The Coen brothers’ True Grit fills me with a lot of different emotions, not least of which is regret for having waited so long to read Charles Portis’ terrific novel. I avoided the story in all its forms when Henry Hathaway’s film version appeared in 1969 (the paperback was ubiquitous then), but the truth is I was in no position to appreciate it. I had your basic longhair’s bias against John Wayne, whose loud certainty about Vietnam placed him in the enemy camp and made him seem a one-dimensional grouch. It didn’t help either on Oscar night when the sentimental favorite Wayne snatched the Best Actor award away from Dustin Hoffman, whose work in Midnight Cowboy had hit this 15-year old like a hurricane.
But Wayne’s halo and caveman politics wouldn’t have mattered so much had he only been making good movies. John Ford’s 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was a great film, but it was Wayne’s last great film—in fact, it’s arguably his last good one, with 26 pictures still to go. By the time he directed The Alamo in 1960 all of that American manly-man bullshit was clogging his acting arteries, and by the mid-’60s he was specializing in overripe beer-bust entertainments—McClintock!, The War Wagon, The Undefeated—whose very titles put you to sleep. His characters kept getting louder, broader, less interesting; both the lively amiability and the pointed bitterness of his great films were gone, along with his figure. He spent his screen-time bawling out the characters around him, he could never be wrong about anything that mattered, and even when he was supposed to be happy he was just overbearing. Who in the world wanted to spend two hours with a pot-bellied scold—and with Kim Darby, wearing that haircut? Even the eyepatch seemed like a dodge for an actor who barely bothered to refresh his wardrobe from one movie to the next.
(1963, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1970)
Of course no home video market existed at the time, and repertory houses didn’t screen Wayne’s older movies—the ones that might’ve opened my mind about him—precisely because young audiences couldn’t relate to an ever-stiffening movie star who, like a hero out of Peckinpah, was losing his race against time. (Kael, in her review of El Dorado: “Wayne has a beautiful horse, but when he’s hoisted onto it and you hear the thud you don’t know whether to feel sorrier for man or beast.”) Most of the people I knew were so poisoned against him for cultural reasons that they would have simply denied his charm in Stagecoach and his bewitching watchfulness in They Were Expendable. They certainly wouldn’t have admitted that he showed any guts by visiting Harvard University.
My favorite Wayne performance can be found in Ford’s perfectly rounded Fort Apache. Awakening to her first morning at the fort, Shirley Temple runs out onto her balcony and stares with giddy awe at a parade ground teeming with men and livestock, and the movie gives us a top-to-bottom view of this society, ranging from the officers as they lay out their war-plans against Cochise, to their wives, engaged in the no less serious work of furnishing Temple’s quarters, to the hard-luck troopers mucking out the stables. The story required a foil for the Custer stand-in played by Henry Fonda, and the result—Captain Kirby York—allowed Wayne to air all of his best qualities. York the character and Wayne the actor were both in their prime, able to draw on a veteran’s larder of experience yet young enough to perform their duties with great dash. (Near the movie’s midpoint York and a cavalry sergeant go on a scout of the territory, and their long ride over river and mesa, backed by Richard Hageman’s zesty score, is a celebration of movement through the great outdoors.) York is a study in moderation, virile and decisive without being macho or rash. An ultra-competent soldier, he’s also decent, sensitive to the Indians’ needs and their thinking, and encouraging, even nurturing, to those around him. Wayne gave more powerful performances in his career but he never gave a sunnier one—he warms every scene he’s in. I’d take Captain Kirby York over any action hero of the last 60 years.
With the onset of the New Hollywood, Kirby York gave way to a new rootless protagonist who was guided by a personal and often fungible morality. Jeff Bridges, as unmistakably American in his multivalent way as the monolithic Wayne had been, got his break in The Last Picture Show a mere two years after True Grit appeared, then set to work building a career out of roles which Wayne wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole—assuming, of course, he could have played them in the first place. Losers, stoners, ex-cons, club fighters, army deserters, gunmen, has-beens, deadbeat dads, and even (once) a wife-killer—that was Bridges’ speed. He was morally unfit to serve in any John Wayne movie precisely because he was as wild and anti-authoritarian as the Ringo Kid, except that he stayed that way.
