The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
The first time I saw him, he was striding toward me out of the burning Georgia sun, as helicopters landed behind him. His face was tanned a deep brown. He was wearing a combat helmet, an ammo belt, carrying a rifle, had a canteen on his hip, stood six feet four inches. He stuck out his hand and said, "John Wayne." That was not necessary.
John Wayne died 30 years ago on June 11. Stomach cancer. "The Big C," he called it. He had lived for quite a while on one lung, and then the Big C came back. He was near death and he knew it when he walked out on stage at the 1979 Academy Awards to present Best Picture to "The Deer Hunter," a film he wouldn't have made. He looked frail, but he planted himself there and sounded like John Wayne.
John Wayne. When I was a kid, we said it as one word: Johnwayne. Like Marilynmonroe. His name was shorthand for heroism. All of his movies could have been titled "Walking Tall." Yet he wasn't a cruel and violent action hero. He was almost always a man doing his duty. Sometimes he was other than that, and he could be gentle, as in "The Quiet Man," or vulnerable, as in "The Shootist," or lonely and obsessed, as in "The Searchers," or tender with a baby, as in "3 Godfathers."
He worked all the time. In the 1930s alone, he made 69 movies. Between 1928 and 1963, he made 21 films with John Ford, the man he called "Pappy." He had an effect on people that few other actors ever had. Gene Siskel was interviewing him in the middle of the night during a Chicago location shoot. The Duke had been doing some drinking, to keep warm. At 3 a.m. he wanted something to eat.
"We walked into an all-night greasy spoon," Gene remembered. "He threw an arm over my shoulder. I felt protected. We sat down in a booth. The waitress came over, took one look at him, and made the Sign of the Cross. She was almost trembling when she asked him what he'd like to have. Eggs! And plenty of 'em! How would he like them? Staring at me."
He wasn't a drunk, but he didn't shy clear of the stuff. "Tequila," he told me, "makes your head hurt. Not from your hangover. From falling over and hitting your head." What people didn't understand is that he could be very funny. Once I was on location for "Chisum" in Durango, Mexico. Clive Hirshhorn of the London Daily Express was there, too. "Duke" he asked, "what do you think about Nixon's policy in Vietnam?"
Wayne sized him up as if to judge if he was one of those goddamned hippies. "I think the President is conducting himself with honor," Wayne said, "and there's only one thing better than honor"
On that same set, we were playing a chess game, both of us bending over the board on an upended apple crate. Wayne, slouched in his old stitched leather director's chair, looked around at his listeners: wranglers, rough-hewn extras, old cronies and drinking buddies, a couple of Mexican stunt men, none of whom seemed even interested in poltics. He studied the board, roared with laughter, and said. "God...damn it!" he said. "You've trapped my queen!" He studied the position bitterly. "Why did I just say that?" he asked. "If I hadn't-a...said it, you wouldn't-a...seen it."
He broke off and studied the board. "God damn! You've got my queen! But why did I...just say that? If I hadn't-a...said it, you'd never-a...seen it!"
That's how he talked, with a pause in the middle of a phrase. In his wonderful documentary "Directed by John Ford," Peter Bogdanovich quotes him: "I started in silent pictures. One of my teachers was the old character actor Harry Carey. He told me, "John, the talkies are coming in, and that's a fact of life. Those Broadway playwrights are going to be selling the studios all of their plays. What they don't know is, people can't listen that fast! My theory is, we should stop halfway through a sentence and give the audience a chance to catch up."
Why did he become, and remain, not only a star but an icon? He was uncommonly attractive in face and presence. He was utterly without affectation. He was at home. He could talk to anyone. You couldn't catch him acting. He was lucky to start early, in the mid-1920s, and become at ease on camera even before his first speaking role. He sounded how he looked. He was a small-town Iowa boy, a college football player. He worked with great directors. He listened to them. He wasn't a sex symbol. He didn't perform, he embodied. You liked him.
I met him three times officially, on the sets of "The Green Berets" and "Chisum," and at his home in Newport Beach. And one other time. "Duke is in town to visit a sick friend at the hospital," his old friend the Warner Bros. press agent Frank Casey told me one day in 1976, "and he wanted me to invite over all the movie critics to have a drink. He's got the Presidential Suite at the Conrad Hilton." In an age when movie stars employ guards with black belts to keep the press away, how does that sound? We all gathered at the Hilton--Siskel, David Elliott of the Chicago Daily News, Mary Knoblauch of Chicago's American, and me.
