The hardest role for Duke Morrison to play was the character of John Wayne. Even when the Duke was diagnosed with cancer, he had ask himself what John Wayne would do. Wayne’s become as much a symbol of America and the West as Abraham Lincoln. Scott Eyman’s breathtaking biography was an impulse read for me, a woman who knew little about the actor and even less about his work (Stagecoach being the only movie of Wayne’s I’ve watched in its entirety). The sweeping emotion and exhaustive amount of research Eyman bathes his biography in turns John Wayne: The Life and Legend into one of the best biographies of the year!
My aversion to Wayne’s movies has a lot to do with my family. My father adores Wayne’s films and I’ve avoid them as a form of rebellion. (I was never a wild child if you couldn’t tell.) When I was offered Eyman’s biography I didn’t intend to read it, certainly not all the way through. After cracking it open I planned on giving it up after 20 pages….after 50 pages…after 100 pages, until finally I realized I’d read the entire 672-page tome! Eyman’s writing style is exhilarating, moving at a gallop and tightly focused on Wayne and his people. It’s as if you’re right in the middle of Monument Valley with Wayne himself. Eyman’s style moves like fiction, but a complete piece of non-fiction. Eyman discusses Wayne’s early life, but succinctly sets up the family and their dynamics before quickly moving on to Wayne’s foray into Hollywood B-pictures where several decades of his career were gobbled up. If anything, I was shocked that Wayne had the ability to break out of B movies and become an A-list star. You could say Eyman gives Wayne’s family short shrift, but I felt the history was established and progressed quickly enough that I never felt short-changed.
There are several distinct voices within the biography, several of whom talked to Eyman exclusively over the years. The prevalent one is Wayne himself, who consented to several interviews with the author. Wayne’s persona before, to me, was a distant, cold curmudgeon. The Wayne presented here is warm, a loyal friend and strong director who secretly had a hand in every picture he starred in but never received his due. The best moments are when his children and grandchildren are quoted. Their recollections of their father/grandfather are compassionate, caring, and intimately personal. The final chapters, detailing Wayne’s illness and hospital stay, are especially poignant if you’ve ever lost a loved one to a lengthy illness. Wayne’s perseverance never wavered and even though you’ll give an “ugh” at hearing he smoked even after his cancer was detected, by this point in the biography you understand Wayne wouldn’t have it any other way.
Too often biographies are content to play up the myths or force the person into the persona, and this could easily be achieved with a book about Wayne. Eyman refuses to put Wayne into a box nor does he place him on an untouchable pedestal. The actor was difficult, and it didn’t help he worked with directors who were very particular (John Ford, for example). Wayne was a man who held firm to his beliefs, which got him in trouble. A staunch Conservative and incredibly fearful of Communism, there’s an intriguing side-story about Wayne and Ward Bond’s organization to stamp out Communists. A lot of broken dreams and long-standing resentment bubbled up as a result, but Wayne felt contrite in his later years, acknowledging (in a way) he might have gone too far. Eyman covers all facets of Wayne’s personality, so you truly feel as if you’re listening, and learning, about a real person.
My hyperbole about John Wayne: The Life and Legend surprises no one more than myself. As I teared up during the biography’s final pages, happy to have learned so much but sad the journey ended, I’ve vowed to give Wayne’s work a proper go. This is the real Wayne, as unvarnished as a saloon-house seat. Yep, I’m actively going to watch John Wayne movies. Any recommendations? And if you can’t tell, I highly recommend you pick up Scott Eyman’s biography right away!
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