John Wayne represented many things to many people. But it all comes down to the movies, says noted film critic and Hollywood historian Leonard Maltin, whose latest book, Leonard Maltin's 2012 Movie Guide (Plume, August 2011) covers more than 17,000 releases.
American Profile: What accounts for John Wayne’s evergreen appeal as an actor, an icon and an American archetype?
Leonard Maltin: “Like a lot of other pop culture icons—Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis Presley—it’s gone beyond his acting career and any assessment of his performances. He’s become a symbol, which I know he never sought out, never intended to be. I think he’s been mythologized over the years since his death, sometimes in contrast to the fact. He didn’t make that many WWII movies, for instance, but people like to say ‘John Wayne won WWII on screen.’ Well, not really. They Were Expendable wasn’t not about winning. He gets shot in Sands of Iwo Jima. He was a big man physically. He was somewhat larger than life in life. He projected not only strength and physicality, but also a strength of character. That’s what people have picked up on, even people who may not necessarily have seen that many of his movies.”
AP: What do you think were his greatest, more enduring contributions to popular culture?
Maltin: “To many people he represents the quintessential American. Strong, feisty, taking a stand and unwilling to back down from it. I think that’s the John Wayne most people think of.”
AP: What was ironic about his only Academy Award, for Rooster Cogburn in True Grit?
Maltin: “Rooster Cogburn is an atypical part. He’s ultimately heroic at the end of the film, but he’s a boozy, irresponsible, overweight marshal for much of the story. It’s another example of the facts flying in the face of people’s monolithic image of him.
“It’s a delightful performance and one that really let him sink his teeth into a different kind of character than he ever played before, which he obviously relished and the public relished, too. The timing of the Academy Award was ironic and poignant at the same time because he had just endured cancer surgery. He was unabashed in admitting that he really wanted that Oscar. More cynical people will say that it was a sentimental vote, because it was well known that he had this brush with cancer. But watch the movie and see if you don’t think it’s worthy of an Oscar.
“Many people think his best performance is as Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, especially when he plays the older scenes, where he has to take out his reading glasses to read the inscription on the gold watch that his troop has presented to him. You can find so many examples of great John Wayne performances that don’t fit the cliché or the stereotype.
“One of the things you hear the most is ‘Oh, he just played himself on screen.’ People have said that from way back when he was still alive, and it’s patently untrue. That’s not who he was. That guy, that public persona that people think of as John Wayne, wasn’t the real John Wayne, who liked to play chess and was well read and could carry on an intelligent conversation on a number of subjects. Secondly, because he didn’t play the same character over and over again. Look at his best films, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Quiet Man or The Searchers. You couldn’t find characters more different than the ones he plays in those three.”
AP: One of the items going up for auction is the eye patch he wore as Rooster Cogburn. Why is that an especially potent piece of memorabilia?
Maltin: “Even with the recent remake, where Jeff Bridges played the role, the memory of John Wayne in that part endures. When you see that eye patch and hear the name Rooster Cogburn, you know you’re talking about John Wayne. It’s a readily identifiable piece of movie history. Not every prop, costume or garment is so instantly recognizable. Plus the fact that he won the Academy Award playing that role.
AP: Why do you think fans will want to own a piece of John Wayne, through the auction?
Maltin: “Well, he’s been gone 30 years now, and this is a way of connecting in a very tangible and even tactile way with a man that many people revere and respect.”
AP: How was he regarded, during his time, as an actor—an acting professional?
Maltin: “I’ve read the same stuff everyone else has and talked to a lot of people who knew him. In movie circles he was regarded as the ultimate professional, never unprepared, good humored. He enjoyed the camaraderie of movie making.
“Apparently he was even meticulous and prepared and on time when he had been drinking heavily the night before. It’s no secret that he liked his liquor, but he held it [laughter] remarkably well.
“And everyone admired and respected that. Younger actors who might have thought themselves hotshots got a quick lesson when they worked with him, about behavior and setting the tone on a movie set.”
AP: You mentioned that he came to represent and embody many things that Americans liked to think about themselves, and many things that other people thought about Americans. How much of this was related to his extremely outspoken patriotism?
Maltin: “That reinforced his outspokenness, particularly in later years. It was in the later years that this came to the forefront of people’s attention, that some aspects of the movie John Wayne and the real John Wayne blurred in many people’s minds. It also stirred controversy and won him some enemies, but he was okay with that.”
AP: Did he ever play a bad guy?
Maltin: “I don’t think so. There’s a film where he has to show cowardice, and he’s terrible in that scene [laughter]. I don’t remember him ever playing a bad guy.
“To me, what will keep him alive in people’s consciousness for many years to come is not the image and not the legend, but the films. He’s in so many great films that will endure.”
Leonard Maltin holds court online at leonardmaltin.com