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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014

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In Movies & TV

John Wayne died almost 35 years ago, but his legacy - and his impressive resume - live on.

The Duke rides again in new biography


When author Scott Eyman was 21 years old, he spent 90 minutes with John Wayne – unquestionably one of the silver screen's biggest stars – in a dressing room at CBS. He asked him questions about Howard Hawks and John Ford and his early 1930s serial B-movies for Mascot Pictures Corporation.

About 40 years later, Eyman had a hard time finding that man he met in 1972 in any of the books or biographies out in circulation.

"I had this experience 15 or 16 years ago where a guy I knew very well had a biography written about him by a good writer," Eyman recalled. "I was completely disappointed, not because the writer had done a sh*tty job, but because everything was accurate but nothing was true. There was no sense of what he liked to drink or what his aftershave smelled like or all those little behavioral details. It was all big picture stuff, and it lacked intimacy. That was my problem with the couple of books on John Wayne that have been written since he died. There was no real sense of who he was as a human being."

Eyman – who listed several of The Duke's movies as his favorites – decided to take matters into his own hands, writing his own biography. The result was "John Wayne: The Life and Legend," a personal history of the iconic Western star which cracked the New York Times Bestsellers list. Eyman will now be bringing it to the Milwaukee Public Market on Wednesday for a discussion and reading, with all of the proceeds from book sales going toward the Milwaukee Public Library.

In order to make his biography the way he wanted – to create the John Wayne book that he felt he couldn't find – Eyman had to find a way to unveil the man underneath the persona and the perceptions. Thus the research began.

"You talk to a lot of people, you see if there is a common thread that emerges and you figure out what drove him," Eyman said. "Everybody is motivated by something: fear, fame, money, women, drugs, whatever it might be. You have to figure out what the engine is because he was extremely ambitious, focused and a workaholic. So what was driving that need he had to keep working, that need to be an actor, that need to be a star."

After many conversations and interviews and diving deep into research on the screen legend, Eyman found what he believes to be that engine or that drive was for Wayne – born Marion Morrison and nicknamed Duke.

"He was a poor kid who was very insecure and shy," Eyman said. "The girls were all thunderstruck by him, but he didn't really make a lot of headway because he was so painfully shy. And I think he was driven by he wanted to be successful, and he wanted to have money. He wanted to be somebody other than who he started out as. He didn't want to be poor. He didn't want to be lower-middle class. He didn't want to be Marion Morrison; he wanted to be something bigger than that, so he became John Wayne."

It's not an unusual story. According to Eyman, Cary Grant – born Archie Leach in England – had a similar motivation down his career path.

"He became Cary Grant, this paragon of grace and smooth suavity, which had no relation to who he was at all," Eyman said, "but the object is to become who you want to be. So you play who you want to be and eventually, you become that thing."

In addition to finding Wayne's motivation and inner push in life, Eyman also dove into the other quirks of Wayne's personality for "The Life and Legend." According to the author, the star was quite the chess player – something Eyman found out first-hand playing against him – as well as a good bridge player. He was calm, polite and contemplative off-screen, and he was very well read in the arts and literature. Perhaps his most interesting and misunderstood aspect, however, was the one he was putting right in front of the audience.

"People thought he was just playing himself, especially if all they knew was the stuff from the '60s and '70s," Eyman said. "It wasn't until 'The Searchers' became popular in a retrospective sense that people started to think 'whoa' and looked back. He was a very good actor with a great emotional range. He did have a strong personality, but that's what movie stars were expected to have then. So the people who say, 'Well he's just playing John Wayne,' well, they just haven't seen the movies."

Today, there was never really anyone like John Wayne back in his Hollywood heyday, and almost 35 years after his death from stomach cancer, there still isn't any actor quite like The Duke. I put forward Liam Neeson, who Eyman agreed has the size and eyes to perhaps match ("if you could do something about the accent," he joked), if not the clear identity that Wayne had.

The biggest issue, however, is that the genre Wayne called home – the Western – has almost entirely disappeared from the modern pop culture environment.

"Nobody thinks, 'Oh, let's make a couple of Westerns this year,'" Eyman said, "If a big time director … if Michael Bay wants to make a Western or Leonardo DiCaprio wants to make a Western, they'd be happy to make a Western. I call them vanity Westerns. But as an ongoing part of the movie studio diet, it's gone."

For Eyman, there's no one simple culprit to the question of what killed the Western. Part of the problem is that many actors don't comfortably and naturally fit the Western hero mold anymore – much less are able to convincingly ride a horse. Vietnam also shifted the culture as well, moving away from the generally romantic worldview of the Western and into a more cynical view.

"Once you go into the nihilism of Peckinpah and Leone – which were the last commercially viable series of Westerns – where exactly do you go from there?" Eyman said. "Where do you go from a position of nihilism? There's no place to go at all. Nobody wants to do a particularly romantic Western anymore, but on the other hand, there's the idea of, well, where do you go with it?"

Between TV and film, Eyman also noted the genre was likely exhausted, ready to be taken over by the up-and-coming science fiction genre.

Even though his genre has mostly died off, however, John Wayne's star still shines as one of the brightest in Hollywood's history.

"His batting average for a workaholic was actually quite high," Eyman said. "He had a remarkable number of good pictures. Clark Gable, who was a much bigger star in the '30s, is remembered for only two movies: "It Happened One Night" and "Gone With the Wind." That's it, which is why he's not all that well remembered anymore.

"Wayne made more than a dozen pictures with John Ford, and they're all still in the cultural conversation. And that's just with one director. There's a lot of really good movies, and I think that's the predominant reason why John Wayne has maintained his place in the culture. He just made a lot of good movies."


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