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Twenty years after his death, the biggest box office attraction in motion picture history is still America’s favorite movie star.

Every year since 1993, the Harris Poll has taken a nationwide survey asking Americans the question, “Who is your favorite movie star?” The results have varied each year, with the fluctuations of a fickle public’s opinion washing stars like Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise, and Harrison Ford on and off the list like tides on the shore. But one thing on the list has remained constant – the man at the top. Every year but one the same actor was either first or second in popularity, which is curious considering he had to overcome one obstacle the other stars on the list have not. He’s dead.

Or is he?

This June 11th marks the twentieth anniversary of the passing of John Wayne, but the handicap of mortality has not slowed down Wayne’s popularity any. Each year the results of the Harris Poll recrystallize the fact that John Wayne’s incredible popularity is fundamentally different from any other movie star living or dead. In the scope of time, Wayne can be lumped together with other great stars of an older era: Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, and Clark Gable.

But the poll begs the question; Why, of all our pantheon of beloved stars, only Wayne still makes the list today? Why is it that you will see a “God Bless John Wayne” bumper sticker, but the idea of replacing the name in that phrase with Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy is ridiculous? What is it about this actor twenty years gone that still makes him more popular with the American people than stars like Tom Cruise and Clint Eastwood, who are still making movies?

The answer undoubtedly ties into the qualities Wayne possessed. Qualities, which during his career, caused him to make the Quigley list of top ten box office stars for 25 years, between 1949 to 1974. A number unmatched by any other actor. But that alone does not explain the continued longevity of the John Wayne phenomenon. Clint Eastwood is second in all-time box office popularity with 21 years on the Quigley list. Yet since 1987 he has only made the list twice. For three of the last four years, Wayne has come in ahead of Eastwood in the Harris Poll. Already slipping in box office and fan popularity, it seems unlikely that twenty years after his death, Eastwood will have a following similar to Wayne.

The key to his popularity lies in the heroic aspects of his screen persona. A persona also projected in his personal life as an outspoken American patriot. Together, these fused the actor and the man into one creation – John Wayne. This resulted in his total identification as the definitive American male, carrying with it a strong iconography as to what qualities defined him.

At the time of his death, President Jimmy Carter said, “He was bigger than life. In an age of few heroes, he was the genuine article. But he was more than a hero. He was a symbol of so many of the qualities that made America great. The ruggedness, the tough independence, the sense of personal courage – on and off screen – reflected the best of our national character.”

In a way, it is actually less of a feat for Wayne to continue as number one for the twenty years from 1979 to 1999 considering America hasn’t changed nearly as much as it did during Wayne’s reign as king of the box office.
( from the late 1940’s to mid-70’s.) It is perhaps more astounding that the same man, who was winning World War II on screen as Marine Corps Sgt. John Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima, was still around and leading the charge for the immensely unpopular Vietnam War in The Green Berets, and somehow making box office gold out of it.

Ironically, it was during this period of the late 60’s and early 70’s, when Wayne’s right wing politics were largely out of fashion, that he took on the status of legend he still has today. Like the characters he portrayed, he stuck to his beliefs whether popular or not, and that brought respect from all sides. Even those who opposed his values admired the total conviction and forthrightness with which he held them. Political opponent Abbie Hoffman said of Wayne, “Even the cavemen had respect for the dinosaurs that were gobbling them up.”

Drew Casper, Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, says that Wayne’s popularity comes from a moral strength that is lacking from films and our real life leaders today, yet still resonates with young people. Casper runs classic Wayne films Red River, The Quiet Man and The Searchers for his classes at U.S.C. “Students today still applaud at the end of The Searchers when John Wayne returns Natalie Wood to her home and wanders back off into the desert,” Casper says. “Wayne touched on the needs and aspirations of the post World War II male and managed to synthesize them with his off-screen persona.”

Wayne played a variety of characters during his 50-year career, but always managed to give them a similar code of ethics, which he enforced with physical strength and a determination of will. “Stewart and Fonda had the moral code, but they were every man. John Wayne was the leader of men,” says Casper, “and with actors like Stewart and Fonda, there is a diffusion to their screen persona because of the greater range of characters they played. When you talk about Jimmy Stewart, you have to ask which Jimmy Stewart are you talking about; the idealistic young man of the Capra films, the hard-bitten westerner in Anthony Mann films, or the troubled every man of the Hitchcock films. Even with Eastwood there is diffusion of the screen persona, and a morally suspect nature to many of his characters.” Indeed it seems Eastwood’s experimentation with a more passive and permissive screen persona in films like White Hunter, Black Heart and The Bridges of Madison County has coincided with his dropping off at the box office. His latest film True Crime in which at age 68, he played a roguish, morally bankrupt reporter, was another box office failure.

