John Wayne was the original Oscars disgrace

·6 min read
Cocksure: John Wayne stars in The Undefeated (1969) - Getty
Cocksure: John Wayne stars in The Undefeated (1969) - Getty

Until lately, there was a tendency to roll our eyes about Marlon Brando rejecting his best actor Oscar for The Godfather in 1973. Couldn’t he just play ball, show up and say something nice, like anyone else? What was he trying to prove, sending in the Apache actress Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse the award for him, as a protest against the brutal treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood’s output?

Vain, aloof, running to flab, Brando was cast as an indulgent show-off in this equation – nothing like the all-American John Wayne, a humble straight-shooter against whose entire screen legacy the protest, by implication, was pitted.

How wrong we all were. The Academy’s apology to Littlefeather this week is massively overdue. Her protest was obviously valid, her speech grave and dignified. Brando was not the black sheep of the occasion, but a thoughtful ally with a vital cause. The real antagonist, now that these scales have fallen from our eyes, was in fact John Wayne – who was present at the ceremony, and had to be physically restrained from accosting Littlefeather on stage.

Had he succeeded in clambering up, Wayne would have been staking his whole reputation as a beloved American icon on that moment.

His position in an ideologically divided Hollywood was well known to all. It was basically the same post as his starring role in The Alamo (1960), where he played the besieged folk hero Davy Crockett, a staunch hold-out for hard-line frontier patriotism.

Wayne with his first wife, Josephine, at their home in Santa Monica - Bettmann Archive
Wayne with his first wife, Josephine, at their home in Santa Monica - Bettmann Archive

“John Wayne”, that hearty ideal of manhood and not-in-my-back-yard values, had become a semi-mythic brand over time, even as his best films found ways to scratch beneath the archetype. Directors such as John Ford (in The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and Howard Hawks (in Red River, especially) used Wayne as an unyielding monolith who tended to stick out – and in so doing, exposed America as a scarred battleground of contradictions.

Between his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930), and his valediction in The Shootist (1976), Wayne would make 150-odd pictures – the vast majority westerns and war films. They imbued him with a persona as gruffly uncompromising as it was popularly adored. Joan Didion revered him, too, and explained why in her 1965 essay “John Wayne: A Love Song”.

“Into this perfect mould,” Didion wrote rhapsodically of Wayne, “might be poured the inarticulate longings of a nation wondering at just what pass the trail had been lost.” Jimmy Stewart, his co-star in three films, said that Wayne’s movies captured “not the way things were, but the way they should have been”.

That sentiment was not shared by members of America’s indigenous population, whom the on-screen Wayne slaughtered in their droves. Brando and Littlefeather’s protest was intended to make that point, even if it did them few favours at the time.

Off-screen, Wayne is now remembered as a monstrous bigot, whose nastiest views came out in a 1971 interview with Playboy. “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility,” he argued. Taking land back from Native Americans was justifiable, too, because they were “selfishly trying to keep it for themselves”.

Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Oscars - Hulton Archive
Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Oscars - Hulton Archive

Over the years, Wayne had managed to fight off the two big Cs – cancer and communism (he would eventually succumb to the former). He was president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals from 1949-1953. He was an ardent supporter of McCarthyism. In his political thriller Big Jim McLain (1952), he even played a House Un-American Activities Committee investigator bravely hunting down communists in postwar Hawaii.

Wayne never failed to campaign for whoever the most reactionary Republican candidate was, but despite voting for Nixon over JFK in 1960, he had this mollifying remark when the latter was elected: “I didn’t vote for him, but he’s my president, and I hope he does a good job”.

Come ’Nam, Wayne didn’t miss a beat backing US military intervention. He co-directed and starred in The Green Berets (1968), to fend off the rising tide of hippie-led anti-war sentiment at home. This jingoistic propaganda piece was an instant critical laughing-stock – and popular hit. “The critics overkilled me, the picture and the war,” Wayne would reason.

And yet, this was the same John Wayne who pulled strings to avoid the draft in the Second World War, a decision for which John Ford, who rushed to serve, would pillory him forever. Wayne had just broken through with Ford’s Stagecoach, and worried that active service would stall his new-found stardom. He also reasoned that making films to support the troops was the most patriotic thing he could do.

For some, Wayne would forever remain a draft dodger. In full cowboy kit, he was lavishly booed off-stage by US Marines during his USO tours in 1942-3. After this humiliation, it makes sense that he devoted so much of his film career to patching it up, by fighting in every possible theatre of war he had fled in real life.

Wayne alongside Kim Darby in True Grit (1969) - Alamy
Wayne alongside Kim Darby in True Grit (1969) - Alamy

Even though his hawkish politics made him a deeply divisive elder statesman in Hollywood, Wayne was given the career-achievement validation of a Best Actor Oscar for True Grit in 1970 – far from his best film, as even the star groused. That night, he prevailed over both the nominated leads of Midnight Cowboy – in his own estimation, “a story about a couple of fags”.

And yet (somehow, John Wayne’s legacy throws up “and yets” at every turn) his homophobia, too, had specific origins. On the set of Stagecoach, Ford’s mentoring was savage. “Can’t you walk, instead of skipping like a goddamn fairy?” the director exploded. Stung, Wayne changed his gait to that trademark swagger for the rest of his life.

For two generations, Wayne kept favour, by and large, as this cherished icon of American machismo. His construction of that image – calculated hard graft – was the main evidence of his acting ability: born Marion Morrison in 1907, he created John Wayne.

Simple binaries about good and bad are what America was built upon – hence the catch-all slur “un-American”, basically for anything John Wayne disliked. These dichotomies are a way of laundering more complex truths about moral fallibility, just as “the American dream” provides a dazzling form of cover for all the cruelties or wrongs that a Tom Buchanan in Gatsby, or a Charles Foster Kane, can perpetrate in acquiring wealth and power.

These foundation myths can have an underbelly far more contradictory than we’re meant to believe. And so a man beloved for generations as a kind of stern patriarch on horseback is also fearful, paranoid about his image, and desperate to paint his victims as a common enemy. Brando thrived on analysing weakness in the men he played, whereas Wayne relentlessly insisted on banishing it, despite the very flaws he embodied. That’s how the 20th century’s most cocksure heroes wind up doubling as its villains.