Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wayne or Eastwood? Why Do Culture Elitists Love One and Despise the Other?

At some point, the natural laws of the cosmos dictated that John Wayne and Clint Eastwood could never appear in a movie together.  Indeed they seemed to come from two separate universes entirely to rival each other in heroics without either seeming to acknowledge the other.

Generations grew up seeing Wayne and Eastwood as archetypes of the American man, both here and abroad.  Cultural elitists originally hated both of them as ultramasculine formula characters repeating in movie after movie.  Only now has Eastwood been grudgingly acknowledged, like Johnny Cash in music, as an authentic expression of American art.  Partly because Eastwood's characters, like Cash's actual life, have all too human flaws that they eventually overcome.  And this, despite a world around them that seems hopelessly degenerate.

Eastwood's characters were usually realists who accepted the bleakness of the world around them, but did not give up on their own duty.  In The Outlaw Josie Wales, that duty was simple avenging the raid of rogue Union guerrillas who destroyed his home and family, then tricked his Confederate unit into marching into a massacre.  In his most recent masterpiece, Gran Torino, his character befriends and defends honest Asian immigrants from the seemingly inescapable doom of violence plagued modern Detroit.

The men he portrayed could do terrible things, even though always working toward some form of good. In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, he abandons a protagonist to what he assumes will be a fairly horrible and slow death in the desert.  Tuco Ramirez, however, survives and inflicts similar torment on Eastwood's unnamed character.  

Elitist culture accepts Clint Eastwood's anti-hero, but despises the John Wayne idealist. Upon examination, one has to wonder why.

John Wayne represents idealism and optimism in most of his movies.  Although hardly a Democrat, he personified the kind of spirit underlying the Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman presidencies.  

Wayne's movies featured powerful women, much more often than Eastwood's.  In Big Jake, he has to cooperate with his estranged wife, played by Maureen O'Hara.  His best film by far, The Shootist, puts him opposite of a strong willed Lauren Bacall.  Bacall's character runs a boarding house and initially fears the influence of a gunfighter on her son.  The Sons of Katie Elder successfully makes a powerful and almost controlling figure out of the main characters' dead mother.  Probably the toughest female that a Wayne character had to confront was Mattie Ross in True Grit. Wayne plays Rooster Cogburn who is employed by the teenaged Mattie to gain revenge for the murder of her father.

Also, Wayne's films took care to portray both Mexicans and Indians as complex characters instead of two dimensional caricatures, at least relative to other films of the time.  Wayne had great respect for both cultures.  

One of the strong connecting themes running through many of Wayne's movies is a strong aversion to bullying and an almost unfailing duty to protect and build up the underdog.  Another one of Wayne's greatest films, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, posits him opposite James Stewart.  Wayne's roughneck frontiersman teaches, protects, and cajoles Stewart's cultivated eastern character into adapting to the reality of the Wild West.  Liberty Valance, one of the most odious characters ever put on film, makes Stewart's character a target of intimidation.  With Wayne's help, Stewart's character not only overcomes Valance, but brings civil society to the territory.

That is a microcosm of most John Wayne movies.  In his realm the world, if not good at the time, has the potential to be.  Wayne's characters take on the hard duty of bringing that world into being.  Usually, Wayne himself loses out in some way.  In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he loses his love.  In The Shootist, he loses his life.  

Wayne's movie world has strong women, respects other cultures, and sees evil as something that can be ultimately defeated.  In Eastwood movies the world is inherently evil, but man's duty is to try to do good anyway.  

Again, culture elitists finally accept Eastwood's greatness as both an actor and a cultural figure.  Not yet, John Wayne.  

One way to measure the greatness of an actor is to watch him perform with other greats.  John Wayne was a towering cultural figure, but could he act?  Alongside the greatest performers of his time, including Stewart, Bacall, Robert Mitchum, James Caan, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, and many others, Wayne dominated the screen.  Even in smaller roles, his screen presence was masterful alongside some of the best actors in the past hundred years.  

In many movies, admittedly, he played John Wayne, just as Eastwood brought variations of the same on screen persona to many films.  Both actors, however, played roles that exhibited tremendous depth.  Gran Torino and The Shootist showed the range of each man.  And both brought unforgettable characters to the screen, such as Rooster Cogburn and The Man With No Name.

Both men's body of work, overall, represented a different view of the world and humanity in general.  It's high time that cultural elitists got off their high horse and recognize that both men made great contributions to American film and culture.

Addendum.  Totally irrelevant, but it is worth mentioning that Richard Pryor and John Wayne both desperately wanted to play Bart and Jim respectively in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. This is one time where it would have been worth it to make the same movie twice with different casts.  Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder cannot be beaten in these roles, but the idea of seeing John Wayne partnering with Richard Pryor is the most amazingly surreal thought.  Both had larger than life presence in their own ways, which was likely why Brooks went with the more subtle, but still talented Little and Wilder.

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