Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: John Wayne: The Life and Legend

John Wayne: The Life and Legend (2014) by Scott Eyman

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." In the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, this most famous of Western lines comes as the final death blow to a man's idealism. Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), the supposed hero, realizes in an instant that his life, career, and love have been handed to him by the man he can never repay, the real man who shot Liberty Valance, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). He can't even make the gesture of telling the truth; nobody will believe him and nobody wants to. The words are sardonic, a cold summation of the entire Western genre.

John Wayne's not even in the scene; his character is dead by the movie's end. But to anyone who knows a little about John Wayne, it's hard not to take those words as an equally accurate summation of the Duke himself. This is after all, the same man who defined onscreen masculinity for over three decades. This was Hollywood's most famous cowboy, the indomitable hero of the frontier; even as the rest of the world changed around him, Wayne remained the same. However, as Scott Eyman makes clear in his latest biography, John Wayne: The Life and Legend, for Wayne, the words "printing the legend" would not have been an insult. For him, they would have been a badge of honor.

Scott Eyman has tackled many difficult subjects before, including Cecil B. DeMille (Empire of Dreams), Louis B. Mayer (Lion of Hollywood), and John Ford (Print the Legend). In the case of John Wayne however, the challenge is not about struggling to find material or sifting through contradictory interviews. It's about trying to write a nuanced portrait of an actor who, despite his obvious intelligence, talent, and ambition, so often seemed to be deliberately trying to erase any nuance or contradiction from his life. At some point, the man and the myth blended together for all time.

Born Marion Morrison in  1907, Wayne grew up as a bright, well-liked boy in Glendale, California, the son of a cold, ambitious mother and a kind but shiftless father. Despite the anti-intellectual image he would gain later in life, Wayne was a top student, one who liked reading and schoolwork as well as athletics. As he loved to point out to people, he could say "isn't" just as well as "ain't." Although he liked to act as if the movies were something he just fell into on accident, beginning as an extra and a prop man on the Fox lot, Eyman paints the portrait of a serious, dedicated actor who was eager to learn everything he could right from the start. 

Although he got a huge push by starring in The Big Trail in 1930 (a well-publicized but expensive flop), Wayne ended up in the back-breaking, frenetic world of the old Western serials and B-movies for the rest of the decade. He wouldn't really break into the big time until John Ford chose him to star in one of the most influential Westerns of all time, 1939's Stagecoach. His appearance as the soft-spoken, tough, and honorable Ringo Kid set the basic outline for the iconic John Wayne character. Rough around the edges but a gentleman at heart. Honest and direct. Doesn't lose a fight. Never backs down. Never gives up. In his long career, Wayne would stretch this basic characterization in many different directions, giving audiences the flinty, vengeful Tom Dunson in Red River, the drunken Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, the romantic Sean Thornton in The Quiet Man, and, in the biggest gamble of all, the anti-hero Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, an enigmatic, hate-filled man who comes close to redemption and love, but can never, ever find it.

If there's one main flaw to Scott Eyman's otherwise meticulous, well-researched, and generous work on John Wayne here, it's this: he doesn't spend enough time talking about the performances. Of course, I realize that's likely my own personal bias talking here. When I read movie star biographies, it's the movies and the performances that I want to hear about. I'd much rather read about the tragic dimensions of Ethan Edwards and Wayne's approach to the role than I would his thoughts on Nixon. In fairness to Eyman, he makes it clear that he's not trying to analyze the movies themselves, but the life surrounding those movies. And in that regard, he does an excellent job.

Like his previous work on Cecil B. DeMille, Eyman is a master at reclaiming respect for artists whose divisive politics and wholehearted embrace of ideas now considered corny and out-of-date can sometimes lead modern audiences to dismiss them. The John Wayne that comes across in this book is a thoughtful, multi-talented, and hard-working actor, one who liked Noel Coward and J.R.R. Tolkein more than Zane Grey and one who took on all the burdens of idealized image with good grace. Wayne knew that he owed all his success to his audience and he believed it was his responsibility to live up to that image. 

