(I post an archive entry from my Celia Hayes blog, on the eve of the Golden Globes awards, All Hollywood seems to be running about with their hair on fire, casting accusations everywhere, regarding who knew or didn’t about the casting couch, who got an advantage from utilizing the casting couch, and who behaved badly to whom. I’m working on a post about this week’s Trump madness, and the time just got away from me.)
(Example #1 – William Holden, publicity still)
There are boys enough in the movies now, all dressed up in costume and mincing around, waving the prop weapons in a manner meant to be intimidating. Generally they look a bit nervous doing so. They have light boyish voices, narrow defoliated chests, delicate chins adorned with a wisp of beard, and sometimes they come across as clever, even charming company for the leading lady or as the wily sidekick to the first name on the bill, but as hard as they try to project mature and solid masculinity they remain boys, all dressed up in costume pretending to be men. Even when they try for a bit of presence, they still project a faintly apologetic air. Imagine Peter Pan in camo BDUs, desert-boots, full battle-rattle and rucksack. It’s a far cry from picturing John Wayne in the same get-up. Where have all the cowboys gone?
You could not really describe John Wayne as movie-star handsome; neither could you honestly say that Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Steve McQueen, Charlton Heston or William Holden were movie-star handsome. (Save perhaps Holden, early on.) They had something more – magnetic physical presence. They owned a room, just by walking into it. They had lived-in faces, especially as they got older, rough-hewn, weathered and individual faces, broad shoulders, strong and capable hands, and total confidence in themselves – even when the plot necessitated a bit of self-doubt.
They had growly, gravelly voices, and sometimes didn’t talk much at all. They even had enough strength and confidence to be tender – at least, when not everyone was looking. They and their like – of whom John Wayne was the epitome – were capable enough that even an equally strong and capable woman could breathe a sigh of relief when they walked in. Because, no matter how bad it was, they could cope, and they wouldn’t see her as a threat – and afterwards, they would be perfect gentlemen, either pitching woo or walking away, whatever the situation called for. With the current crop, one always has the lingering fear that in a rough spot, the strong and capable woman would be carrying them, metaphorically if not literally. This would never happen with John Wayne.
He was just one of many leading men from the 1930s on, but for three generations and more of moviegoers, John Wayne established the standard. Although he could wear a suit and tie, he did not look particularly comfortable in it; better in an open-collared shirt and bandana, Levi jeans, boots, a working-man’s clothes with the sleeves rolled up, or battledress utilities – and a weapon to hand that one would be absolutely confident that he would use, if necessary. He would not be particularly eager to use it – but he would, when pressed to a certain limit. That was John Wayne in his element, no matter what the title of the movie or the situation called for by the plot.
Sometimes a loner, quite often not being able to get or keep the girl – but always a gentleman, almost always unfailingly polite to every woman, no matter if she were respectable or not, or even in the case of Maureen O’Hara, estranged by reason of plot device. The kind of understated tension in heroes of the old-movie – that capacity for violence leashed and kept under iron control is strangely endearing, and even reassuring, or at least it used to be. No matter what happened, one was certain that he would protect those he loved, felt loyalty towards or pity for, or even . . . just because it was the right thing to do. Damn, do I miss John Wayne and his kind, after watching so many movies lately, starring the pretty, beardless boys!
The only solution I could come up with was to create a handful of characters in the John Wayne tradition, and write about them, in my own books: strong, capable, un-self pitying men, and the women who come to stand shoulder to shoulder with them.