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John Waynes America Paperback – March 2, 1998
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Dennis McLellan Los Angeles Times A stunning book...essential reading for anyone interested in Wayne and popular culture.
Molly Haskell The New York Times Book Review I hope this new book will find its way into the hands of those who are ready to think seriously about a pivotal figure in our culture, a figure who was a great star and a flawed man.
Mark Feener The Boston Globe No one has ever written better about the cultural ideology of John Wayne's career than Garry Willis does here.
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First, there is Wayne the person, the man. Wills doesn't devote much space to this level, though the book's subtitle, i.e. "The Politics of Celebrity", might suggest otherwise. Very little is presented of Wayne's personal life or controversial political stances. Most of what is presented are efforts to either debunk popular fictions from the early years, or to pass along opinions of others, which about the man are usually unflattering, (Ford's disapproval of Wayne's lack of war service). Clearly the author believes Wayne's mythic status comes from the screen and not from the private individual.
The second level is Wayne the actor, the commanding screen presence. Despite many insights along the way, Wills falters badly by spending way too much time on seemingly irrelevant details of John Ford's personality and film style, many of which (the diagrams of seating arrangements in "Stagecoach", for example), shed no light on Wayne the actor. Wills' s preoccupation with Ford to the exclusion of Wayne is a serious defect, which may imply that the author found Ford the more compelling of the two, and could not restrain himself. Yet it is not Ford who is enshrined in the national consciousness, it is Wayne.
The third level is the most important: Wayne the mythic figure, the mirror in which we catch our own reflection. Here Wills both succeeds and fails. He succeeds by linking the Wayne figure with some of our most enduring national myths: unbounded western horizons, uncorrupted primitive, Jeffersonian ideal. But here in the book's last chapter, which should bring together the preceding 300 pages but which is only 12 pages long, there is no real synthesis of what has gone before. There is no effort at showing how, despite the many pages given over to him, Ford' romanticized vision of the Old West shapes the Wayne myth, or how that same vision embodies enduring national myths, or how to a lesser degree Hawk's vision taps into those same legends through the Wayne figure. In short, Wills fails at this crucial third stage to adequately fill in the blanks between Wayne the actor and Wayne the myth.
I get the feeling the author intended a deeper work than is there in the result, but instead got sidetracked on underdeveloped details that end up shedding little light on the Wayne phenomenon. Too bad, because there is an important project still unfulfilled. Certainly Wills has the skills to bring it off. I only wish he had.
My favorite parts of the book were those that dealt with the mythmaking that went into the creation of "John Wayne," the symbol of everything best about America and those dealing with his films and relationship with John Ford. Although extreme fans of Wayne may be somewhat offended by some parts of the book (e.g., Wayne's stringent avoidance of military service in WW II and the misinformation about his early life, such as his being a potential football star felled by an injury, when in fact he was dismissed from the USC football team for not being very good), I think everyone will come away from it having a better sense not only Wayne's shortcomings but his very real accomplishments. A fine book in every way.
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Nothing more than that.