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The Real ‘Duke’ John Wayne Is A Prime Example Of Actors Who Merge On-Screen Characters With Off-Screen Life

Mark Feeney The Boston Globe

“John Wayne: American” by Randy Roberts and James S. Olson (Free Press, 738 pp., $27.50)

The greatest movie stars all have the same greatest role: themselves. The various parts they act in merge and come to seem manifestations of their individual presence.

What they play is who they are. Of course, who they are on the screen may not be who they are in life but that’s where the acting comes in.

John Wayne is a prime example. He never could have played Shakespeare. He was about as actorly as a saddle, as subtle as a fist. “I don’t like ambiguity,” he once told his assistant. “I don’t trust ambiguity.” But an Olivier or Gielgud never could have convincingly portrayed “John Wayne,” let alone done so repeatedly, in 170 movies, over the course of a 50-year career. Only John Wayne could do that. In playing a certain kind of role, he uniquely dominated the screen.

He also came to uniquely dominate the popular imagination. For 25 straight years, he ranked among Hollywood’s Top 10 box office attractions, an unmatched record. “As much as any man of his century,” Randy Roberts and James S. Olson write, John Wayne “became a symbol of America.” That is the rationale for their extremely long, extremely sympathetic and in certain respects rather peculiar biography.

The peculiarity has two sources: the authors’ approach and the tension between their admiration for Wayne and the frequently unadmirable things they report him doing. Roberts and Olson teach history at, respectively, Purdue University and Sam Houston State University, and it is as historians that they write about Wayne. With its 51 pages of endnotes and 11-page bibliography, theirs is no mere movie-star bio. “It is a full biography,” they explain, “an attempt to describe (Wayne’s) life and understand his popularity, to explain how he connected to so many Americans in such a visceral way and why his image has been so enduring.”

More than that, Roberts and Olson relate Wayne’s career to larger political and social developments, and the politicization of his increasingly iconic status is their main interest. It is no fluke that a publisher as serious - and ideologically conservative - as Free Press should publish “John Wayne: American.” And while the authors follow an academic approach, they do not write an academic prose. Their style may be pedestrian, but never unclear or pretentious.

Given all that, the authors’ choosing throughout to refer to their subject as “Duke,” his nickname, is a bit of fanzine hero worship that sits oddly with Olson’s and Roberts’ scholarly thoroughness. It also indicates the authors’ stance toward Wayne. Again and again, they declare what a fine man Wayne was, how closely the person resembled the persona. They quote with approval his statement, “I’ve played the kind of man I’d like to have been.”

The key part of that statement is “like to have been.” For every virtue he possessed - loyalty, generosity, intelligence, modesty - Wayne had just as many flaws. Often personally irresponsible, he was an unfaithful husband and distant father. He avowed a febrile brand of patriotism, this despite (or more likely because of) having avoided military service during World War II. No man in real life could have been the John Wayne up on the screen. What’s remarkable is how close the real man sometimes came. Olson and Roberts do him as well as the reader a disservice in trying to paper over the disjunction between image and fact.

What makes this all the more dismaying is how interesting many of the facts are that they’ve managed to unearth about Wayne.

Of the cheapie Westerns he made for Monogram Pictures in the ‘30s, Wayne later recalled, “My main duty was to ride, fight, keep my hat on, and at the end of shooting still have enough strength to kiss the girl and ride off on my horse or kiss my horse and ride off on the girl - whatever they wanted.”

While making “The Alamo,” Laurence Harvey, who was bisexual, developed a crush on his co-star and finally mustered the nerve to proposition him. “Please, Duke. Tonight. Just one time. I’ll be the queen if you’ll be the king.” Duke demurred.

On his first U.S. visit, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito requested to meet Wayne, who afterward confessed, “I was almost tempted to ask if he had seen any of my older war movies.”

In that statement, one finds an almost breathtaking blend of the obtuse and canny. As the longevity of his career might suggest, Wayne possessed both qualities. So, too, does “John Wayne: American.”

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