By Lars Trodson
More than 30 years after his death, John Wayne still can’t get a little respect. The latest sideways attack, in the pages of The New York Times, seems as unnecessary as it is unfounded. It came in the form of a formless and unfocused article by Michael Cieply (published Dec. 3), headlined “Coen Brothers Saddle Up a Revenge Story (or Two). Maybe Cieply needed to denigrate Wayne in order to fawn over Joel and Ethan. Who knows?
The topic arises, of course, because the Coen brothers have made a new version of “True Grit”, the film that, in the words of Cieply, starred a John Wayne “well past his prime, (who) won his only Academy Award for portraying Rooster Cogburn.” The use of the word “only” I suppose is there to indicate that one’s career is somehow deficient if you only won one Oscar. Okay. I’ll agree. John Wayne is certainly no Kevin Spacey.
Cieply says that Wayne’s “selection fiercely split those who felt justice was thus served from those who viewed this original ‘True Grit’, released in June 1969, as the last gasp of a Hollywood stuck in its own past.” Hollywood wasn’t stuck in its own past; it was conflicted, as always, about its future. Cieply notes, but does not seem to grasp the importance of the fact that the year Wayne won, the Best Picture Oscar went to the X-rated (at the time), “Midnight Cowboy.” So it wasn’t “stuck”, it was falteringly moving from the past into the future. But for Hollywood, unfortunately, the future never seems to arrive. It’s always today in Hollywood and it's almost always late about everything.
Cieply then quotes Robert Evans, the legendary producer, who says of the Wayne win: “It was a token Oscar.” At another point, Cieply notes that by the time the Oscars came around, in 1970, “Wayne was being described as a sentimental favorite.”
I wonder, for the record, how all of this makes Jeff Bridges feel. Bridges is inhabiting the role of Rooster Cogburn in the Coen’s new film. Let’s see, Bridges won his “only” Oscar (so far) last year for a movie called ... hmmm. What was the name of that movie again? Thank God Bridges wasn’t viewed as a sentimental favorite at all last year.
If you want to go down that road, then take away half the Oscars Hollywood has ever given out. James Cagney and James Stewart only have one little Oscar, and no one would say they won for their greatest or iconic roles. Cagney won for “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, a wartime fave that captured the country’s patriotism. Stewart won for “The Philadelphia Story”, which people say was largely an apology for not awarding Stewart for “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” from the year before.
Humphrey Bogart, Hollywood’s number one movie star of all time, won for “The African Queen”, having been passed over for “The Maltese Falcon”, “Key Largo”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, or “Casablanca.” Thank God he wasn’t a sentimental choice.
Al Pacino was repeatedly passed over for his truly groundbreaking performances throughout the 1970s, only to win his “only” Oscar for “Scent of a Woman”, which no one would put at the top of any Pacino list. Hollywood also seems to treat the Best Supporting Actor category as a kiss in the mail for a lot of performers who have been around forever (see Jack Palance or Don Ameche or Alan Arkin).
Okay. Point made. I just happen to disagree that Wayne’s Oscar was simply a nod to his stature. It may not have been his greatest performance, but he was an active and robust and exciting presence in "True Grit." People remembered him in this role - and isn’t that the point?
Perhaps it was his conservatism that rankles critics - both his contemporaneous ones and the modern ones. I wouldn’t ever want to be called a conservative myself, but I couldn’t care less about Wayne’s politics, or James Cagney’s or Jimmy Stewart’s, for that matter.
Cieply takes the time to denigrate the novel and to take a swipe at director Henry Hathaway and even manages to drag in Richard Nixon. This all seems a bit moldy and useless. Oddly, Cieply manages to keep out perhaps the most egregious and unforgivable aspect of Wayne's personality, which was his horrible racism. I can't abide by that, and no one should.
Wayne has, over the years, been reassessed. I’ve agreed with those who felt that he was a better actor than often thought. I’m particularly fond of his work in Otto Preminger’s “In Harm’s Way”, in which he gives a quiet, very beautiful performance. His last performance in “The Shootist” is similarly heartfelt. But I can also watch Wayne in almost anything. I don't watch him for social or political commentary and I don't think that is his purpose in our lives.
I’m old enough to remember when “True Grit” came out, and I remember, which Cieply seems to either not have known or forgotten, that Wayne may well have been past his prime, but he was one of the few, if not the only actor remaining from the 1930s who was still connecting to modern movie audiences. Bogart, Gary Cooper, Cagney, Stewart, Grant, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, Edward G. Robinson - they all retired, dead or irrelevant. Wayne’s only active contemporary may have been Katharine Hepburn.
And Wayne was largely credited, in taking the role of Rooster Cogburn, of having the confidence to mock his own image as a tough guy. Wayne is drunk and fat and old throughout the film, and he was reliable.
There are a lot of people who have Oscars on their mantles for roles or projects they should feel fairly embarrassed about. John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn is not one of them so, you know, get over it.