Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity

Article excerpt

Book Reviews

John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity. Garry Wills. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. 380 pp. $26.00

John Wayne's America is a star persona study, one joining a growing scholarly effort to examine the ways in which certain film stars participate in the spread or alteration of ideological values in a culture. Star studies were once essentially popular biographies, some more serious than others, of a star's personal life and career as an actor. They satisfied film viewers' curiosity about the presumed personality behind the image, though too often they served simply to promote a star's image. But in 1979, when Richard Dyer, a British film scholar, published Stars (New Edition, 1998), star personae studies transformed to serious studies of ideology in gender and culture.

Through his critical lens, stars became products with particular signification, texts composed of signs that carried particular ideological meanings. Dyer followed with Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (1986) in which he explained the meaning and importance of Marilyn Monroe, Paul Robeson, and Judy Garland. This semiotic, cultural approach to film stars has led to further refinement by other scholars such as Jackie Stacey, Andrew Britton, or Christine Gledhill. And a few scholarly books on stars such as Clint Eastwood ("a cultural production"), Mae West (as "a cultural icon"), Cary Grant ("comedy and male desire"), and Woody Allen ("New Yorker") have appeared. Joining these pioneers of scholarly works to explain what a particular star does is Garry Wills' investigation, which features the mythic, political values of John Wayne in his diverse portrayals of American masculinities.

Wills, the author of nineteen previous books, here applies his political and historical acumen to Wayne's mythic film persona as an icon with gendered cultural implications. The book establishes that Wayne and the image manufacturers ignored and distorted Wayne's real life in order to create his mythic male persona. Further, Wills shows that Wayne, through his film roles, filled the needs of his vast American audiences in crucial periods of America's recent history. He became the embodiment of their deepest myths. Wayne, both particularly and exceptionally, validated and repulsed values that came to mean what millions of Americans regard as "being American." But he also invented a mythic man. As Wills explains at one point, "his body spoke a highly specific language of `manliness,' of self-reliant authority. It was a body impervious to outside force, expressing a mind narrow but focused, fixed on the task, impatient with complexity. This is a dangerous ideal to foster. It is 'male' in a way that has rightly become suspect-one sided, exclusive of values conventionally labeled 'female'." He became the "figment of other people's imaginations," a "hollow triumph," as Wills judges Wayne.

He takes his readers on a tour of Wayne's varied male roles. As he puts it, "Wayne was not just one type of Western hero. He is an innocently leering ladies' man in his B films of the thirties, a naif in Stagecoach, an obsessed adolescent in Shepherd of the Hills, a frightened cattle capitalist in Red River, a crazed racist in The Searchers, a dutiful officer in cavalry pictures, the worldly-wise elder counselor in later movies. He is sometimes a hothead, more often the restrainer of hotheads." So while Wayne was not one type of male, his main project, as Wills argues throughout the book, was to "build a persona full of portent." And he kept it out of danger, refusing to play a coward and never playing himself, for he was, above all, as a real man, very flawed and a very different man than the one he created. …

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