Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Birthday Take: John Wayne in "True Grit" (1969)

John Wayne in True Grit
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: John Wayne
Born: May 26, 1907
Died: June 11, 1979 (72 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor - True Grit (won) as Rooster Cogburn

The Take

As long as there have been westerns, there has been John Wayne as the definitive cowboy. With his deep deadpan voice, he created the iconography for what the hero would be. He was a masculine sort who became a leader while riding a horse and defying the enemy. Despite being the same in every role, he managed to capture something pure about the genre. He was as much about the spectacle and the rescue as he was plot. While these are attributes more often given to his collaborators, specifically that of Howard Hawks and John Ford, he brought something to the film that has made him the defining cowboy in a genre packed full of memorable roles. Even in his autumn years, he was the voice of reason and a reflection of a dying era that was paving the way for new, flashier action films and more complicated methods of storytelling. 

Then there's True Grit, which remains his only Oscar win and predicted the second act of his career that would play out for the next decade and ending with The Shootist. Playing the drunken and elderly Rooster Cogburn, The Duke starred in one of his most iconic roles. With a ribald sense of humor, he played a stumbling, sympathetic role that saw him trying to help a young girl on a mission. It was a clash of young and old ideals in the mold of an action-packed western. It was rich with context of Wayne's lengthy career as well as his ability to still be an impressive brute force in his autumn years. He was an actor, who despite the limited range, could make you care with the best of writing. Even without Ford or Hawks, he manages to deliver something authentic.

It does help that on the surface, it does feel like a very familiar Wayne western. Whether you're thinking of The Searchers or Rio Bravo, there's traces present throughout that elevate his performance. He is still as cocky as ever. To a large extent, the film is an excuse to watch a pro play with his shtick and end in one of the more heartbreaking twists of a western. Unlike his classics, this one has a third act that becomes devastating and may serve as a reflection of what an actor of his status and caliber could pull off. This is by no means his best or even most memorable role. However, it remains his only Oscar winning role - a note that is worth holding on to considering how many other colleagues have racked up more nominations and wins than he did in his time.

While it is very likely that True Grit was given to him because of his aging status as a career retrospective, it also feels like an overdue statue. Having only been nominated twice before - only once for acting - he didn't have much of the prestige on his side. While many refute the value of an Oscar, it does feel important that the icons are at very least nominated and potentially win. While this win may come almost as a shrugged shoulder to all of his classics, it does also embody a career of a character actor who was integral to early cinematic culture. By the 60's when he won, he was fading in the shadow of more nihilistic figures like Clint Eastwood and Sam Peckinpah. He couldn't keep up. That is likely why the statue was given to him - that and the role was pretty good.

Many would debate the value of True Grit and its 2010 remake on which is better. While some could argue that Jeff Bridges brought his shtick to Cogburn, he was no Wayne. At worst, Bridges was too charismatic to be nearly as stoic and singular as Wayne. Even with another movie called Rooster Cogburn, Wayne showed how invested he was into this character who had the familiar tough shell, but had a deep and reverential heart underneath. He lived and breathed westerns in ways that actors nowadays cannot. Even if True Grit never makes it as his best, it feels worth noting that Wayne's win was enough to symbolize a powerful and influential career in a time long forgotten, much like his iconic character.

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