Roger Ebert has a must read post on the 30th anniversary of John Wayne’s death. He sums up as well as I’ve ever read what made John Wayne so great:
On screen he held so much authority so that he was not even being ironic when he explained his theory of acting: “Don’t act. React.” John Wayne, you see, could react. Others actors had to strain the limits of their craft to hold the screen with him. There is this test for an actor who, for a moment, is just standing there in a scene: Does he seem to be just standing there? Or does he, as John Wayne always did, appear to be deciding when, and why, and how to take the situation under his control?
And the Duke himself, expressing his thoughts on the greatest American art form:
But when you think about the Western–ones I’ve made, for example. ‘Stagecoach,’ ‘Red River,’ ‘The Searchers,’ a picture named ‘Hondo’ that had a little depth to it–it’s an American art form. It represents what this country is about. In ‘True Grit,’ for example, that scene where Rooster shoots the rat. That was a kind of reference to today’s problems. Oh, not that ‘True Grit’ has a message or anything. But that scene was about less accommodation, and more justice.
They keep bringing up the fact that America’s for the downtrodden. But this new thing of genuflecting to the downtrodden, I don’t go along with that. We ought to go back to praising the kids who get good grades, instead of making excuses for the ones who shoot the neighborhood grocery man. But, hell, I don’t want to get started on that
Of course, it’s Ebert, and the Duke was one of the great Hollywood right-wingers of yore, so politics can’t slip past unnoticed. Ebert’s fair enough, except for observing “I believe [Wayne] would have had contempt for the latter-day weirdos of the Right.” Yeah, right. Wayne supported Nixon and the war, he supported Reagan’s runs for governor. He was a through-and-through reactionary, and it’s impossible to imagine him any other way.