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John Wayne Revealed

John Wayne Revealed

Book review: John
Wayne: The Life and Legend
by Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster)

John Wayne has been the subject of many books, from
worshipful biographies to detail-oriented rundowns of his movies. Now, seasoned
biographer Scott Eyman has given us a book worthy of its formidable subject: a
thorough, fair-minded, admiring look at the star and his career. He doesn’t
dodge the difficult issues regarding Wayne and his polarizing politics;
instead, he takes a page from the actor’s own playbook, treating each incident
on its own terms and trying to give him the benefit of the doubt whenever
possible. No other biography examines his films so thoroughly or perceptively,
and no filmography offers so many insights about the man behind the image.

Most of all, Eyman captures and illuminates Wayne’s many contradictions.
Consider this summarizing paragraph: “He was a rich character hiding in plain
sight—deeply flawed, deeply moving, earthy and warm, a Scots-Irish brawler by
blood and by temperament, full of love and rage and forgiveness. He was a
freedom fighter whose best friends included flagrant anti-Semites and racists,
a deeply conservative man who believed passionately in the freedom of speech,
an emotionally expansive man who was a little afraid of women, a man with a
father he adored who spent years in search of a father substitute, a fierce
patriot who never served, an insecure young man who grew to be a secure husband
and father. And a fine actor who only grudgingly stepped outside his comfort
zone.”

As for his public persona, Eyman observes, “Movie stars hide their true selves
from their public, which can result in inadvertent and humiliating exposures.
But Wayne never obscured his flaws, and often went out of his way to expose
them, because pretending otherwise would have been a breach in the binding
contract he had with his audience: to tell the truth as he saw it.
Unfortunately, his unified field theory of American society caused many to
ignore the questioning, complicated humanity of his best performances.

Making optimal use of his extensive research and interviews, the author gives
us a clear-eyed look at Wayne’s youth and the poverty that helped shape his
lifelong views of self-sufficiency. He details the young man’s almost
accidental entry into the film business, his first meeting with John Ford, and
the epic film called The Big Trail
that should have launched him to stardom, but didn’t. Eyman spends more time
than a lesser film buff would have on the decade of B movies that followed, and
details the way Ford consciously introduced Wayne’s character, The Ringo Kid,
to maximum effect in Stagecoach. He
does his best to explain Wayne’s unsuccessful marriages and the affairs that
resulted. Along the way, we learn more than a bit about the people in Wayne’s
orbit, from Ward Bond and John Ford to the actor’s longtime agent, Charles
Feldman. Some of these mini-portraits may seem tangential to the casual reader
but they help us understand the world Wayne inhabited.

We are constantly reminded that the real-life Wayne bore only passing
resemblance to his movie alter ego, which still looms large in the public
consciousness. His younger costars were invariably surprised by the actor’s erudition
and passion for chess. He loved the great outdoors but once told his son
Michael that he only got on a horse when someone paid him to do so.

We even learn why this film icon made so many mediocre star vehicles in the last
decade of his career, and how he never amassed the personal fortune that some colleagues enjoyed.

John Wayne: The Life and Legend is a
thoughtful, well-written book. Even if you’re familiar with Wayne’s career,
chances are you’ll learn things you didn’t know; I certainly did. Scott Eyman
is a longtime friend, but I feel no need to apologize for this laudatory
review. Scott’s biographies are uniformly excellent and this one is no
exception.

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