This Is Where I Leave You
The family gathering comedy is one of the more difficult genres to pull off. Good for Levy for trying something different. But next time he…
NEWPORT BEACH, CA. -- "I've been working all day on the boy's room," John Wayne said. "The boy got it into his head that he wanted a bunk bed. We tore out this wall here and pushed it back - you can see the original boundary on the floor there - and we're going to put the bunk right in here. And there'll be a goddam porthole in the wall." He shook his head, amused.
"Well, I can understand that. Gets himself a bunk, a man needs a porthole."
Wayne put his hands on his hips and surveyed the progress of the work. "Over here we put in this window area overlooking the pool. I wanted the frames to be nice and thin to get that wrought iron look. Well, they turned out like this instead."
He led the way out to the patio and around the pool to his own den. It was a big, lived-in, masculine room. "Place is a mess,'' Wayne said. "You get in the middle of a construction project and, hell, you know how it is. Hold on here and I'll see if I can get some coffee or something to drink."
One end of the room was occupied by Wayne's massive wooden desk, piled with books, papers, letters, scripts. There was an antique Army campaign table, with a bronze sculpture of cowboys on it. The walls were lined with cabinets, bookcases, an antique firearm collection, and a display of trophies and awards. There were autographed photos of Eisenhower, Nixon, Goldwater, and even (on the wall of the bathroom opening off the den) one of Hubert Humphrey, inscribed "with warm appreciation for your continued Support."
Wayne returned with glasses of ice and a bottle of tequila. He looked good. In "True Grit" (1969), his new film, the 62-year-old actor plays the disreputable, one-eyed, drunken, rascally Rooster Cogburn, a federal marshal and fat old man. And as Rooster, John Wayne looks like the distillation of fat old men, as if he had been aging and fattening for years to get there. It was startling to see him in person - looking, in fact, younger and thinner.
Rooster Cogburn may be Wayne's best performance. "It's sure as hell my first decent role in 20 years," he said, "and my first chance to play a character role instead of John Wayne. Ordinarily they just stand me there and run everybody up against me."
Wayne walked around the room, stopped at his gun collection, and selected one.
"This is my rifle from 'Stagecoach,"' he said. "One of the kind you could spin like this..." He held the rifle in his right hand and spun it. A grimace of pain crossed his face. "Jesus Christ!" he said. He put the rifle back on the rack and massaged his shoulder.
"Jesus, I wrecked that shoulder. Down in Baton Rouge, when I was making 'The Undefeated,' I twisted around in the saddle and the damn stirrup was completely loose. I fell right under that goddamned horse; I'm lucky I didn't kill myself."
He took another rifle from the display and brought it over for inspection. "And this," he said, "is one of the guns the Russians are sending to kill our boys in Vietnam. People just won't see we're at war over there. Win or lose. Look at that - isn't that a mean-looking rifle? And it's a good one, too. But people just won't realize. I heard a poem the other day...how did it go? 'Every day I pray, I won't go my complacent way...' Well, I can't remember it all. Something to the effect of, I won't let those kids down over there.
"Jesus, that was a terrible thing about Gloria and James Stewart's kid getting killed over there. It makes you want to cry. At least Jimmy was over there to see the kid a few months ago. That's something. But it makes you want to cry. And Bob Taylor's going was terrible. He was terminal since they opened him up. I know what he went through. They ripped a lung out of me. I thank God I'm still here."
Silence. Wayne sighed, shook his head, brought his hands together. "But let's talk about something a little more positive," he said.
What about an Academy Award? There's speculation that "True Grit" may get him one, after 40 years in the movies.
"Well, whether or not I win an Oscar, I'm proud of the performance. I'd be pleased to win one, of course, although I imagine these things mean more to the public than to us. There are a lot of old standbys who don't have one. That comedian...what the hell is his name? Gary Grant. He never won one, and he's been a mainstay of this business.
"I was nominated for 'Sands of Iwo Jima' but I didn't win. Well, maybe this time they'll review the picture instead of me and the war. That little clique back there in the East has taken great personal satisfaction in reviewing my politics instead of my pictures. And they've drawn up a caricature of me. Which doesn't bother me; their opinions don't matter to the people who go to movies.
"But I'm telling you, goddam it, everything's mixed up now. I got a letter from that fellow who runs the Motion Picture Association. Jack Valenti. He wanted my opinion on the new rating system. I didn't even answer because - well, my answer would be there shouldn't be any need for such a thing in our industry.
"The idea of the movies is to provide the most inexpensive and accessible entertainment in the world. Well, we've gradually talked ourselves out of being the most economical. And now the thing that will finally stop the movies from being an American habit is that parents have to guard their children against pornography. It's like when strippers took over burlesque.
"All the real motion picture people have always made family pictures. But the downbeats and the so-called intelligentsia got in when the government stupidly split up the production companies and the theaters. The old giants--Mayer, Thalberg, even Harry Cohn, despite the fact that personally I couldn't stand him - were good for this industry. Now the goddamned stock manipulators have taken over. They don't know a goddamned thing about making movies. They make something dirty, and it makes money, and they say, 'Jesus, let's make one a little dirtier, maybe it'll make more money.' And now even the bankers are getting their noses into it.
"I'll give you an example. Take that girl, Julie Andrews, a refreshing, openhearted girl, a wonderful performer. Her stint was 'Mary Poppins' and 'The Sound of Music.' But she wanted to be a Theda Bara. And they went along with her, and the picture fell on its face. A Goldwyn would have told her, 'Look, dear, you can't change your sweet and lovely image..."
An eager white puppy sniffed into the room. Wayne snapped his fingers and the puppy ran to him. "Hey, little fella." The puppy growled and rolled over on its back. "His name's Frosty," Wayne said. "Belongs to my daughter Aissa." He played with the puppy.