Wayne got his big break in the classic western Stagecoach in 1939, but it wasn’t until 1948 when director Howard Hawks cast him as the aging, driven cattle boss Tom Dunson in Red River, that Wayne became a superstar. Casper says that another important aspect of Wayne’s appeal and what set him apart from other stars was his directness as a man of action. “With Wayne, unlike Stewart or Fonda, there was no hemming and hawing. He saw what needed to be done and while others anguished over what to do, Wayne did it.” A good example of this is the scene leading up to the final showdown in Red River. Dunson’s surrogate son Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) has taken the cattle herd away from Dunson during the difficult drive. Dunson has vowed to kill Matt for the transgression, and when Dunson finally catches up to Matt, he strides through the herd of cattle straight for him. Gerald Mast in his book Howard Hawks, Storyteller wrote: “It may seem like a hyperbolic claim, but no star in the history of film other than John Wayne could play the role in Red River and make it mean what it does. Think of Gary Cooper marching toward Monty Clift at this climactic moment (too soft and loose). Or James Stewart (too calmly reasonable). Or Henry Fonda (too sweetly mysterious). None of these stars can ever walk the way Wayne does, devouring space with his stride.”

Wayne’s other great roles that solidified his role as icon of the American man of action included Sgt. Stryker in Sands Iwo Jima (1949) and vengeful ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956). Now thought of by many critics as the greatest western ever made, The Searchers (along with Stagecoach) was recently chosen by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest films of all-time. True Grit (1969), for which he won an Oscar, ushered in the last period of his stardom as the surviving anachronism maintaining the old order in the face of a new era. Wayne managed to continue credibly playing that role through to his last film, The Shootist (1976).

Wayne was the number one box office star of the 1950’s, and amazingly, despite the social upheavals of the era, was also the number one star of the 1960’s. It seems there was something comforting to the American public in Wayne’s perennial stability and refusal to change especially in times of social upheaval. Casper says the key to Wayne’s continued longevity is exactly that stability. “At the time of the counterculture revolution in the late sixties, Wayne was an antidote to the drastic social and cultural changes that were taking place, and he still fulfills that need for constancy in a chaotic world.”

As a generation X-er who was only nine when Wayne passed away and who has never even seen a John Wayne film in a theater, the movie that first made an impression on me was his best film of the 70’s, Big Jake. Upon reflection, it seems to represent the Duke at his best and most typical. The impact it had on me even on television was probably what other youngsters my age experienced when they saw Star Wars. The fact that Wayne’s charisma can also come across on the small screen is undoubtedly a large factor in his continuing popularity. He receives weekly, sometimes daily play on many local and national stations, especially those owned by Ted Turner.

The story of Big Jake, a western, revolves around Wayne’s hunt to recover the kidnapped grandson he has never seen. The first time we see him, his estranged wife, played by Maureen O’Hara, brushes off the help of both the U.S. Army and the Texas Rangers. “This is going to be an extremely harsh and unpleasant kind of business, and will, I think, require an extremely harsh and unpleasant kind of man to see to it.” Cut to an extreme close-up of Wayne as Big Jake McCandles (over a swelling Elmer Bernstein score) looking down the barrel of his rifle on a hanging about to take place below him. Three cowboys have a defenseless Scottish sheepherder mounted on a horse with a rope around his neck and are beating his young son. Jake rides down to them and by the mere mentioning of his name scares the cowboys into turning the sheepherder loose, “I’m sorry, Mr. McCandles. I thought you were dead.” “Not hardly,” Jake answers. The dialogue and Jake’s reply are a motif repeated throughout the film.

The sequence typifies everything I find so riveting about Wayne. The strength and skill he possessed, the hardness of character he was known for, and most importantly, the willingness to risk his own life to aid the weak and outnumbered. So many times in so many films, Wayne was, both literally and metaphorically, the cavalry coming to the rescue. The simple thrill and timeless joy of seeing good overcome evil is the essence of the appeal of the man. More than any other star in film history, Wayne was, is, and always will be the definitive American hero.

More than any other actor he exemplifies those timeless values that we expect or wish to be what makes an American. No matter how much the country changes, no matter how our leaders may behave, we will always have, to some extent, the need to have defined for us what America and being American stands for. And for that reason, by continuing to fill that need for the American people, John Wayne will stay first in their hearts for years to come. When people are awed by Wayne’s appearance at the top of the polls, they are probably wondering how so many years on, he can still be America’s favorite movie star. After all, he’s dead, isn’t he?

Not hardly. – by Peter Langham

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