May 28, 2007 is the hundreth anniversary of John Wayne's birth. For people like me, this is a big deal.
In ‘‘John Wayne: A Love Song,’’ from her landmark collection, ‘‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem,’’ Joan Didion wrote that ‘‘when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.’’
It says something about the spell Wayne cast that even Didion, that most clear-eyed of observers, fell under it. In 1996, in her hit song ‘‘Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?’’ Paula Cole asked: ‘‘Where is my John Wayne?’’ (A plaint hilariously reprised by Apu in a karaoke sequence on ‘‘The Simpsons’’.) Where is John Wayne? Everywhere. With the 100th anniversary of his birth arriving May 26, signs abound that he continues to exert a curious hold on the American imagination.
Just this past Sunday night, on HBO’s ‘‘The Sopranos,’’ as Tony Soprano was trying to talk to his troubled son, A.J., an image flickered on the TV screen and Tony cried: ‘‘John Wayne!’’ Turner Classic Movies has scheduled a 35-film tribute from May 21 to May 25 that will include ‘‘Red River,’’ ‘‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,’’ ‘‘They Were Expendable,’’ and ‘‘Back to Bataan.’’ Paramount Home Entertainment and Warner Home Video are launching a 48-film DVD release that will include ‘‘Rio Bravo,’’ ‘‘True Grit,’’ and ‘‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.’’ The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is hosting a ‘‘Centennial Salute to John Wayne’’ on May 24 that will premiere a newly restored version of ‘‘The High and the Mighty.’’
The best indicator of the continuing power of the Wayne mystique, though, is this: According to a Harris poll released in January, Wayne ranked third when moviegoers were asked to name their 10 favorite movie stars — even though he’s been dead since 1979 and appeared in his final movie in 1976! (The other nine on the list are very much alive: No. 1 Denzel Washington, No. 2 Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Will Smith among them.)
As Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss pointed out in a recent essay, Wayne has made the Harris list in each of the 13 years it has been taken, and has been in the top three eight times. ‘‘It’s as if the People’s Choice Awards kept picking Elvis as favorite singer,’’ Corliss marveled.
But then paradox is nothing new when it comes to John Wayne. The seeming picture of hulking authenticity, he wore a toupee and four-inch lifts in his shoes, and underwent plastic surgery around his eyes in the 1960s. His real name was Marion Michael Morrison, but he took the name John Wayne at the beginning of his movie career.
He played the hero in countless war films but never served in the military himself. (He got a deferment during World War II.) He epitomized old-fashioned cowboy masculinity in films from ‘‘Stagecoach’’ to ‘‘The Shootist,’’ but he also was willing to mock his own image, dressing up as the Easter Bunny in a 1972 episode of ‘‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.’’
The bottom line is that he remains as popular (and influential) as ever. You don’t have to watch Wayne’s own movies to see his onscreen legacy: His monosyllabic persona made the screen safe for tough-and-terse successors ranging from Clint Eastwood to Harrison Ford to Russell Crowe.
As important as all that may be, Pop! cherishes Wayne largely because in 1953 he played the title character in ‘‘Hondo,’’ a film that would provide a memorable nickname for another guy named John, one of the greatest Boston Celtics players ever to pull on the green jersey: John Havlicek.
I will, of course, be watching and/or recording some of these movies. Even now, when I flip through the channels and catch a glimpse of him, it's still a thrill.
One of the most sincere compliments I have ever given to someone was the day I told SB that they could never film his life story because John Wayne wasn't around to play the role. I meant it with all my heart.
Maggie is a high school nickname, but the reason SB likes it is because of Wayne's love interest in the movie "In Harm's Way".
I told him that I wasn't really of the stoic Patricia Neal/Maggie Haynes mold...............I was more the hysterical Vera Miles/Madelyn Buckman type in "Hell Fighters".
Of course, we should sit down and watch "Circus World", it wasn't all that great but it did costar Rita Hayworth.