"But you know," he said, "I'm very conscious that people criticize Hollywood. Yet we've created a form, the Western, that can be understood in every country. The good guys against the bad guys. No nuances. And the horse is the best vehicle of action in our medium. You take action, a scene, and scenery, and cut them together, and you never miss. Action, scene, scenery."
Frosty abandoned Wayne and began to chew on the carpet. "Hey, get away from there!" Wayne said. The puppy looked up inquisitively and resumed chewing.
"I ought to get him some rawhide to keep him busy," Wayne said. "But when you think about the Western...ones I've made, for example. 'Stagecoach,' 'Red River,' 'The Searchers,' a picture named 'Hondo' had a little depth to it...it's an American art form. It represents what this country is about. In 'True Grit,' for example, that scene where Rooster shoots the rat. That was a kind of reference to today's problems. Oh, not that 'True Grit' has a message or anything. But that scene was about less accommodation, and more justice.
"They keep bringing up the fact that America's for the downtrodden. But this new thing of genuflecting to the downtrodden, I don't go along with that. We ought to go back to praising the kids who get good grades, instead of making excuses for the ones who shoot the neighborhood grocery man. But, hell, I don't want to get started on that...Hey, you!"
The puppy looked up from its inspection of a sofa leg. Wayne captured it and shooed it out through the sliding glass doors onto the patio.
"The little fellow was smelling around the wrong way there." Wayne grinned, sitting down again. "But on this 'True Grit,' I loved that book. Charles Portis got a real Mark Twain feeling, the cynicism and the humor. I tried to buy the book myself. I went up to $300,000, and that's pretty good going for an unpublished galley of a Western story. But Hat Wallis knew about this other book by Portis, 'Norwood,' and he made an offer for both and outbid me. Then he came back to me to play Rooster.
"I like so many things about the movie. The dialogue, for one. It's the authentic stuff, the way people talked. The last time I had dialogue of that style was in 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,' when John Ford had the integrity to use dialogue that fit the period. Mostly, nobody gives a damn. Although I'm reading a good script right now, about the Battle of Midway. They want me to play Nimitz. I'll only do it if a fellow like Ford - hell, not a fellow like Ford - I'll only do it if Ford directs it. Because then I know it'll be a good service picture. The Nimitz part isn't large enough for me to exercise any control over the project, and I wouldn't want to get mixed up in something that wasn't good for the service.
"But to get back to 'True Grit,' the thing that makes me happy is that Henry Hathaway is getting some credit. For years, Henry got the thankless jobs at Fox. They'd give him the problem pictures with three stars whose contracts all expired in six weeks. Henry was known as a craftsman, but his stature as a director wasn't recognized. On this picture he did a hell of a job. He took great care of those kids (Wayne's co-stars, Kim Darby and Glen Campbell.) The girl's so new to the business she doesn't realize what a break she got.
"And Hathaway did a wonderful thing. He used the backgrounds in such a way that it became almost a fantasy. Remember that one scene, where old Rooster is facing those four men across the meadow, and he takes the reins in his teeth and charges? That's Henry at work. It's a real meadow, but it looks almost dreamlike. Henry made it a fantasy and yet he kept it an honest Western."
Wayne sipped at his tequila absentmindedly. "You get something of that in the character of Rooster," he said. "Well, they say he's not like what I've done before, and I even say that, but he does have facets of the John Wayne character, huh? I think he does.
"Of course, they give me that John Wayne stuff so much, claim I always play the same role. Seems like nobody remembers how different the fellows were in 'The Quiet Man.' or 'Iwo Jima,' or 'Yellow Ribbon,' where I was 35 playing a man of 65. To stay a star, you have to bring along some of your own personality. Thousands of good actors can carry a scene, but a star has to carry the scene and still, without intruding, allow some of his character into it. What do you think?"
Wayne looked up; it was an uncanny experience, being asked by John Wayne what you thought about the John Wayne image. What came to mind was a scene in "True Grit" where Wayne and Kim Darby are waiting all night up on a hill for the bad guys to come back to the cabin. And Wayne - or Rooster - gets to talking about 'how he was married once, to a grass widow back in Cairo, IL, and how she took off one day. And how he didn't care much, how he missed her some, but he'd rather lose a wife than his independence. And how he took off alone, and glad to be alone, and stuck up a bank or two, just to stake himself, back in the days before he took up marshaling. And Miss Darby - or Mattie Ross - asks him about those old days, about how he got to where he was now. It's a scene that echoes back to Howard Hawks' "El Dorado," in which old hand Wayne teaches young James Caan how to hold a gun and shoot it. But the "True Grit" scene is even more nostalgic, even more a summation of the dozens of Western characters played by Wayne...
"Well," Wayne said. "Well, maybe so." He stood up and walked over to the glass doors, hands in his pockets, and looked out at the patio. Frosty was wagging his tail and begging to be allowed back inside. "I guess that scene in 'True Grit' is about the best scene I ever did," Wayne said.
He stood for a moment, and then came back and sat down again. "And that ending," he said, pouring a few more drops of tequila into his neglected glass, "I liked that. You know, in the book Mattie loses her hand from the snakebite, and I die, and the last scene in the book has her looking at my grave. But the way Marguerite Roberts wrote the screenplay, she gave it an uplift. Mattie and Rooster both go to visit her family plot, after she gets cured of the snakebite. By now it's winter. And she offers to let Rooster be buried there some day, seeing as how he has no family of his own. Rooster's happy to accept, long as he doesn't have to take her up on it too quick. So then he gets on his horse and says, 'Come and see a fat old man some time.' And then he spurs the horse and jumps a fence, just to show he still can."
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