I’ve sort of been surprised that he hasn’t become trendy again. For my father’s generation he was, for good or ill, one of the principal models of American manhood. By the end of his life, he was still a box office draw, but was rapidly being rejected by the move toward Alan Aldafied models of sensitive American males.
I am ambivalent about him, since the image of manhood he presented was emphatically that: an image. In the hands of a skilled director, the nobility of that image could be seen (and I think there were things of real value that have been lost with the broad cultural rejection of that image). On the whole, I think our culture could do with a bit more of the things that image stood for. But there were also real problems there too. The best summary I can give of the basic problem (a phenom still seen today, particularly on the bellicose chickenhawk right) is that while guys like Frank Capra actually went to war when their nation called, guys like Wayne played soldiers and took deferments. Not surprisingly, Wayne detested Capra (“I`d like to take that little Dago son of a bitch and tear him into a million pieces and throw him into the ocean and watch him float back to Sicily where he belongs.”) and I can’t help but think that some of this, like his uber-patriotism, was due to the fact that where Capra had walked the walk, Wayne had merely talked the talk. In this, he acted as father to the Dick “Other Priorities” Cheneys of our own time, loudly announcing their patriotism while sending somebody else to fight in their place.
Still and all, he made some very good films, particularly with John Ford. And he lived in that happy time before absolutely everything was political and all of Hollywood was ordered according to tribal shibboleths of conservative/liberal. So he could share a marquee with a Henry Fonda or a Katherine Hepburn and nobody, conservative or liberal, regarded that as a baffling ideological betrayal. One of the great losses of our time is that this is becoming less and less possible. I remember seeing an interview with Hepburn where she was quite frank about her girlish thrill at being able to play opposite him. Nothing apologetic about it. No switched-on liberal constituency to mollify, and no paranoid right wing zealots assessing how Wayne’s associating with Hepburn might mark him as a traitor to truly true conservatism. They were just actors doing their job of playing a good part and providing some entertainment on a Saturday afternoon.
These days, things are much more fraught with tension if, say, a Jody Foster states her frank and open admiration and friendship with a Mel Gibson. Everybody turns up in the comboxes to offer their tribal checklists and weigh the degree of betrayal to the interest/pressure group each actor is supposed to represent.
The Politicization of Everything marches on.