"I've been visiting Stepin Fetchit down at Illinois Central Hospital," Wayne told us. "We worked together for the first time in 1929. But I don't want that in the paper. I don't want a goddamned death watch on him. Don't tell Kup! He'll run it in his column. "
What did we discuss? None of us took notes, of course, I recall that we discussed some politics. Wayne supported the war in Vietnam ("I've been over there and I believe what we're doing is necessary.") He was a defender of Nixon. He was a born conservative, but in an old-fashioned, simple and patriotic way. I believe he would have had contempt for the latter-day weirdos of the Right.
His big, masculine, leather-brass-and-wood hilltop home on a hilltop in Newport Beach stood guard over his yacht, a converted Navy mine sweeper. 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.
Wayne, not a servant, went in the kitchen, brought out tequila and ice for us both, and gave me a tour. He pointed out autographed photos of Eisenhower, Nixon, Goldwater, and J. Edgar Hoover. I said I had to take a pee. On the wall of the bathroom opening off the den, he had a photo of Hubert Humphrey, inscribed "with warm appreciation for your continued Support."
Waiting on the other side of the room, he showed me his firearm collection. "This is my rifle from 'Stagecoach,"' he said. "In 'True Grit,' I spun like this." He held the rifle in his right hand and spun it. Pain flashed across his face.
"Jesus Christ!" he said. He replaced the rifle back on its 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 wall and held it up 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. And this is the piece of shit we're giving our boys to shoot back with. 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... Hell, I can't remember it all. Something to the effect of, I'll never let those kids down.
"Jesus, that was a terrible thing about Gloria and Jimmy 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."
"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 flat on its ass. A Goldwyn would have told her, 'Look, my dear, you can't change your sweet and lovely image . . ."With William Holden and Pappy on the set of "The Horse Soldiers"
An eager white puppy hurried 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, you, 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' that 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 fella was smelling around the wrong way there.
"But back to 'True Grit.' Henry Hathaway 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? Fill your hands, you varmits! 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 fellas 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?"
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 gets to talking about how he was married once, to a grass widow back in Cairo, Illinois, 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 Darby 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. I think it's sort of 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," he said.
Drawn by the great John Fischetti
He sprawled comfortably on an old leather sofa. "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."
John Wayne was asked one time what his contribution to American movies was. He said, "Vitality." He had that in such abundance that he brought life to his bad movies and greatness to his good ones. He stood in a doorway once, in a movie called "The Searchers," and he rested his weight on one foot and put his right hand on his left elbow and looked out into the desert, and brought such a poignancy to that physical movement that the French film critics stood up and cheered.
Not that he read the French critics. He was a totally untheoretical actor. He never studied his craft. He became good at it because he went out into Monument Valley a great many times with Ford, and they made some of the greatest American movies without giving it much more thought than the whisky and the poker games and the campfires with which they occupied their evenings. Those were Wayne's great days, when Pappy and his wagon train camped out in the desert, far from Hollywood and its agents and moguls, and made what they used to call cowboy pictures.Marion Morrison's birthplace in Winterset, Iowa
Wayne was, of course, a lifelong conservative. That time in 1973, though, down in Durango, Mexico, he explained that he was, in fact, a liberal. "Hell yes, I'm a liberal," he said. "I listen to both sides before I make up my mind. Doesn't that make you a liberal? Not in today's terms, it doesn't. These days, you have to be a fucking left-wing radical to be a liberal. Politically, though . . . I've mellowed."
On screen he held so much authority so that he was not even being ironic when he explained his theory of acting: "Don't act. React." John Wayne, you see, could react. Others actors had to strain the limits of their craft to hold the screen with him. There is this test for an actor who, for a moment, is just standing there in a scene: Does he seem to be just standing there? Or does he, as John Wayne always did, appear to be deciding when, and why, and how to take the situation under his control?
His last picture was called "The Shootist," in 1976. He played an old gunfighter who had fought and shot and ridden his way through the West for a lifetime, and had finally come to a small town and was filled with the fear of dying. He went to the doctor, played by James Stewart, and learned that he had weeks to live, and he conducted himself during those days with strength and dignity.
But there was one other movie he wanted to make, and never made, that he talked about once. It didn't have a title and it didn't need a title, not in Wayne's mind. It would just have been, quite simply, one last movie directed by John Ford, who died in 1973 with Wayne at the bedside.
"God, that was a loss to me when Pappy died," Wayne said that day in 1976 "Up until the very last years of his life," Wayne then said, softly, "Pappy could have directed another picture, and a damned good one. But they said Pappy was too old. Hell, he was never too old. In Hollywood these days, they don't stand behind a fella. They'd rather make a goddamned legend out of him and be done with him."
Parts of this entry adapted from my earlier interviews with Wayne. This entry was first published in 2009. I edited it to replace several expired videos. There were 300 comments in the earlier version, which is still online here.
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