He had a keen eye for parts that suited him, and over the years he rode the crest of changing film tastes in a way that Wayne, James Stewart, and James Cagney couldn’t approach. Fat City, The Last American Hero, Rancho Deluxe, Hearts of the West, Ivan Passer’s gimlet-eyed requiem for American idealism Cutter’s Way, Jagged Edge, American Heart, Fearless (with that pure, time-stopping airplane crash), Wild Bill, The Contender—all of these films are worth seeing for what Jeff Bridges brought to them. He seemed especially drawn to post-Vietnam dropouts, knockabouts and paranoids, a quality which made his eventual casting as Jeffrey Lebowski just that much more fitting. And yet talented and adventurous as he was, he never attained the star voltage of a De Niro or Pacino, perhaps because his insistently heterosexual demeanor was offset by irrepressible ripples of femininity, courtesy of his full lips, a mane of hair that required constant fussing with, and a voice that approached a falsetto when he giggled. (Michael Cimino absolutely tortured this side of Bridges’ image in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, dressing him, for one long scene, in all too convincing drag.)
He was 61 when he took on Rooster Cogburn, a year or two younger than Wayne had been when he assayed the role. Yet where Wayne’s performance is interchangeable with a dozen others in his scrapbook, Bridges’ Rooster is fresher than Adam. Speaking in a half-asleep yowl which I’ve never heard him (or any other actor) use in a picture, he outfitted Cogburn with a series of tossed-off gestures which together add up to a personality: the fathomless hard/soft gaze he aims at LeBouef that quells one of their arguments, the way his finger rises like a compass needle to indicate where “the federal house in Detroit” is, or the way he sprays self-deprecation all over the line “Aw, it’s just a turkey shoot” to tamp down a compliment from Mattie. For the clearest difference between them, listen to the two Roosters react to Mattie’s claim that a frivolous coon hunt has prepared her to chase Tom Chaney through the Indian Territory: Bridges absolutely bays in ridicule while Wayne’s comeback is generic canned corn. Bridges, who knew he was the favorite to win an Oscar for Crazy Heart before True Grit was in the can, didn’t have to go to all this trouble; Wayne, having finally landed a plum part after almost a decade’s worth of losers, couldn’t understand why Kim Darby cared about keeping the tone of the book intact.
In the novel Rooster is only about forty, and Mattie barely alludes to his one sightless eye. The decisions to age him and give him a eyepatch served to particularize him, and the fact that they were conceived for Wayne’s interpretation only makes Bridges’ ability to retain them and still bury the older performance that much more impressive. But Bridges had his advantages. Where Henry Hathaway tried to flatten all meaning, the Coens enlarge things, to the point of filling in physical details—the measured rise of the tree branch when Mattie cuts the hanged man loose, a small apron of dampened pine needles under the water bucket—which give actors and viewers both a toehold onto their fictional worlds. Nothing says more about Hathaway’s lackluster intentions than his pressing the Rocky Mountains into service as Oklahoma or the casting of non-actor Glen Campbell as LeBouef—the worst kind of commercial pandering there is. By contrast Barry Pepper, as Lucky Ned in the Coens’ version, infused an outlaw caught in the wilderness with a synthesis of some of our greatest Western performances.
It’s hard to think of another movie about revenge that takes less pleasure in its accomplishment; even when Mattie pulls the trigger and blows Tom Chaney over a cliff, the movie doesn’t give us time to crow before the gun’s recoil has knocked her into a snake pit. The feeling of regret and missed opportunities that permeates the movie practically enshrouds LeBouef, the vain Texas Ranger played by Matt Damon, who’s pursued Chaney for months and come close to him a single time—only to miss his shot. LeBouef, a peacock in buckskin, is another solitary wanderer, and his sharp campfire exchanges with Rooster pop with emotional firecrackers thanks to the men’s unspoken suspicion that they have wasted their lives. It’s a doubt which throbs throughout LeBouef’s farewell to Maddie, in a beautiful scene invented by the Coens. “The trail is cold, and I am considerably diminished,” he admits to her, though he must struggle to get the last phrase out.
It’s a confession John Wayne could never bring himself to make. I’ve been hard on him here, I know, but nothing I ever say can blunt his image: he was too great, and too many people take it on faith that no modern-day star, not even Eastwood, will ever top the legendary Duke. Fort Apache appeared in 1948, as the curtain was still rising on the Cold War, and while guessing at what-if’s is a sucker’s game, I’d give anything to know what directions Wayne might have gone in if he hadn’t spent World War II making movies in the States. He spent the rest of his life living down that evasion, and without it, just maybe, his movies wouldn’t creak so heavily under the armor of self-righteousness.