Today marks John Wayne’s 100th birthday. He started in Hollywood when studios had actors making one movie after another. The result was that Wayne made some great movies and a whole lot of average (and below average) ones. The same is true for any actor of his era -- such as Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, and James Stewart, to name a few.
While I’m more of a fan of the work of Bogart, Grant and Stewart, the Duke had real star power. Arguably the only figure in Hollywood with more star power was Clark Gable. (It’s been said that Spenser Tracy and Gable were friends, but that Gable envied Tracy’s acting ability and Tracy envied Gable’s star power.)
Everyone has his or her Wayne favorites. Those movies you love coming across on cable TV and watching time and again. I’m particularly fond of The Shootist (1976). It was Wayne’s last picture.
It’s poignant because Wayne plays an old gunslinger dying of cancer. Because the story takes place in Nevada at the turn of the century as the old west is dying out. And because Wayne, according to co-star Lauren Bacall, was in poor health and knew he would not live much longer himself.
Red River(1948), The Searchers (1956), True Grit(1969) and others are objectively better pictures. But I have a weakness for The Shootist.
Iain Johnstone has a remembrance of Wayne in The Spectator. He describes sailing up the Pacific coast of Mexico with him in 1976:
He had an acting rulebook of his own, such as breaking up his sentences with an inserted caesura so the audience would wait for the point or draw attention to himself in the background of a scene merely by cracking open his rifle to see if it was loaded.
That first night he asked me to dinner and personally barbecued the steaks. ‘These Mexican steaks are really tasty,’ I said. Duke drew himself up to his full six foot four. ‘These steaks came from the United States of America.’ As, indeed, did he. Like no American before — or since.
Happy birthday, Duke.