Thomas Doherty: The Duke and the Dude

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[Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University and author of Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration (Columbia University Press, 2007).]

"True grit"—once known as "sand" and not to be confused with cojones—is terse praise for the bedrock quality desired in the American male. Stoic, hard-edged, and laconic, the gruff embodiment of Hemingway's "grace under pressure" and Tom Wolfe's "the right stuff"; skilled in firearms, steady astride a horse or jockeying an F-16, he coolly performs the work at hand, usually a task involving the swift application of lethal force. No need to tell him to "man up."

For generations of American men, and women, the incarnation of that masculine ideal was John Wayne, who, in a fortuitous merging of on-screen persona and off-screen personality, won an Oscar playing a version of his own myth in True Grit (1969). This classic Hollywood western, maybe the last of the classic Hollywood westerns, was remade, or rather re-imagined, for this holiday season by the Coen brothers, with Jeff Bridges starring in the Wayne role. Since the Coens are Hollywood's most gifted genre-twisters, one might expect a sardonic spin on the western and its manly hero. But some conventions are resistant to revision. A faith in true gritness must come with the territory.

To understand why, and how, the genre trumps the brothers, let's take the measure of the Wayne myth. Before he became a punch line, a synonym for Ur-macho bluster (and an epithet for blundering America foreign policy), Wayne was an actor of some repute; by some reckoning, he was the most popular Hollywood star ever. He had "the longest and most successful career of any actor in film history," decreed Variety upon his death, in 1979, after it tallied the box-office profits from his 120-plus feature films.

Like most larger-than-life American archetypes, Wayne grew out of a conscious act of self-invention. Born in 1907, the son of an Iowa druggist who went bust as a California rancher, he dropped his androgynous birth name (Marion Morrison), borrowed his nickname from the family dog (Duke), and practiced his trademark say-that-again-pard'ner-and-you're-dead look in front of a mirror. Wayne knocked around for years in B-level horse operas until director John Ford cast him as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939). Ford highlighted the entrance of the actor who became his surrogate son with one of the great star-is-born moments in Hollywood history: At the crack of a rifle and a pull-in close-up, Wayne rose true and strong out of the frontier landscape, another monolith against the sky in Monument Valley....
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