This belief would cost him plenty. Although he played the soldier many times onscreen, Wayne never served in World War II and this failure ate at him, fueling the macho militarism he would express later in life. He was equally controlling of his onscreen behavior, turning down any role that would stray too far from his image. Because he was so adept at keeping his image intact, Wayne would often be accused of being a movie star instead of a serious actor. Someone who just kept "playing himself." Eyman has no patience for that kind of labeling and his account of Wayne is admiring but unapologetic. He doesn't shy away from the many uncomfortable things Wayne said and did in his later years, but he does try to keep them in context.

Just like John Wayne's films, Eyman's biography is at its most compelling when the Duke is desperate and driven rather than when he's comfortable and secure. The stretches detailing his long career in the poverty-row Westerns are a standout; Eyman's descriptions of the unrelenting pace and harsh conditions make them sound roughly on par with a stint in the Marines. Cast and crew worked grueling hours, subsisted on a milk-and-bread concoction called "graveyard stew," and tried to look tough standing in front of ramshackle sets so cheap that the crew would paint them no higher than the leading man's head. In one memorable anecdote, Wayne and Yakima Canutt, the great stuntman, end up being ordered to a 5 A.M. shoot at a rock quarry in the San Fernando Valley, just after coming off a midnight studio shooting the very same night. Wayne was forced to borrow a friend's car, tear home for a few hour's sleep, and then rush to the still-dark quarry. There, he found Canutt waiting in the dark, the first man on set, huddled silently next to a fire. Canutt remarked, "It doesn't take very long to spend all night out here." After that, the two men were friends for life.

For all their faults, the cheap Westerns and serials gave Wayne a great deal to carry with him. An unfailing work ethic. An appreciation for the rough-and-tumble camaraderie that could develop on the movie set. And above all, it instilled in him a deep gratitude for his later stardom and for the man who helped him reach it, John Ford. Wayne never forgot those ten, frustrating years before Stagecoach. Even though he had to bear the brunt of Ford's legendary sadism on set, to an extent that made even other Ford veterans shake their heads in wonder, his loyalty and admiration for "Pappy" never wavered. The man famous for taking no guff from anyone on or off-screen, the man who never backed down from a fight, was strangely docile when it came to Ford. By comparison, the teenage Natalie Wood had no problem telling the venerated director to "go shit in his hat" when he told her off during filming of The Searchers.

The relationship between John Ford and John Wayne is perhaps the deepest mystery to be found in Eyman's biography. By comparison, his three failed marriages (all to fierce, proud Hispanic women--the Duke had a type) are relatively uninteresting by Hollywood standards. Whenever he played romance onscreen, Wayne was the strong man out of his element. He was humbled but never fully domesticated by his own tender feelings. It made him the perfect costar for Maureen O'Hara; she was strong enough to stand her own against him, but tender enough to bring out his softer side. Eyman pays indifferent lip service to Hollywood rumor that Wayne was in love with O'Hara as well as the somewhat more credible one that he was in love with the beautiful and tragic Gail Russell (his costar in Angel and the Badman and Wake of the Red Witch). But thankfully, Eyman is uninterested in gossip and scandal. He's far more concerned with the many enduring friendships John Wayne made and the great movies that came out of them. In fact, Eyman's so thorough in uncovering each and every positive thing ever said by someone who knew John Wayne that I almost started to pine for something negative, if only to add a little spice.

However, John Wayne: The Life and Legend succeeds in its primary goal: to tell the life and legend of John Wayne. Few actors could so easily lay claim to the title "legendary" as John Wayne. And few biographers could tackle so weighty a subject with the even-handed eloquence and tactful appreciation that Eyman gives us here. For any fans of Wayne or even for people looking to find out more about him, this book makes a great start. It's long but leaves you feeling like there's so much more to discover.

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." True, but there's still a thousand different ways to tell that legend. I'm glad I got to read this one.

Final Six Words:

Intelligent, balanced account of Wayne's life

Note: This book was given to me as a review copy by Simon & Schuster. It is currently available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Indiebound, and directly from the Simon & Schuster website.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Farewell, Mickey Rooney

I don't regret anything I've ever done. I only wish I could do more.

Mickey Rooney (1920-2014)