John Wayne Is Orange County

Expanded for the Web! Newport Beach Film Fest honors the icon. Its about time

Newport Beach legend has the city responsible for Wayne's stellar film career. Marion Morrison supposedly injured himself bodysurfing at Balboa's Wedge, was forced to quit the USC football team, and later fell into acting and a stage name. But Wayne has made it sound as if the injury came on the gridiron. "If it hadn't been for football and the fact I got my leg broke and had to go into the movies to eat, why, who knows, I might have turned out to be a liberal Democrat," he once said.

The truth is Wayne's politics were all over the map throughout his life. He claimed to have been something of a socialist during his early Hollywood days, and it was only until someone explained what a Democrat was that he switched his party affiliation to Republican. He spoke at one GOP National Convention, but when asked whether another Orange County icon, then-President Richard Nixon, had ever advised him on the making of his films, Wayne replied, "No, they've all been successful." And when Nixon's dirty tricks were exposed, the Duke noted, "I never trust a man that doesn't drink."

John Wayne is Orange County because John Wayne is still here. After dying of stomach cancer on June 11, 1979, he was interred at Pacific View Memorial Park in Corona del Mar. His grave was unmarked for 20 years because of fears Vietnam War protesters would desecrate the site. A bronze plaque was finally put up in 1999, but his tombstone did not read what he had requested: "Feo, Fuerte y Formal," a Spanish epitaph meaning he was ugly, strong and had dignity. Instead, his family pulled a quote from Wayne's 1971 Playboy interview: "Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday."


Whoever curated the festival's selected screenings obviously understands that John Wayne the man is not nearly as important to the American psyche as the characters John Wayne portrayed. Kicking things off is True Grit (1969), which finds a young tomboy of a girl recruiting a tough old lawman to avenge her father's death. Wayne received his only Academy Award for playing Marshal Rooster Cogburn despite serious competition from Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight (for Midnight Cowboy, a film the Duke loathed), Peter O'Toole (Goodbye Mr. Chips) and Richard Burton (Anne of the Thousand Days), who Wayne is alleged to have later tossed his Oscar to and telling, "You should have this, not me." And who originally handed Wayne that statuette? None other than Barbra Streisand. Imagine that.


Wayne's acting was never really respected by critics because he always essentially played himself. But others—including the director most associated with him, John Ford, famous acting teacher Lee Strasberg and Wayne's Rooster Cogburn co-star Katharine Hepburn—all said it was his naturalness at reacting on camera that made him extraordinary. "I was never quite sure what he did think of me as an actor," Wayne said of Ford. "I know now though. Because when I finally won an Oscar for my role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, Ford shook my hand and said the award was long overdue me as far as he was concerned. Right then, I knew he'd respected me as an actor since Stagecoach, even though he hadn't let me know it. He later told me his praise earlier, might have gone to my head and made me conceited, and that was why he'd never said anything to me, until the right time."


Ford's Stagecoach (1939), the next Newport screening, featured Wayne as the Ringo Kid, his Hollywood breakout role. (Another local connection: the film's leading lady, Claire Trevor, was the stepmother of The Irvine Co. chairman Donald Bren.) It's the story of disparate passengers riding in the same stagecoach and withstanding a brutal attack by injuns. Barry Goldwater reportedly visited the set, beginning a long friendship with Wayne.


Next up is Rio Bravo (1959), a film by another legendary director, Howard Hawks. Wayne plays a small town sheriff trying to keep a powerful rancher from busting his murder-suspect brother out of jail. Because some of Wayne's films in the '50s weren't making bank, the studios started pairing him with teen idols like Fabian, Frankie Avalon and, in Rio Bravo, Ricky Nelson.


Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) was the only other film to garner Wayne an Oscar nomination and one of seven in which his character gets (spoiler alert!) killed. The scene where he gets it is pretty hammy, too. Otherwise, Allan Dwan's film where Wayne plays an embittered Army sergeant who takes his misery out on his men is not too shabby. When Wayne was honored with a square at the Grauman's Chinese Theater, the sand used in the cement was said to have been brought in from Iwo Jima.


In Ford's 1952 drama The Quiet Man—which the festival is presenting as this year's Irish Spotlight film—Wayne plays American boxer Sean Thornton, who returns to his native Ireland and pursues a poor-but-beautiful maiden played by Maureen O'Hara. I found the film rather slow, but it's a favorite of Wayne's grandson, Father Matthew Munoz, an Roman Catholic priest who has served in Orange County. "My mother was in The Quiet Man, as was Maureen O'Hara," Munoz told an Orange County Register interviewer years ago. "Maureen was at my ordination and is a wonderful Catholic woman. She was a good friend to my grandfather and was a positive influence." Wayne converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.

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