Media, Race and Culture

The John Wayne Brand and His Silent Reply to His Enemies

For close to ten years, in the late 60s and early 70’s, the most hated man in Hollywood was John Wayne. That’s right, the Duke. It was all about the Vietnam War, about which you never saw one contemporaneous film released except for Wayne’s “Green Berets”, a 1968 film released just as public sentiment was turning against the war because (take note) the American media, especially Walter Cronkite and CBS News, decided it was a war that could not be won, and who then took great strides to make their analysis come true.

Like the Vietnam War, Hollywood, New York and Washington were largely of one sentiment about John Wayne, only, the rub is, the rest of America loved him. And in a contest of numbers, that matters. Throughout the war era he was America’s top box office draw. He had established a “brand” by the 1950s that lives on today, and nothing those anti-war leftists could say would diminish it. And yes, Donald Trump’s presidency is in part a result of the resiliency of that brand.

It’s simple math, actually. A point that will be driven home shortly in a different context, Richard Grenier, in his 1979 elegy to John Wayne, wrote:

“But Richard Dreyfuss and Robert de Niro are known to only a small proportion of the people who knew Gary Cooper and John Wayne.”

With that alone, John Wayne could protect his brand by not having to say a word. All he had to do was continue about his business in a way that silently said “Screw you” to Hollywood and the political left, and let his brand speak for itself.

That beat goes on. Because Americans demanded such heroes, he and Coop were succeeded by others, men such as Clint Eastwood, who began his Dirty Harry franchise in 1971 after a string of spaghetti Westerns had established him as a quiet but deadly gunslinger. Over the years Eastwood’s “brand” also grew as an anti-liberal, law and order patriot, and is still an icon today because of it.

A director and producer himself, I’ll bet Clint even knew of Harvey Weinstein. “He knew” as the feminists like to proclaim in their “j’accusing” tone. After all, Harvey Weinstein was the prototype of Hollywood Babylon since before talkies. And John Wayne had been there since the 1930s.

At birth Hollywood was a den of iniquity, the opposite face of humanity. Men left home in the east and Midwest to find work there, but with only a few ending up in pictures, even as extras, while most, once they realized luck was 90% of the math of success in Hollywood, ended up pumping gas, earning enough money for a bus ticket back home. It was like a Gold Rush only more attractive because of the climate and the prospects for sex.

It was harder still for women, the city filled with aspiring starry-eye girls, many of whom would gladly swap sex any day for a chance at a screen test, movie role, better still a speaking part. Getting noticed, impressing a scout at a lunch counter, (where legends says Lana Turner was discovered) was the name of the game for the aspiring actress, and chasing that first big chance was a 20-hour a day job. Most never even got close, the lucky ones going back home if someone back there could wire the money. Almost everyone carried an insurance quarter in their shoe for that last call home. But many stayed, waiting tables, hiring out as stenos if they’d taken typing and shorthand in high school, and had been to Sunday School. Without Sunday School, those lacking that training often ended up walking the streets (hence the name) along Sunset Strip, shopping their only God-given possessions.

And Hollywood was also a haven for the ugly man executive. Sexual predation was more often behind the camera, where dwelt the Harvey Weinsteins, the men who opened doors. But at a price.

At the same time, leggy young women ran off to New York looking for work in the chorus lines, hoping some rich (young preferred) man would notice them. The 1933 (pre-censorship code) film “42nd Street” gives the modern audience a sense of the motivations for young people to seek work in the theatre side of show business. Art wasn’t primary among them.

Besides there was a Depression on.

Even before talkies Hollywood was considered a Babylon, a den of (mostly sexual, according to my mother) iniquity. It would take three trials (1922) before a jury could disbelieve what the newspapers had said about Fatty Arbuckle, and that he really was just a big fat amiable, funny, naïve kid, and film star, and did not rape and kill a young woman who crashed one of his parties. He was accused, and publicly tried and convicted on his Hollywood connection alone, with the help of yellow journalism. “Everyone thought they knew.” Only they didn’t.

Maureen O’Hara, from Ireland, was discovered by Charles Laughton and landed her first Hollywood role in 1937. By that time the “casting couch” was a fixture of the template for getting ahead there. Everyone knew. And the Harvey Weinstein-type producer-director was the template, not the exception, for Hollywood executives. But Maureen O’Hara considered this an occupational hazard and charted her course accordingly. She refused to allow directors and producers to lay a hand on her, (“to be pawed”, her words) until they finally quit trying. She threatened to quit several projects, and eventually earned the reputation of a “cold fish”, black-balled by some studios and producers. Like Wayne, she ended up being type-cast as a strong woman figure, fiery temperament, but honorable and noble, a heroine. Just not one who would wear a pink hat to a protest march. Like Wayne, she liked her image, and with friends like Wayne and Cooper was able to established an incredible brand without ever once having to lift her skirt or run off to the front office or media with an assault charge.

I’m sure it cost her some fine roles, but she didn’t like slutty roles anyway, which earned Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Fonda both Oscars. In the 40s Joan Crawford was always there to pick those up, anyway.

