Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The John Wayne Factor

When encountering "best" all-time film selections of distinguished critics and writers, one bumps into the curious presence of actor John Wayne in so many choices. This is particularly the case with wimpy-minded liberals like Peter Bogdonovich, Jonathan Lethem, and Joan Didion. Put a John Wayne movie before them and their liberalism vanishes. The moment "The Duke" appears on screen they begin bawling. It's a psychological phenomenon which has little to do with the actual movie. I call it connecting with their Inner John Wayne.
Of all John Wayne movies, "The Searchers" is the most lauded. Notice the gushings about Wayne's "obsessed" performance (Wayne glares to convey obsession); how "racist" it is, as if it were a radical departure, strongly against type.

Yet in the movie-- as opposed to the many essays about it-- John Wayne is clearly meant to be the hero of the story. His actions as strong man are conveyed as necessary to the survival of the community-- akin to the similar role in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," or his earlier part in "Stagecoach," where he freely shoots Indians. Duh! I suspect the film critics are viewing a different movie and different John Wayne from that seen by 1950's audiences.
John Wayne's strength as an actor came from the way he moved. Give him too much dialogue and his performance becomes embarrassing. (See "The Alamo.") He was an icon, but far from the greatest American film actor. All one has to do is compare his performances with what truly great actors like William Holden and Robert Ryan do with a few phrases in "The Wild Bunch." Each has some of the most memorable lines in American cinema. (Ryan: "We're chasing MEN, and I wish to God I were with them.") Their voices convey universes of meaning.

"The Searchers" has its strengths. The shot placements and technicolor photography blaze in the memory. It's also meandering, silly (Natalie Wood made-up like a pop movie queen), unbearably corny and at times boring. It's a nice folk tale-- its value in the way it preserves, or really, recaptures, the pioneer mindset; racism, hokiness, and all. A good movie, yes, but nowhere near the apex of great films. "The Wild Bunch"-- which did not make my list-- for one is many times better.

No comments: