John Wayne: Acting–Naturalism Vs. Method Acting–Wayne Vs. Brando

John Wayne’s acting style stood in sharp contrast to that of the younger generation of thespians, particularly the Method Actors, such as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean. who became prominent in the 1950s.


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Wayne did not like to be overly emotional or too expressive in his acting, and preferred a minimum of dialogue, reflecting his motto that “one look that works is better than twenty lines of dialogue.”

Wayne was also against “mannered” acting, which he thought characterized many stage actors from New York. “Let those actors who picked their noses,” he once said, “get all the dialogue, just give me the close-up of reaction.”

Wayne resented the publicity and prestige that these actors received upon arrival in Hollywood, based on the reputation of their stage work in New York. He was not the only one of his generation to feel that way.

Humphrey Bogart was even more vocal in his criticism of the New York actors, particularly in 1951, when his major competitor for the Best Actor Oscar was Marlon Brando, for his stunning performance in A Streetcar Named Desire; Bogart won (for The African Queen), though many believed that it was Brando who deserved to win.

Indeed, the Best Actor nominations that year marked a turning point in the American cinema as far as acting styles were concerned. Alongside with Brando, another distinguished player and graduate of the Actors Studio was singled out by the Academy: Montgomery Clift for A Place in the Sun.

Bogart also shared Wayne’s deep respect for acting. However, unlike Wayne, he belonged to a breed of actors who believed that acting was an acquired professional technique and were therefore proud of their competence. “I don’t approve of the John Wayne and Gary Coopers,” claimed Bogart, “saying, ‘Shucks, I ain’t no actor–I’m just a bridge builder or a gas station attendant!’ If they aren’t actors, what the hell are they getting paid for.”

Wayne and Kirk Douglas

John Wayne was usually much more relaxed in front of the camera than most of his co-stars. Take Kirk Douglas, for example, who appeared in three movies with him and whose approach to acting was highly emotional. Douglas’s abundance of energy and vitality somehow suited the kinds of roles he played, manic, neurotic, and high-strung men: the unscrupulous boxer in Champion, the selfish producer in The Bad and the Beautiful. Compared with Wayne, who liked to ad-lib sometimes, Douglas was a perfectionist who rehearsed every syllable of the text. Douglas’s acting was both combative and impulsive; at times it looked as if he were going to explode on the screen.

Despite these differences, Douglas admired Wayne’s way of reading lines, as he described after working with him in In Harm’s Way: “Wayne brings so much authority to a role, he can pronounce literally any line in a script and get away with it.” Nonetheless, there was a line where Wayne says; “I need a fast ship, because I want to be in harm’s way,” that Douglas felt even Wayne could not get away with. He recalled: “I thought, oh, shit, I’ve gotta hear him saying this line. But you know what He said it, and he got away with it.” Which made him believe that Wayne was “the perfect movie star.”

Screenwriter Wendell Mayes also praised Wayne’s work in that movie, which was directed by Otto Preminger: “John Wayne never blows a line. He’ll come in letter perfect. The other actors will blow lines but he will stand there patiently, wait for them to get their lines, say his in his own way.”

Wayne’s natural acting did not mean there was no work involved or no preparation for the part. On the contrary, every word he uttered, every move he made was studied and planned meticulously. He rejected the critics’ charge that he “simply plays himself on the screen.” For one thing, he said, “It’s quite obvious it can’t be done.” Moreover, “if you are yourself, you’ll be the dullest son of a bitch in the world on screen.” “You have to act yourself,” he reasoned, “you have to project something–a personality.”

The only concession Wayne made to the film critics is that “perhaps I have projected something closer to my personality than other actors have.”

Wayne claimed that his favorite performers were the “more natural actors,” like Spencer Tracy and Gary Cooper.

But he also held the highest regard for Cary Grant, whom he considered to be “the best actor in the business.” “The best film players, he claimed, were not actors’ actors, but the personality actors who were “supposedly playing themselves.”

Even so, Wayne had never liked to hear that his acting consisted of “just being himself.”

On the set of The Shootist, when Elaine Newton, one of the sheriff’s deputies, remarked how natural he was, he jumped, “Natural, hell. Nobody’s natural in front of the camera.” What she means is that I’m acting natural.” Natural acting, he repeated time and again, was a “damn hard to do, but when it works, it’s just great.”

Wayne’s response to situations on screen was what his reaction would have been in real life, no matter what the screenplay called for, or the director required. He believed that his success as a performer stemmed from the fact that he was “doing what comes naturally, and, happily, people seem to like it.”

“Wayne’s total lack of artificiality is the thing that put him across,” said Ward Bond, who appeared in many of his movies, “everything he does is strictly Wayne and nobody else.” The “things” Wayne brought to the screen derived from his philosophy or code of acting, described by him as ‘the code of manhood.” In any role, “I try to act as any man or woman would think a real man ought to act in that situation.” Wayne’s greatest reward was to hear people say, “Old Duke there, he’s just like one of us.”

He never thought of performing on stage, which he felt was “completely out of me,” and “a different racket altogether.” He thought stage work “may be good for newcomers, but only because it gives them a certain confidence and poise.” But he also believed that “sometimes training from stage coaching can be a handicap, not a help in motion pictures.”

Wayne’s advice to younger people interested in screen career was therefore rather simple: “Go to school, learn to handle liquor, mix with people, get into trouble, work in lots of different jobs, and always remember reactions to things and people. That’s the best equipment in front of the camera.”