Friday, May 25, 2007
John Wayne's 100th
May 26 is John Wayne's 100th birthday. His films have continued to be popular, but he's really three different characters. There is John Ford's Wayne, there's Howard Hawks' Wayne and then there's Wayne's own Wayne.
The simplest of these is Wayne's own conception of his screen persona. This Wayne is a hero or an avenger; someone who overcomes adversity or a powerful man with a sense of justice who helps the downtrodden and punishes evil doers. If you look at Wayne's films in the '60's and '70's, which he produced himself, this is the character you'll see. The problem is that the character is pretty shallow and predictable. Wayne's audience obviously responded to this character, but in many ways it's no different than any action hero except for the particulars of Wayne's personality.
Hawks used Wayne like he used Cary Grant in Only Angels Have Wings and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. In Hawks' hands, Wayne is the consummate professional. Whether Wayne's a sheriff in Rio Bravo or an animal trapper in Hatari, Wayne is supremely capable of accomplishing a task. It's ironic that in Red River, Wayne's first performance for Hawks, Montgomery Clift plays the typical Hawks hero with Wayne being unprofessional by letting personal feelings get in the way of doing the job.
Finally, there's Ford's Wayne, who is the most interesting to me and responsible for whatever claim Wayne has to being a great actor. Ford consistently frustrates Wayne. Instead of being a powerful avenger, Ford makes him powerful but bound by society or by his own conflicting emotions. Initially, the frustration comes from others in films like Stagecoach (where the sheriff wants to send him back to jail rather than let him shoot it out with Luke Plummer), or They Were Expendable and Fort Apache (where Wayne is frustrated by Army decisions). Stating with Rio Grande, however, Wayne's frustrations are mostly interior. He's got to reconcile things that are mutually exclusive. In Rio Grande and The Wings of Eagles, it's duty and family. In The Quiet Man, it's personal experience vs. society's expectations. In The Searchers, it's racism and sexual need against the sanctity of family. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, it's personal happiness vs. the force of history.
As I wrote here, it's the difference between character vs. character and character vs. self. In the Wayne and Hawks versions, you have the former. Wayne can be impressive and even charming in these films, but there's little to challenge him as an actor. Ford adds a layer of character vs. self, which elevates Wayne into another league. Ford gives Wayne an element of self-awareness and tragedy that's missing from his other roles.
I'm writing about this because it relates to animation. Wayne as a performer was a known quantity. Yet depending on who was directing him and what the director's conception was, Wayne could be predictable or a revelation. Wayne didn't even realize (or didn't like) what Ford added or he would have brought some of it into the films he controlled.
There's a parallel between Wayne and Bill Tytla. Give Tytla a properly conceived role and he can give you great acting. Give him a poorly conceived role, like all of his post-Disney work, and Tytla's skill isn't enough to create a memorable result on the screen. Animators tend to be fixated on poses, silhouettes, line of action, timing, follow through, etc. but it counts for nothing unless there's something meaningful to say. We'll only get great animated performances and great animated films when they're more ambitiously conceived.