A veteran biographer of pop-culture icons (Cary Grant, Walt Disney, Clint Eastwood) returns with an account of the astonishing film career of Marion Robert Morrison (1907-1979).
Eliot (Nicholson: A Biography, 2013, etc.) dispenses with much one might expect in a thick biography—e.g., interviews with those who knew Wayne, sordid sexual details (the author does show us an actor who enjoyed relations with myriads of women) or pompous declarations about what Wayne symbolized. Instead, he focuses on the career of the Duke (the name of a boyhood dog), carefully charting his rise from a modest Iowa family—his father, who frequently failed and eventually left, was sometimes a druggist—to his enduring status as one of Hollywood’s most popular actors, despite his intransigent right-wing political views in a left-wing community. Nothing happened quickly. Wayne worked behind the scenes and took modest walk-on parts before gradually finding his place as an actor. It was John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) that ignited his career, though even then he did not leap to stardom. More minor (and bad and horrible) films followed, and Eliot, to his credit, pulls no punches in his assessments of Wayne’s performances. However, the author also agrees with Wayne’s conviction that the liberal Hollywood establishment denied him Oscar nominations even for his finest roles—in The Searchers, for example, a 1956 film (and Wayne performance) that Eliot continually praises. Eliot is careful to quote reviews of key performances, to let us know the box office successes (and failures) and to give us a peek at Wayne’s behavior on the set. We also see his relationships with key directors John Ford and Howard Hawks, and there are plenty of touching moments—e.g., Wayne’s final appearance at the Oscars shortly before he died of stomach cancer.
A close, unblinking look at a bright star with some internal darkness.