Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

John Wayne Revealed

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
May 13, 2014 2:30 PM
5 Comments
  • |
John Wayne Live and Legend-290
(Simon & Schuster)

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.

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

5 Comments

  • Tom Peak | May 14, 2014 3:33 PMReply

    Leonard,
    Tom Peak here. I just recently finished reading Scott Eyman's book on John Wayne. I have read Scott's other biographies on Cecil B. DeMille, Louis B. Mayer, and John Ford and this biography stand up in quality and content to all three of Eyman's before mentioned works. I have always enjoyed John Wayne's films with "The Searchers", "Red River", and "The Quiet Man" as my three favorites. Besides Wayne's films and tidbits of information on his personal life I was not to familiar with John Wayne himself. I found the book a fascinating read into, not just Wayne's movie career, but his early life, how his persona was molded and just how he found his way onto the silver screen. With my father being the accomplished movie artist Bob Peak, I have always been drawn to the visual. I thought the books jacket design, with the young and handsome Wayne of the front and his ever familiar Western Cowboy image on the back, an interesting approach to marketing the book. The cover design leads us into this complete bio-critical account of the life and film works of one of America's most iconic movie legends.

  • mike schlesinger | May 15, 2014 6:46 PM

    Tom, interesting you should mention the cover. Scott told me that the publisher wanted a more iconic image of the Duke (e.g., from THE SEARCHERS or something similar from that era), but Scott insisted on that photo, believing it would make the book stand out from all the others about Wayne. And thankfully he prevailed.

  • Lee | May 14, 2014 2:34 AMReply

    The most surprising thing about John Wayne is that even though his movies depicted Mexicans as the villains, all three of Wayne's wives were Latinas.

    All in all, I am NOT a fan of Wayne.

  • mike schlesinger | May 13, 2014 3:56 PMReply

    Scott's work is always tremendous and this is no exception. A favorite anecdote (which did not make the cut) involves the time Dick Cavett visited Wayne on a film set and was surprised by the man's ability to quote huge chunks of Noel Coward by heart. When he returned to New York, he related the story to his pal Woody Allen, who replied, "Dick, you forget. He's not a cowboy. He's an actor who plays cowboys."

  • Jeffry Heise | May 13, 2014 9:53 AMReply

    This is a fine review of a book that deserves all the kudos that it has received and the attending success with the public. One of the ingredients that make a great bio is that it makes you feel that the subject is in the room with you while you read it-not hovering over you or reading over your shoulder, but their presence is felt enough to make you feel that you are there for that incident or moment and even if the subject might be doing something that does not elicit your sympathy, you will empathize with them. John Wayne was a flawed human being-we all are-and this book makes no attempts to cover them up, but it does show them as part of the man, how he developed and how we see him today. I was Scott's main researcher (have been for over 20 years) and while poring through a lot of the material I retrieved for him, I got a sense of Wayne the man and the actor but it took what Scott did with that same material to really flesh out the Duke. For me, another sign of a great biography is once you have finished, you feel that you have a complete portrait, and unless some aspect is discovered that no one anticipated and that totally changes how one sees the subject, it can be seen as definitive and 10-20 years can safely pass before someone else takes a crack at it. This is that kind of book-it was that way with Scott's books on Lubitsch, Mayer and DeMille, and it certainly is with John Wayne.

Email Updates

Latest Tweets

Follow us

Most "Liked"

  • Blind Husbands-Erich Von StroheimThrowback Thursday: Von Stroheim!


leonardmaltin