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sexta-feira, 28 de março de 2014

Playing John Wayne Scott Eyman’s ‘John Wayne: The Life and Legend’








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John Wayne as a gunfighter for hire in “El Dorado,” released in 1966.CreditPhotograph from Paramount Pictures

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The first time I met John Wayne was in 1965 in Old Tucson, Ariz., 
where he was shooting Howard Hawks’s “El Dorado.” 
They were doing a night scene so the lighting took a long time
 and, happily, gave me a solid two hours to sit on the set, 
not in his trailer, and to speak with the Duke about 
nothing except pictures. I hadn’t directed a movie yet, 
but I had been approved as a journalist by John Ford 
and endorsed by Hawks — the two most important directors
 in Wayne’s career — so he quickly became outgoing and pretty
 candid. When he was finally called away, he said to me, 
enthusiastically: “Geez, it was great talkin’ about . . . pictures! 
Nobody ever talks to me about anything but politics and cancer!”
Of course, he wasn’t kidding: By the mid-’60s,
after 25 years of stardom and superstardom, most people would mainly
 talk about John Wayne’s conservative politics, either pro or con,
or about his having survived lung cancer, with the loss of part of a lung.
Hardly anyone spoke of his acting, except to take it for granted or to
minimize it by saying he “always plays himself.” In his authoritative
 and enormously engaging new biography, “John Wayne: The Life
and Legend,” Scott Eyman writes in great detail on all three subjects:
 the politics that led Wayne to be actively involved in the Hollywood
Red Scare that blacklisted hundreds in the industry;
the cancer that ultimately killed him in 1979 at age 72;
and the surprising amount of care and work that went into
 creating the persona known to the world as John Wayne.
The portrait Eyman paints very much resembles the Wayne I knew
 for nearly 15 years: extremely likable, guileless, exuberant,
 even strangely innocent. Hawks, who cast him in “Red River” (1948),
 the major role for the second half of Duke’s career, once said
 to me that he felt everything that had happened to Wayne
 had gone a little “over his head.” Indeed, part of the charm of the
man who was born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa,
 in 1907, was his lack of pretension or self-importance.
Among the most interesting things I learned from this
book are how well Wayne expressed himself in prose, how cogently he
 formulated his thoughts and what a good student he was.
 He had wanted, at one point, to be a lawyer, and the few writings
 Eyman quotes are quite impressive, especially because Ford liked
 to give the idea that his main star (whom he picked on mercilessly
 during shoots) was somewhat of an unlettered boob.
One time, when I told Ford I was going to give Duke a book
for a birthday present, Ford growled, “He’s got a book!”
Eyman begins his biography with an exciting prologue,
describing the making of Wayne’s famous introductory shot
 in Ford’s first sound western, “Stagecoach” (1939),
the picture that catapulted the actor overnight from grade-Z movies
to the A-list of stars. It was a very unusual shot for Ford.
 It started with a full figure of Wayne, saddle over his shoulder,
 a rifle in his hand. The camera then rushes into a close-up,
and Wayne twirls and cocks the rifle in one flamboyant gesture.
This is the movie in which John Ford — rejecting the producer’s choice,
Gary Cooper, then a major box office attraction — decided to make
 Wayne a big star; when you see the picture,
it seems quite a conscious decision, so much of it being
 shown from Wayne’s perspective. Although Duke had a minimal
amount of dialogue, Ford made a point of always cutting to him
for his reaction to whatever was being said or done. Silent reactions.
 A key foundation of the art of visual storytelling. Both Wayne and Ford
 grew up during the so-called silent era (so-called because it was never silent; there was always at least a piano or organ accompaniment, 
and often a full orchestra, with sound effects workers behind the screen).
 And in that period, silent close-ups were it. I’ve often heard it said
that Ford made Wayne a star by giving him very few lines,
but that isn’t the point: In pictures, a close-up reaction is worth a million words.
 Wayne used to sum it up: “They say I’m an action actor, but I’m
 really a reaction actor.”
The book that follows the arresting prologue takes you through
Wayne’s life, his death and his legend in a detailed, remarkably
knowledgeable yet extremely readable way. There’s an underlying tension
in the writing that propels you forward. What’s more, having already
 published a fine biography of Ford, most aptly titled “Print the Legend,”
 Eyman had a head start on this book, a very important head start.
Eyman takes you on an insider’s journey — he says he knew Wayne “slightly”  — that repeatedly rings true. (As part of his research, 
Eyman interviewed me, because I’ve written extensively on Ford,
 Hawks and Wayne.) First known as Duke Morrison 
(the nickname originated with a dog
 he loved named Duke), Wayne was very popular in school and college,
 a dedicated student, a football star, brought up under difficult
