cover image John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity

John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity

Garry Wills. Simon & Schuster, $26 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-684-80823-9

Having written about the founding fathers (Inventing America), the presidency (Nixon Agonistes; Reagan's America) and Shakespeare (Witches and Jesuits), Wills now turns his powerful intellect and considerable reportorial skills to another icon: John Wayne (1907-1979). Still one of America's top 10 favorite movie stars 16 years after his death, Wayne proves to be an unusually fruitful subject for Wills's brand of cultural criticism. As much an excavation of the meaning of a pop icon as a portrait of a man, the book explores the business and politics of filmmaking, the price of ambition, the historical reality behind the myths of Wayne's life and the American mythologies associated with him. Wills also excavates Wayne's relationship with his most celebrated directors, especially John Ford, who comes across here as a brilliant filmmaker but a brutal and unforgiving patriarch. Wayne emerges as a self-mythologizing charmer whose personal history hardly matches his image: a draft-dodger who, in the movies, seemed to win WWII single-handedly; a canny careerist acutely aware of his gifts and image who regularly played unself-conscious men who cared little about either. Wills's often brilliant readings of Wayne's most important and lasting films (Stagecoach, Red River, The Searchers, The Alamo, etc.) are film criticism of the highest order, combining a mastery of film theory and American history. Not only is this stunning book essential reading for anyone interested in Wayne and popular culture, it's a key text in Wills's continuing investigation into the meaning of America. Photos not seen by PW. First serial to the New Yorker; simultaneous S&S audio. (Mar.)