Like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Miss O’Sullivan also realized her brand was immeasurably larger outside Hollywood than inside it. So “screw ’em”.

This should give us some concept of “brand” as well as what anchors it, as well as what it takes to diminish it.

It’s reported that Rose McGowan, who I’d never heard of until three days ago, but was one of those who settled with Harvey Weinstein for sexual misconduct a few years earlier ($100,000) and is some sort of C-level actress today, has a million Twitter followers, and on the strength of those followers, access to another million or so via print media outlet.

They think that’s a lot.

Some believe that Rose and the #MeToo movement can destroy the brands of many Hollywood personalities who were either too friendly with Weinstein, or too slow to step out and condemn him, or even avow that they “didn’t know” as Meryl Streep is accused of doing.

Ms Streep and Matt Damon are both current targets of these attacks, “She Knew” and “He Knew”, testing the power of  Twitter to destroy theirs brands unless they recant. While not as strong as the Duke or Eastwood’s, those brands are still substantial.

For the record, I’m not a fan of either Ms Streep or Mr Damon. In fact I dislike their politics immensely, and with only a couple of exceptions, “Out of Africa” and the Jason Bourne spy-action series, have found their films that I have seen mostly forgettable.

And I didn’t come here to attack the #MeToo movement, either but rather detail places it would be best not to go if it wants to make a point that can stand on its own.

Streep and Damon’s sin appears to be having their picture taken with Harvey at some gala event or another. And smiling. And appearing festive.

I have it on good evidence that Harvey Weinstein did not proposition, grope, flash or assault every actress who had her picture taken with him. I’m sure he encountered his share of Maureen O’Hara’s in his years in Hollywood. Nor did he have to threaten them not to tell, or pay them off when he did.

Streep and Damon are being attacked for doing nothing more than keeping their mouths shut about Harvey Weinstein, who has been so stripped naked that he only has one redeeming quality, and that is that he is not a Republican. (For which he paid dearly since I doubt there’s an empathetic bone in Harvey’s body for anything the Democrat Party or the Left actually stands for.)

Meryl Streep is accused of apostasy, failing to go along with the rest of the Sisterhood in condemning Weinstein, worse, by saying she wasn’t aware of his reputation for sexual misconduct. Apparently no one in the Rose McGowan Twitter circle believes her, and on that belief alone, has condemned her.

There are deeper concerns here, and that is whether in these days a person that belongs to an aggrieved group (Hollywood, Women, Working Women) is any longer allowed to keep their opinions to themselves. Being of the Wayne-Eastwood-O’Hara “Screw  ’em” School, I’m inclined to find this kind of thinking totalitarian, more fitting for an Amherst classroom than for grown-ups in the film industry.

We are creeping closer to the establishment of the ancient rule of despots, that the power to condemn is the power to destroy, which calls to mind the Stalinist purges in the 30s, when a Stalin stooge stood up and condemned another Party Member in private, then at the ensuing public trial, others had to stand up and double down on the accusation, or be condemned to the same fate. (Stalin already knew who he wanted to get rid of in those inquisitions, and so I suspect it here.)

But the bullseye on Damon is more direct. He has a new film coming out soon, another in the Ocean’s Eleven franchise. They (the #MeToo cult) are petitioning the producers to edit Damon out of the film. Since I thought his role in the previous Oceans films (I’ve seen two) was secondary, no one would miss him. But since studio execs and producers these days may as well be congressmen when it comes to backbone, fearing Twitter storms even more than a visit by Jesse Jackson, I get a cold Stalinist chill with such cowards at the helm making these decisions of professional life and death.

I think both Streep and Damon should stand by their brand with a “screw ’em” swagger then not be surprised when they survive.

What’s at stake here is not exposing sexual assault in the industry, not even its tolerance or approval, but its mere knowledge. And keeping that knowledge to oneself.

And the more a goose on the butt, or a grope of the ass, is equated to a full frontal assault, especially if it isn’t mentioned for two-three years (we’re seeing them regularly from up to 20 and 30 years, starting with Herman Cain in 2012, then Bill Cosby, then Roy Moore), and bruises have had a chance to heal, and the semen stains have been washed out (only there were no reports that any of those things ever existed in the first place)….we face a serious matter developing here, namely a long-time feminist political demand, going back decades….that a woman’s word is, all by itself, evidence, requiring no further corroboration. And public opinion, not a court room, can decide. Fatty Arbuckle all over again.

Today Twitter, tomorrow the court room, then next, the World!

I simply want to remind you who understand the brand equation, that the Duke, Clint, Maureen and  Meryl and Matt likely command a far larger positive brand, by a factor of at least 100, than the combined forces of #MeToo and media can aggregate.

The day we hear a judge instruct the jury that it must consider a woman’s word, and her word alone, as probative, instead of grabbing the little pink hat and hitting the streets, I would suggest that all women rush to Lourdes. And pray for a vision. For your world will indeed be about to end.

A reminder of this 1982 parody of Errol Flynn




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