When, at the beginning of Wayne's career in the 1930s, director Raoul Walsh tried to fit him into the then customary moccasined, slightly effete version of a cowboy hero, it was a disaster. The same hopeless miscasting happened with Bogart's early roles as a tennis-playing romantic lead. As a result, both actors took a while to be noticed. John Ford initially thought Wayne a limited character actor; Jack Warner thought the same thing of Bogart.
In Gary Wills's new biography, we are reminded again of all the things that don't add up about Wayne. In real life, he hated horses, avoided the draft and snobbishly aspired to join the Social Register of Los Angeles. Yet he remains the model for the all-American aspirant. The general who chairs the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Shalikashvili, taught himself English by watching Wayne movies. Newt Gingrich, as a teenager, spent hours copying the Wayne walk (did his lesbian sister do so too?).
But there's a long and dangerous history of walking the Wayne walk. Presidents Nixon and Reagan took their cues from Wayne whenever they felt like revenging the Alamo on the Far and Middle East. One US critic went so far as to suggest that Wayne's spirit of bravado so infected the leaders of America that it drew the country into the Vietnam conflict. "I gave my dead dick for John Wayne," claimed para- lysed-from-the-waist-down Vietnam vet Ron Kovic - the paraplegic played by Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July. Wayne, constantly humiliated in public by John Ford for not serving in the armed forces, didn't represent America as such in films like Green Berets. He merely represented its unquenchable thirst for toy wars.
Jeffrey Meyers's Bogart: A Life in Hollywood is less terrifying in its fantasies. There are no vistas in Bogart movies, no lands to be conquered, no country to be created and sustained. A New York WASP born, like Katherine Hepburn, of a surgeon father and suffragette mother, Bogart had to cope with the dark side of life sooner rather than later - his father's morphine addiction and a sister's insanity, for example. He was also a celebrity all his life; his mother, a commercial artist, immortalised Bogie's baby face for Mellins Baby Food. Kicked out of school, he got his trademark scar on his lip while in service with the navy. (He made a more convincing film sailor than Wayne made a film soldier for the simple reason that he had been one.)
Bogart's fictive realm is still powerful. His fellow New Yorkers Woody Allen and Abel Ferrara have included homages to Bogart's European-style chiaroscuro in their movies. Thus Ferrara's recent The Funeral opens with a thrilling close-up of Bogart in a gangster role. We see the mafia hood played by Christopher Walken learning not the Wayne walk but the Bogart finger-stabbing sneer - not Wayne's expansive use of space but Bogart's economy. It's hard to imagine a modern film-maker making the same use of Wayne. Though his screen personae exemplify simplicity, he carries overwhelming cultural baggage, and no longer even belongs to the movies. John Wayne is real.
These are very different biographies. Wills is a seasoned cultural critic, and his writing is self-confident and entertaining, with many New Yorker style verbal flourishes. There's little about Wayne the man here, and almost no dimestore psychology at all. I found it hard, though, to work out exactly where he was coming from and what his beef might be. Is he for or against Wayne?
Meyers on Bogart is more conventional. A well-known biographer of writers, he reveals a desire to compare Bogart with Hemingway that becomes part of an irritating literary tic. Yet when Hemingway finally pops up as a friend of Bogart's, the friendship is bafflingly not described, in spite of the lengthy prologue that details spurious links (both their fathers had offices "on the first floor") between writer and actor.
Equally irritating is the seepage of bits from Meyers's other biographies. Who cares if the Bogart marriage was like that of Frieda and D H Lawrence, and what is the origin of the notion that the plot of Dark Victory borrows from Lawrence's novella St Mawr? Such comparisons have no meaning to anyone except Meyers himself in his private scholastic universe.
Wills tries to argue that Wayne is a genuine icon overlooked by culture snobs - but icons are flawed intercessors of grace rather than deities themselves. Perhaps Wayne is symbol rather than icon, and a symbol for very crass things that have little to do with film.
Bogart will always continue to appeal to film buffs, and it's easy to see why. He is a complex being composed of bad and good, a synthesis, a creature of psychic drama. Wayne is merely a proposition: an kind of imperial cipher, with no more or less meaning than the Stars and Stripes itself.Reuse content