How John Wayne Became a Hollow Masculine Icon

Sunday, 12 November 2017, 12:13:30 AM. The actor’s persona was inextricable from the culture of toxic Cold War machismo.
John Ford first noticed him in 1928, herding a flock of geese on the set of Mother Machree, an otherwise forgettable shanty-Irish weepie. The kid was huge, but innocent—or at least innocent-seeming. He had (he later claimed) “no desire” to be an actor. He was just a college football player earning spare cash as a property boy, an extra. Ford noticed him, but concluded that he wasn’t ready. (“I wanted some pain written on his face to offset the innocence.”) Looking at a still from 1930, you see immediately that Ford was right: He is soft and creamy, a “come-hither” carved out of a half-baked cheesecake. It was Raoul Walsh who finally cast him in his first lead role, in The Big Trail, released in 1930, and who told him, after consulting with the studio bosses, to change his name to John Wayne. The Big Trail bombed—magnificently, on the scale of Cleopatra and Heaven’s Gate—and this sent Wayne back to Hollywood purgatory. He made dozens of Westerns for the so-called Poverty Row studios, disposable Saturday-matinee “oaters” for boys. (That Wayne endured making them for nearly a decade somewhat belies his claim of having no ambitions as an actor.) When Ford spotted him again, he was fishing off a pier in Long Beach, a B-level player whose confidence was shot. Ford didn’t care; he prized men for their mateyness. He invited Wayne onto his boat, the Araner, and after a while added him to his inner circle. One day in 1938, Ford—an Academy Award–winning director now—tossed his hanger-on...Read more
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