On April 7, 1970, John Wayne received the Academy Award for Best Actor after wowing them in the movie True Grit. For Wayne, it was really a lifetime achievement recognition, as he beat out the likes of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, all considered “serious” actors, unlike the personality-driven performances Wayne specialized in.
Wayne’s portrayal of the hard-drinking U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn was a classic. The actor totally blew away his costars Kim Darby and Glenn Campbell (yes, that Glenn Campbell). In one scene, the Duke is riding the range between Ms. Darby and Mr. Campbell, and they look like Lilliputians to Wayne’s Gulliver. Whatever else you might think about John Wayne, he dominated the screen whenever he appeared on it.
Forty years later, there is a remake of True Grit starring Jeff Bridges as Cogburn. Bridges is a serious actor and plays the part well. But he can’t touch Wayne. By the way, another serious actor, Matt Damon, plays the Campbell part, and Bridges blows him away. Some advice for the younger leading man: Stay away from the old pros; they know how to move the audience in ways you don’t.
The True Grit comparison also reflects the times the films were released. Back in 1969, the United States was in turmoil over Vietnam, and the rise of the Woodstock generation. Revered traditions were breaking down fast, confusing and angering many Americans. John Wayne was a throwback to better times, a man respected by traditional folks. And it was Wayne they were watching on the screen, not Rooster Cogburn. It was Wayne who protected the young girl out to avenge her father and it was Wayne who imposed justice on the brutal bad guys. The strong-minded actor brought audiences comfort amidst chaos both on the screen and in real life.
Today we are a country once again experiencing turbulent times. But Jeff Bridges offers no antidote to that; in fact, his portrayal disturbs rather than comforts. Bridges plays the flawed Marshall well, and might very well be nominated as Wayne was, but he revels in Cogburn’s neurosis while the Duke used it as a prop. John Wayne was accessible to the audience as basically a good guy. Jeff Bridges puts the troubled character he plays right in your face.
And that’s the difference in America over these forty years. We once were a country with boundaries and rules of behavior. Now many of those boundaries are gone. We expect explicit violence and personal angst. Many of us relish seeing that. In 1969, when True Grit played in the theatres, Americans were looking for heroes like John Wayne to show them nobility. Today there are far fewer heroes and we don’t expect much nobility, even in the movies.
I liked both True Grits. But for me, it was Wayne who still deserves most of the cheers. The man was larger than life, a symbol of the insurmountable American spirit. Boy, do we need that today.