John Wayne Biographer, Former Palm Beach Post Writer Scott Eyman Talks About "The Duke"
Photo by 20th Century Fox via Flickr cc
Scott Eyman's retirement from the Palm Beach Post was a great loss to the paper. He was far and away its most sophisticated writer on cultural matters, serving as film critic, then books editor and art critic.
In his spare time, he turned out 13 books, most notably a series of epic studies of the titans of Hollywood's Golden Age, including directors John Ford and Ernst Lubitsch and studio chief Louis B. Mayer.
Eyman's love of old-school Tinseltown illuminates his first post-Post tome, a sentiment equaled only by the deep empathy evident in his appreciation of the book's subject, actor and icon Marion Michael Morrison, aka John "Duke" Wayne.
Love him or hate him (and we pinko types definitely lean toward the hate), Wayne's stature is undeniable. He was a movie star whose celluloid trail through the Old West and World War II's Pacific theater lifted his stardom into the constellation of American myth: Washington crossing the Delaware, Lincoln at Gettysburg, the flag at Iwo Jima, the Duke and his firearms enforcing eternal verities.
Eyman's John Wayne: The Life and Legend is the work of a master biographer. Exhaustively detailed (five years in the research and writing), its impeccable prose unspools an effortless narrative flow packed with tasty anecdotes (Wayne and Marlene Dietrich had a years-long affair? Who knew?), keen observations about our hard-working hero's pained personal life, his self-creation (the honorable-tough-guy image resulted from finely crafted acting within a self-limited range of characterization), and the mechanics of moviemaking.
Wayne's reactionary politics is not spared, though it emerges as driven more by the unreflective sentimentality of a man out of time rather than actual malice. The Duke helped lay the groundwork for the Hollywood Blacklist, but he was more enabler than executioner. That vile role was left to Wayne's drinking buddy and frequent costar Ward Bond.
New Times spoke to Eyman earlier this week, about John Wayne and about the writing of the biography. Here's some of our meatier exchanges:
On the fascination of Golden Age Hollywood:
It's a vanished culture. I study it like you would Etruscan pottery. It was a self-enclosed system, it functioned with a high degree of efficiency; it had no interest in anything that happened outside. It was a strange, closed system that functioned very effectively for 50 or 60 years. I think I respond to the efficiency of the machine. It was highly adaptive, almost like a living organism.
Why so much of the book is about the movies as a business:
Money caused the system to function; it fed the machine. You ignore the money in favor of concentrating on the art you're missing -- if not the most important component, the second-most important. If some reader's eyes glaze over, OK, they can skip it. I think it would be foolish to pretend there was no interest in money when Orson Welles was making his magnificent crane shots at the end of Citizen Kane.
How the audience rather than the studio system made John Wayne a star:
The studio tried to make him a star in 1930: Here's this kid, he photographed beautifully, you're going to make him a Western star. The mass audience wasn't interested. He went down the ladder to Poverty Row and slowly learned his craft and the nature of the business. Making movies was his school. The business wasn't interested in him until he made Stagecoach with director John Ford. Suddenly he was a hot leading man. He was the same guy he had been, but the audience came around and liked him very quickly.
On Wayne's affair with Dietrich:
She introduced him to varieties of lovemaking that were new to him. His sexual experience was not vast at that point. She was really important in terms of his career. She gave him her agent, Charlie Feldman, which was a crucial connection for him. Feldman ramped up the money he made, his perks as a star, got him percentages on films. Feldman could meet guys like Louis B. Mayer at the card table and beat him. He was not a shnook; he was a serious guy, so they started taking Wayne more seriously.
How Wayne the actor became a political icon:
He slowly accreted this thing where he personified America. I don't think it was intentional. I think it was a function of the parameters he set, the things he would do and the things he would not do. In The Shootist, he refused to shoot a guy in the back. He wouldn't play Willie Stark in All the King's Men. He refused to play Patton. There are all sorts of parts he turned down that would have mitigated against the apparent clarity and simplicity of his screen character. Some of that was intentional; some was the luck of the draw. But the parts I'm talking about he went out of his way to turn down. It became a function of the way he saw -- not himself, because he thought of himself as "Duke" Morrison -- but the way he saw John Wayne -- that guy on the screen.
On the dark side of Wayne's screen characters, like the racist hero of The Searchers:
He played bastards before The Searchers. He played a bastard in Sands of Iwo Jima, in Red River. He wasn't just playing nice guys all those years. In The Searchers, he took it further than ever before or than he ever would again. He wasn't afraid of playing a heavy, as long as it was a heavy the audience could respect. It was something the man shared with the screen character. He wanted to be liked one-on-one, but he was more concerned to be respected than liked.
On Wayne's acting ability:
He didn't get a lot of respect from the critics. The industry respected him because of his commercial strength and his professionalism. He was certainly more respected as an actor within the industry than outside the industry. But he was OK with that. I mean, it pleased him enormously when he got good reviews, like for The Searchers. On the other hand, he felt if you could have either great reviews or the loyalty of the audience -- go with the audience. Great reviews aren't going to keep you working, and he really wanted to work. He was a workaholic.
On the scope of the task of a biography of this depth:
I knew going in it was going to be a bastard, be unmanageable... It's like directing Lawrence of Arabia. And if you lose the audience with a movie like that, it's almost impossible to get them back. The bar you have to get over with a book this length... your margin of error is very small. Your main problem is movement -- moving the story along. I talked to 80 to 100 people in the research, and people refer to similar personality characteristics. You have to make choices that best illustrate his character.
On the public response to the book:
Huge, a considerable success. Five weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, 14 or 15 printings. Nothing I expected at all. Wayne's been dead for 35 years, and that's pretty dead. It's amazing how his persona survives. Not only transcends his own period, transcends his children's' period... When I went on the road to promote the book, I expected to see a lot of older men. What I didn't expect was a lot of 25- and 30-year-old women. And I'd ask them, "What are you doing here? He was dead before you were born." And they all said basically the same thing: They grew up watching John Wayne movies with their fathers or grandfathers, who saw John Wayne as what a man should be. They absorbed him through their paternal nurturing. He's been passed down like a cultural heirloom through generations.
John Wayne: The Life and Legend, by Scott Eyman. A Simon & Schuster book.
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers South Florida news and culture. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.
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