Last Saturday John Wayne turned 100 and remained dead, although his career has continued with gusto since he passed away in 1979. His films show with regularity on cable, and there have been numerous attempts to integrate his image into TV commercials. I actually liked some of those commercials, because with Wayne physically dead he can be enjoyed as digital iconic memorabilia without serving up any songs or movies instructing young people to die bravely in a war.
That conservative, patriotic bent was how I saw and heard Wayne when he was alive. Your experience may have varied, especially if you weren’t sweating out the draft lottery for going to Vietnam. But between Wayne’s agitprop World War II movies, his talk-song “America, Why I Love Her,” his television hook-ups with Bob “Hey, why don’t you kids go off and die in ‘Nam” Hope and his laughably revisionist The Green Berets, I’d pretty much had a gutful when he checked out of the hotel.
Gosh, Steve, why so bitter? Because with middle age comes an uneasy sense that people tend to store only the pleasant details about the departed, especially deceased celebrities. Although Sinatra is still haunted by ties to organized crime. At least that’s what other people tell me. I certainly don’t believe that, friends and associates of Frank Sinatra. (Gulp…)
However unfairly he used his media power to communicate them, Wayne was entitled to his views and entitled to inject them into his entertainment products. If I felt otherwise, then I’d have to be equally upset about the Tim Robbins film Dead Man Walking or (reaching back) Paul Newman in WUSA or certainly everyone who made Coming Home an important film of its day. But even if those films had a certain strident righteousness, the talented people who made them never presented themselves as avatars. Which brings us to the paradigm shift in the vetting of celebrity “views” that we’re currently suffering by way of Rosie O’Donnell.
One can easily imagine O’Donnell begging to differ on the Iraq war in a conversation with an aging and ailing John Wayne, had he lived long enough to appear on something as unnecessary to human well- being as The View. O’Donnell would have acknowledged Wayne’s greatness, paid him some compliments and then laid in wait for an opening. The minute Wayne pulled his gun, if you will, on Iraq… O’Donnell would have deployed a faster and more powerful weapon: her ego. It might have been quite a shootout.
Many things ultimately boil down to a matter of taste, and there can be taste in restraint. But I would argue that there also should be some correlation between achievement and the overall tonnage of “opinion” that a person dumps like slag into the media dome. Wayne had decades as a film actor associated with some of the greatest American films ever made. O’Donnell was a marginally successful stand-up comic who lucked into some supporting film roles and then went deep into the business of selling her real self as a commodity. If she has license, I’m arguing that she hasn’t paid the fee for that license.
If we were having this conversation at dinner, I would expect someone to counter, “And have you paid your dues? What causes you to be able to be a columnist, and then to suggest O’Donnell shouldn’t have the same access as John Wayne?” I can’t say that I’ve earned this job, but I do believe I share one thing with John Wayne: We both strived to create works that stimulate thought, and our personal views are reflected in those works to the end of giving others something to ponder in forming their own views. We are not sitting at a table, arguing into a camera that we are right.
In all that is something that makes me nostalgic for John Wayne. The Duke was more genteel and less self-absorbed than Rosie O’Donnell. How’s that for a 100th birthday compliment? And again, consider accomplishment. At the time Wayne made True Grit, there was no question that he actually had true grit. Fighting cancer, he continued to work, and several of those last films are among his most graceful and least polemic. Ms. O’Donnell, on the other hand, is all polemic and no grace. Although it’s possible that someone is considering her for a remake of Flying Leathernecks.