The last line of “True Grit” is, “Come see a fat old man some time,” as John Wayne jumps a fence and rides off into the sunset, one more time. It’s a piece of movie lore, well-known by any Western film fan.
In Nancy Schoenberger’s “Wayne and Ford: The Films, the friendship and the forging of an American Hero,” the line is “Come see a fat old man ride.” Coming as it does late in a book built on two (apparent) interviews and a whole lot of other folks’ scholarship, where such errors of hearing, interpretation and analysis are not uncommon, you might wonder how this William and Mary academic dilettante (A co-written George Reeves bio, Liz Taylor book, more her speed?) ever got a contract to write this far out of her element.
There’s good stuff in here, all of it reported and written by her predecessors, though I had not read the reasons for Ben Johnson’s falling out with the bullying, self-loathing drunk with bisexual tendencies Ford, or the extent to which Wayne threw his weight around in his last major pictures, “The Cowboys” and “The Shootist,” “protecting” his co-stars.
Schoenberger takes Wayne’s (and wife Pilar’s) side on his explanation for dodging the WWII draft and Peter Bogdanovich’s side about Ford’s closeted sexual urges. Personally, if Maureen O’Hara says she walked in on “Pops” making out with Tyrone Power, I believe it.
I do wonder if Wayne’s films with Hawks and Hathaway aren’t always under appreciated and Ford’s a bit oversold, but the history is what it is and Wayne certainly saw Ford as the Big Man in his life.
The best one can say for Schoenberger, who quotes critics no one has ever heard of (academics like herself, and Kael), is that she summed up a lot of others’ great work in just 200 pages.