Saturday, May 26, 2007

Big Duke's big day

"Now on the day that John Wayne died, I found myself on the Continental Divide...Think of 'Red River' and 'Liberty Valance,' can't believe the old man's gone." --- Jimmy Buffett, "Incommunicado."

In a few minutes I'll skip this afternoon's Braves/Phillies match-up on FOX.

Don't worry. I'm not sick (well, other than the kidney stones). Nope, today is a very special birthday. A big, whoppin', big as life centennial celebration for a guy who was all that and plenty more.

Hard to believe, but today would have been Marion Morrison's 100th birthday. You know him better as John Wayne.

Wayne was a lot of things to a lot of people. To some, he was a great actor. To others, a loudmouth conservative, a no-talent hack who simply played himself again and again in formula films with repetitive plots. To millions both at home and abroad, Duke Wayne was America.

I don't pretend that Wayne was a skilled actor with the range of somebody like Laurence Olivier. But he found a niche and did it well.

Those who worked with him loved him. Liberal activist/actors (Kirk Douglas, Katherine Hepburn) said Wayne was nothing but a gentleman. They found him to be well-read, tolerant and a genuine professional. Even Barbra Streisand couldn't contain her excitement when she announced Wayne's name as the Best Actor winner of 1969 for his best film, "True Grit."

The public made him America's top movie star for a quarter century. Twenty-eight years after his death, John Wayne can regularly be found at or near the top of the annual list of favorite actor polls.

I suspect that profound sociological, cultural and political reasons make this so. But we won't get into all that now. Today's a birthday party, remember?

In honor of Big Duke's big day, here is my list of 10 John Wayne films that any serious American movie buff should screen. Aside from the No. 1 film, they aren't in any particular order. I simply can't rank John Wayne's films based on personal preference. Just can't do it.

Happy birthday, Duke!

1. True Grit (1969) --- Far and away his best picture, this simple tale of seeking justice won Wayne a long overdue Best Actor Academy Award. His slightly off-center portrayal of ne'er-do-well U.S. Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn is one for the ages. Young Kim Darby is his perfect foil. Overlook Glen Campbell and this is a five-star picture.

2. The Searchers (1956) --- A favorite of domestic and international film critics, this movie is the high water mark in the John Ford/John Wayne filmography. Wayne's portrayal of the haunted Ethan Edwards is arguably his best. Director Ford was at the top of his game here. Makes a powerful case for the best American western ever put to celluloid. Monument Valley never looked so good.

3. The Shootist (1976) --- Wayne's final film is an emotional character study of an aging gunfighter who comes to Carson City, Nev., in order to die. The fact that Duke himself passed three years later of the same disease his character suffers from makes "The Shootist" painfully prophetic. The scenes between Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, playing the town doc who gives Wayne's character the bad news, should be textbook studies for anyone who aspires to act. Ron Howard, Lauren Bacall, Richard Boone, Hugh O'Brian, Harry Morgan and Scatman Crothers shine in supporting roles. A fitting epitaph to a great career.

4. McLintock! (1963) --- This comedic western remake of "Taming of the Shrew" is a two-hour delight. Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, playing his estranged wife here, were simply made for one another.

5. Red River (1948) --- John Ford reportedly said after screening this Howard Hawks masterpiece, "I didn't know the big SOB could act." Duke delivers a mature performance as the rough, tough trail boss Tom Dunson. Montgomery Clift is equally fantastic as Dunson's protege. I'd like it better if not for the lackluster ending.

6. Rio Bravo (1959)
--- Howard Hawks had an obsession with this story. He later remade it twice (in "El Dorado" and "Rio Lobo"), all three times using Wayne in the starring role. The original is best. Dean Martin and Ward Bond are fantastic in supporting roles and pop singer Rick Nelson turns in a surprisingly decent performance as a young gunslinger.

7. Hondo (1953) --- I don't know why I like this movie so much, but it may be Wayne's most underrated western. A more subtle take on "Shane," Wayne plays an outlaw who falls in love with a married woman whose young son idolizes Wayne's Hondo Lane. For whatever reason, this film never has received the respect it deserves.

8. In Harm's Way (1965) --- Another underrated picture. This Otto Preminger flick is set in Hawaii before and after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and focuses on the Navy's initial fight against the Japanese. Loaded with stars (Kirk Douglas, Burgess Meredith, Knoxville's own Patricia Neal), this film puts 2001's "Pearl Harbor" to shame.

9. The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) --- Far and away the best of Wayne's war pictures. A bit corny, but perfect for its time. Wayne's mentoring of a young John Agar is another classic bit of cinema. I admit it -- when Wayne's character meets his fate, I shed a tear. Duke's losing to Broderick Crawford for Best Actor that year is a bigger farce than Peyton Manning losing the Heisman Trophy to ol' what's-his-name.

10. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) --- John Ford's claustrophobic western is an unsentimental examination of myth and reality during the taming of the West. Wayne plays the outlaw hero. Jimmy Stewart is the wimpy lawyer with a lot of guts. Vera Miles loves them both. One of them shoots Lee Marvin at the end. This is such a fine film. It's the most unique entry in the long Wayne-Ford collaboration.

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Blogger Brian Hornback said...

Great Picture of the Duke

11:19 PM  

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