not something out of a book, governed by acting rules. He portrays John Wayne, a rugged American guy. He’s not one of those method actors, like they send out here from drama schools in New York, like the Actors Studio. “He’s real. He is perfectly natural.”

Lee Strasberg, the late director of the Actors Studio and the chief proponent of Method acting, also believed that “good acting exists when an actor thinks and reacts as much to imaginary situations as those in real life.” “Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Spencer Tracy,” Strasberg held, “try not to act but to be themselves, to respond or to react. They refuse to do or say anything they feel not to be consonant with their own characters.”

Katharine Hepburn, who teamed with Wayne later on in his career, in the 1975 Western Rooster Cogburn, described Wayne as “an actor with an extraordinary gift.” He has “a unique naturalness, developed by movie actors who just happened to become actors.” These actors possess “an unself-consciousness,” and “a very subtle capacity to think and caress the camera–in fact, the audience–with no apparent effort.” Wayne and other actors of his kind “seem to develop a technique similar to that of well-trained actors from the theater, arriving at the same point, same result, but from an entirely different beginning.”

Hepburn described Wayne’s manner as one defined by “a total reality of performance,” to the point where “the acting does not appear like acting,” and instead becomes “as powerful as his personality.” In her opinion, Wayne was a “very, very good actor, in the most highbrow sense of the word, because you don’t catch him at that.”

“I read dramatic lines undramatically and react to situations normally,” Wayne said when asked about his distinctive techniques. But he would not let critics underestimate it: “This is not as simple as it sounds.  I’ve spent a major portion of my life trying to learn to do it well, and I am not past learning yet.”

As for his tricks, he said that he had only a few.  One was “to stop in the middle of the sentence, so they’ll keep looking at me.” The other was “not to stop at the end, so they don’t look away.”

Director Howard Hawks, who first cast Wayne in the 1948 western, Red River, felt that. “ironically, Wayne became a much better actor since he suffered his bout with cancer.” “Because of the lung Wayne lost,” he explained, “he reads his lines differently. He pauses in the strangest places, simply because he hasn’t got the breath he used to have.” This device was “terribly effective,” because you keep your eyes on him and wait for him to finish because you don’t know what’s coming next.”

Wayne developed other devices to express the unique qualities of his screen image, honesty and sincerity. He possessed an interesting voice that stressed every word in its own candid space. And he raised his eyebrows suddenly, so that his forehead crinkled with sincerity.