I remember reading an article about Marilyn Monroe a while ago. After returning from a walk around the block of her Manhattan apartment with a friend, she noticed a group of photographers gathered around the entrance to the building. Monroe turned to her companion and said, "Want to see me be her?"
In some ways, that is the approach that Marion Morrison took with a person called John Wayne. Whereas Norma Jean Baker held a thinly-veiled contempt for the blond sex goddess that someone named Marilyn, Morrison tended the image of John Wayne as carefully as if it had been a rare orchid. Likening John Wayne to an exotic flower might seem to be a perilous analogy, but, as Scott Eyman repeatedly points out in his marrow-deep biography of the iconic movie star, "John Wayne: The Life and Legend" (Simon and Schuster), it really wasn’t too far from the truth.
Marion Morrison knew that he owed everything he had in the world to John Wayne, even if he didn’t always remember to respond to the name. His friends just called him Duke.
Much to the dismay of Fox executives, director Raoul Walsh cast the unknown bit player in the lead role of a very expensive western called "The Big Trail," one of the first films photographed in a widescreen process. The part of Breck Coleman was a very rough draft of the persona that John Wayne would perfect so successfully during his career, but moviegoers in 1930 were not impressed. "The Big Trail" failed spectacularly at the box-office and the reverberations cast Wayne into the inglorious realm of poverty row westerns and movie serials that Hollywood mass-produced like cars on an assembly line.
While he was churning out the shoestring westerns, Wayne kept in touch with an irascible character of Irish descent who had already picked up the first of his unprecedented four Oscars for directing motion pictures. (Only one of them, "The Quiet Man" in 1952, starred his most frequent leading man.) John Ford kept advising Wayne to bide his time, pay his dues, and learn his craft. He would let him know when the right part came along.
A decade passed by before Ford found that part. The Ringo Kid doesn’t make an appearance in "Stagecoach" (1939) until 20 minutes into the movie. In the moment when Ford’s camera uncharacteristically zooms in on the lone figure in the desert, everything just fell into place. The lean years for the actor were over, even if some very bad times for the man still lay ahead.
If Marion Morrison owed everything to John Wayne, then Wayne never forgot that he owed everything to John Ford. Mr. Eyman asserts that Wayne deferred to no one else in his life as much as he did to the man he affectionately called Coach. When Ford launched into an abusive tirade aimed at William Holden during the filming of "The Horse Soldiers" (1959), Holden told him that, if he ever did it again, he would throw him into the nearest river. Wayne would have hung his head in dejection.
Wayne was a towering mass of contradictions: A doting father and serially unfaithful husband, a savvy actor and a very bad businessman. He was unshakably, but not belligerently, conservative. He was unfailingly kind and generous, but he was an unapologetic supporter of the Hollywood blacklist that ruined lives and careers. Wayne starred in two of the greatest westerns ever made, "The Searchers" (1956) and "Rio Bravo" (1959), and directed one of the worst films of all-time, "The Green Berets" (1968).
He made his fortune riding across the West, but John Wayne loved the sea more. He didn’t much care for horseback riding unless he was paid to do it, but climbing aboard a boat was another matter entirely. Eugene O’Neill once said that "The Long Voyage Home"(1940), adapted by Ford from four of O’Neill’s short plays about the sea, was the only film based on his work that he ever admired. Wayne would also temporarily forsake his boots and saddles for appearances in Cecil B. DeMille’s "Reap the Wild Wind"(1942), Ford’s "They Were Expendable"(1945), "The Sea Chase"(1955) and in Otto Preminger’s large-scale war movie, "In Harm’s Way"(1965).
Mr. Eyman has bravely tackled a very complex life. In the process, the author respectfully debunks some of the stories that Wayne himself tended to perpetuate throughout his long career. He claimed to be an actor only by chance, an assertion that Eyman casts an extremely doubtful eye upon. It was true that he first came to the attention of Raoul Walsh while he was a prop man, but Marion Morrison always had his eye on bigger things than hefting furniture on sound stages. It hardly needs noting that he succeeded spectacularly as John Wayne and the big trail that Mr. Eyman takes us down is almost as memorable as the ones Duke traversed in front of a camera.
Alden Graves is a Banner columnist.