Monday, April 7, 2014

John Wayne: The Life and Legend

Author: Scott Eyman
Genre: Biography

Four Stars
 
John Wayne was one of Hollywood’s most famous and most successful actors, but he was more than that. He became a symbol of America itself. He epitomized the Western film, which for many people epitomized America. He identified with conservative political causes from the early 1930s to his death in 1979, making him a hero to one generation of Americans and a villain to another. But unlike fellow actor Ronald Reagan, Wayne had no interest in politics as a career. Like many stars, he altered his life story, claiming to have become an actor almost by accident when in fact he had studied drama and aspired to act for most of his youth. He married three times, all to Latina women, and conducted a lengthy affair with Marlene Dietrich, as unlikely a romantic partner as one could imagine for the Duke.  Wayne projected dignity, integrity, and strength in all his films, even when his characters were flawed, and whatever character he played was always prepared to confront injustice in his own way. More than thirty years after his death, he remains the standard by which male stars are judged and an actor whose morally unambiguous films continue to attract sizeable audiences.

Scott Eyman interviewed Wayne, as well as many family members, and he has drawn on previously unpublished reminiscences from friends and associates of the Duke in this biography, as well as documents from his production company that shed light on Wayne’s business affairs. He traces Wayne from his childhood to his stardom in Stagecoach and dozens of films after that. Eyman perceptively analyzes Wayne’s relationship with John Ford, the director with whom he’s most associated and who made some of Wayne’s greatest films, among them She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers. His evaluation of Wayne himself is shrewd: a skilled actor who was reluctant to step outside his comfort zone. Wayne was self-aware; he once said, “I’ve played the kind of man I’d like to have been.” It’s that man and the real John Wayne who are brilliantly profiled in Scott Eyman’s insightful biography of a true American legend.
 
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I have read other books about John Wayne, and I have to say that this is yet the most detailed one.  You not only learn about Wayne himself, but many other friends and acquaintances.  The book relates how young Marion Morrison grew up, his relationships with both parents and how it shaped his life.  His youth was difficult and, in my opinion, somewhat sad, yet he managed to grow with honesty, generosity and grace.
 
John Wayne was a complex human being, not the person seen on the screen, yet everything he did was for his family; and every movie he made was for his fans.  We are shown the triumphs in his life and the regrets; the happiness and the sorrow he went through, and the deep, abiding love for his family and his friends.
 
We are given not only details regarding the movies Mr.Wayne made, but what was going on in his personal life at the same time, and those of the people he worked with.  I learned many things I never knew - and I read a lot of biographies.  Some were understandable; others, not so much (in the fact that while his actions were generous, I felt he was ill-used).  There are also quite a few anecdotes regarding several actors, including Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum and Ward Bond that I found fascinating at the least. 
 
In all, this book is well worth reading, not only for the fans of westerns and John Wayne, but for anyone who wants to know how he became an American icon, and still remains so today. 
 
 


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