and not wealthy conditions, who drifted into movies first as a
goose-herder for Ford’s “Mother Machree” (1928), later as an all-around
laborer, prop man, extra and bit player, mostly in Ford pictures.
 Ford obviously had his eye on Duke, but didn’t give him anything substantial.
Then in 1930, with the beginning of sound, the veteran director Raoul Walsh
noticed Duke on the Fox lot, liked the way he moved and decided to cast
 him as the lead in an expensive, sweeping western epic, “The Big Trail,”
 one of the first films (and possibly the last for quite a while) photographed
in wide screen. For his new job, Walsh decided the young man needed
 a better acting name than Marion Morrison, or even Duke Morrison;
something more familiar, yet strong and decisive: And so John Wayne
was born. The picture, which is actually quite likable (as is Duke in it),
was a huge flop. And now Wayne, who had originally never thought
of being an actor, was relegated to small parts in a few A-pictures,
or leads in poverty-row westerns (very many of those).
Ford, who had been fatherly and very friendly — had indeed spoken well
 of Duke to Walsh — suddenly refused to speak to him or even
 acknowledge his existence; this went on for several years until finally,
just as suddenly, he was back in the Ford family. This
mysterious treatment, Wayne told me, was something he never 
understood. I venture to guess it was Ford’s way of punishing 
Duke for starring in a Walsh film,  and letting Walsh be the one to change 
his name.  James Cagney once said to me: “There’s one word
 that sums up  Jack Ford — malice.”
As planned, “Stagecoach” — Ford’s thumbing of his nose at Walsh
— was the beginning of Wayne’s amazing career,  and of a series of lovely
 leading-man performances in Ford pictures like “The Long Voyage Home,
” “They Were Expendable” and “Fort Apache,” along with numerous 
other films of the 1940s. And then there was Hawks’s “Red River,” 
the older-man role that sharply altered his image and career. 
Ford said in amazement, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!”
 Wayne played a character a good 15 or more years older than
 he actually was, a single-minded man obsessed with a 
never-before-attempted, dangerous and exhausting cattle drive. 
It became the foundation for a series of performances that 
were a considerable distance from the easygoing good guy
 he had been accustomed to playing up to then.
This led to Ford’s attempting to top the Hawks achievement by casting
Duke in an even older role for “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949),
though it was devoid of the intense rough edges and warts of
“Red River.” That would come later, when Ford cast him as the
ultimate loner — and a racist — in perhaps his and Wayne’s greatest
western, “The Searchers” (1956). Yet in the midst of all this,
 Ford also used Wayne’s innate likability to great advantage
in the title role of his delightful and memorable Irish romantic
 comedy, “The Quiet Man” (1952). It is revealing of Duke’s lack of
 self-importance (or even self-awareness) that he would always complain
 that he had nothing to do in “The Quiet Man” until the big fight at the end;
he was evidently not fully conscious of how much he brought to a role
just by showing up.
Though in other ways he was very well aware of what he was doing.
 In 1957, at the peak of his career, he is reported to have said that the
 person on the screen wasn’t really him. “I’m Duke Morrison, and I never
was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well.
I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.”
John Wayne may have been a major star and audience favorite from 1939
 till his death, but in fact his popularity continued long after: 20 to 30 years
 later he remained among the top five American film stars of all time.
On one occasion, he said, “I’ve played the kind of man I’d like to have been.”
 Which is very close to a remark made by another superstar from the
Golden Age of Hollywood; Cary Grant said more than once:
“Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I’d like to be Cary Grant.”
Of course, those times are gone forever. Currently, there are many
 film stars but virtually none with the iconic status of Cary Grant or John Wayne.
 Or James Cagney, for that matter, or Jimmy Stewart, or Katharine Hepburn,
or Bette Davis, or Humphrey Bogart. These were more than simply good
 or great actors playing roles, they were brand names you could happily
 invest in, and rarely be disappointed. John Wayne managed to avoid
 military service in World War II (for which Ford endlessly mocked him),
but on the screen he won that war in a very big way. Numerous pictures
 had him leading the charge, as he did, for example, as the hard-ass
 Marine sergeant in Allan Dwan’s “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949), for which he
received his first Academy Award nomination (for the one other, “True Grit,”
 he won the Oscar). I remember seeing “Sands” when it opened; at 10, I was
shocked by the ending, when Duke gets shot in the back by the enemy
 and killed! It was one of the few times Wayne died in a movie.
He usually seemed altogether indestructible, like the legend he still is.




JOHN WAYNE

The Life and Legend
By Scott Eyman
Illustrated. 658 pp. Simon & Schuster. $32.50.

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