Movie stars are funny things, and our relationship with them can be even funnier. I’ve often told the story of my late grandfather’s reaction to watching Sandra Bullock’s performance in the film Forces of Nature. Used to seeing her as the charming and lovable type of character she’d played in While You Were Sleeping and Two Weeks Notice, he simply couldn’t accept her as the problematic, vaguely crazy troublemaker of Forces. When I asked how he’d liked the movie, he unequivocally said, “Well, that’s not her kind of role. She’s not really like that.” It’s a moment which absolutely confirmed both the overarching power of a star persona, and the straitjacket which stardom wraps around a performer.
For my grandfather, Sandra Bullock had only one personality worth watching, and any attempt to deviate from that was automatically a failure. The implications of this are fascinating, and clearly indicate the Faustian bargain any true star (of which there are very few) makes with the public. If you are able to personify a particular cultural moment or type of character, you’d better understand that you might be doing it for a very long time. Presumably at least part of why a star is successful is that they are depicting some aspect of their own character on screen, but it ends up being a weirdly distilled version of themselves. Marilyn Monroe may have been able to project earthy, vulnerable sexiness, but it’s now generally accepted that she was much smarter than she let on. Buster Keaton may have been the “The Great Stoneface”, but that doesn’t mean that he never really laughed. In effect, these actors worked so hard to perfect their particular persona that it essentially took over their life, generating public images which weren’t quite “reality”, but weren’t quite “unreality” either. In the case of someone like Mary Pickford, who portrayed exuberant young girls well into her thirties, this ended up being a bit of a curse, since she could never escape from that image, even as she aged well past youthful exuberance. Perhaps the most famous (and successful) example of this phenomenon is John Wayne, and I’ve always thought that there’s no better illustration of his carefully calibrated craft than his performance in Hondo.
Wayne’s first appearance in Hondo is under the opening credits as he makes his way toward an isolated homestead. Throughout the opening sequence, director John Farrow does all that he can to support Wayne’s persona, and that is immediately demonstrated by the way the actor stands out from the landscape as he moves forward.
For those even remotely familiar with Wayne’s films, there’s immediately no doubt who is walking towards us. Wayne’s solid, reliable, capable, manliness shines forth from every frame. Over the years the actor developed a distinctive way of carrying himself which can be seen in his walk and in the way he stands:
And even in the way he holds himself when he sits:
He’s squared-off, ready for anything and tough – without being mean. Wayne spent most of the Thirties making low-grade Westerns and honing his craft, and his particular way of carrying himself owes something to many years of practice. Farrow is clearly aware of this distinctive physicality, and comments on that repeatedly. The most obvious examples of this are the constant movement of a performance in which the actor is always doing something with his hands (eating, shoeing horses, sharpening an ax, etc.) but we also see it visually, such as in the moment where the fatherless young boy on the homestead consciously imitates Wayne’s stance:
Wayne was also capable of manipulating the general sense of his hard-bitten toughness, as he does in an early scene talking about his dead, Native American wife. Though he guardedly makes light of the importance of the relationship when discussing it with Geraldine Page, the poetic cadence of his delivery and the expression on his face, betray deep emotion:
Though I love Hondo generally, my point here is not to sing the praises of either the film or the actor. The issue at hand is the calculatedness of qualities which made John Wayne one of the dominant movie stars of the 20th century. It’s easy enough (and it certainly happened in this case) to simply claim that the star isn’t really performing, but only being his or herself on screen. But the sheer amount of work it takes to project such qualities is often given short shrift. At this point Wayne had been honing those qualities for over twenty years, and he knew what he was doing. The fact that these were learned behaviors would be demonstrated repeatedly in Wayne’s attempts to support the fledgling acting career of his son Patrick, who he regularly tried to mould into a younger version of himself (nowhere more so than in The Alamo, where poor Patrick gamely tries to pull off distinctive physical aspects of his father’s persona with absolutely no success).
Because the industry has changed so much over time, our current “stars” frequently don’t have the luxury of honing their personae down to key constituent parts. The benefit to the actors, of course, is that they sometimes have the freedom to try different things, and to not be forced entirely into a straitjacket of “what they’re really like.” As my grandfather demonstrated, that does remain a part of stardom, but perhaps not as rigidly as it once did. It seems to me, however, that the net result is a certain loss of luster in the “Hollywood” firmament. The comfort we once found in reliable stars who (with long and careful practice) embodied key qualities with which we identified has been replaced by more self-consciously versatile celebrities who never focus in quite the same way – and never shine quite as brightly.