RH: The whole "celebrity and the little people" dynamic seems like
it would be common to many Southern Californians.
DB: Less so in Orange County, which has an emotional as well
as a geographical distance from Hollywood. Orange County was pretty
much dominated by John Wayne, and the people there didn't see
Wayne as an actor so much as a very important person who
transcended the profession that made him so important. I can
understand that feeling. It makes sense to me. The whole country
often seems to believe that being an actor was just the starting point
of his greatness. People in Orange County just have a worse case, and
I mean that without any condescension, of that inability to
distinguish between Wayne's screen persona and his real life.
RH: There's a strong sense in some scenes of Wayne in Orange
County of "the Great Man walks among us."
DB: Absolutely. One of the things that aided that sense, that I
really wanted to get at in the book, is that in some ways he really
was a great man. He was very well prepared to shoulder the burden
that he shouldered, to absorb, as somebody once said of Cary Grant,
the gaze of millions. He could do that with dignity and for the most
part he could do it responsibly. He understood to a large extent what
he meant to the country.
One of the things I hope this book helps people to understand is that
Wayne was an artist. To understand him as a political figure is to
miss the point. He was an artist with political influence. Maybe I give
him more credit than he deserves, but I imagine him as being aware
of his artistry. I think certain people in this country see Wayne as
another version of Barry Goldwater, which completely misses the
point -- Barry Goldwater was a politician, John Wayne was an actor.
Goldwater was probably a better actor than anyone credits, and
Wayne was probably a better politician than anyone credits, but
there's a fundamental distinction there that's important.
RH: This novel is one of several texts within the last few years
that have tried to make sense of or reevaluate John Wayne. Why
DB: It may simply be that we're distant enough from the
Vietnam War and the divisions that it created in our country to
examine them dispassionately. So a guy like me can make a credible
character out of John Wayne and not have to approach readers with
all the baggage of the '60s. There's an excellent biography called
John Wayne, American that was published about two years ago
and Garry Wills' John Wayne's America, both of which make a
lot of hay out of Wayne's non-participation in World War Two,
basically because they can now. It was never a big secret to anyone;
it's just that we couldn't talk about it easily until now. Wayne
enthusiasts didn't want to know that information, and people who
already didn't believe in the myth of John Wayne didn't need to
know. But we're coming to a point where we can look beyond his
politics to see him as a cultural figure of a different type and
appreciate him for what he was: a great film artist and a great
vehicle for film artistry.
RH: Your book overlaps the other two in some respects, but they
aren't redundant. They each get at a different kind of truth about
DB: Even the names seem like they were planned to fall into a
series, don't they? I admire both those books and their authors.
They've really helped me a lot in my understanding of Wayne, and I
hope this book contributes something to other people's
RH: I think one of the chapters in your book that highlights
Wayne's self-awareness of his artistry is the affair with Marlene
Dietrich. It gets away from the cliché of the European
sophisticate sleeping with the American rube and probes Wayne's
personality and beliefs intensely.
DB: Writing this book, I always though about how much I
identify with John Wayne. The struggles that Wayne felt in that
chapter, the struggles he felt about defining himself in relation to his
art, his mentors, his lovers, are struggles that I was feeling acutely as
I was writing that chapter.
The questions I was asking about Wayne were meaningful questions
for any artist. What did it mean for Wayne to make himself so fully
available to a man like John Ford? There are a lot of greater men
than Wayne who couldn't become the channel for film he was
because they weren't as willing to surrender themselves to the
talents of other men. Think of the great actors who don't seem to do
anywhere near as well in Ford movies because they just couldn't
submit themselves to Ford as well as Wayne could. I find Wayne's
submission to another man's will to be an admirable quality. He
knew the extent to which he could trust Ford, and also Howard
Hawks, to take care of him, and even though he was getting paid a lot
more than either of them to make those films, he knew when to give
in to their direction.
RH: It's fascinating to talk about Wayne's submissive qualities
when he's the hypermasculine icon of the American man.
DB: That's why, for me, it's so much more interesting to talk
about Wayne as an artist. It makes so much more sense of him. I was
on a panel a few months ago with Garry Wills and Harry Carey Jr.
among others, and somebody asked a question about Wayne's war
record. I felt like the kid pointing out that the emperor has no
clothes, but I realized that Ford was portrayed as a hero for serving
in the war, even though he was directing films throughout the war.
Meanwhile, Wayne's virute has been portrayed as dubious because
he didn't fight. But if he'd gone into combat, his art would have
effectively stopped for five or six years, prime years of his film
career. He couldn't 'fight' as an actor the way Ford 'fought' as a
director. It helps me to understand Wayne's decision. I don't want to
become a Wayne apologist, but I do feel that he's a much more
complicated character than people give him credit for. A lot of the
qualities that fuel people's admiration for him -- his sense of
responsibility, his work ethic, his respect for people around him -- all
resonate for me with his screen image.
RH: What was it like for you to reexamine your childhood feelings
DB: There's an essay on the Web called "John Wayne's Big
Boat," an essay of the only time in my life that I actually ever met
Wayne which discusses my tremendous ambivalence at the age of
nine about John Wayne and about my dad. I saw my father as
needlessly macho. He had a drinking problem. He wasn't what I
aspired to in manhood. He and John Wayne were discredited as men
to me. The day that I went to see Wayne, I wore a peace sign on a
chain beneath my T-shirt, and my plan was to bring it out front on
the boat to piss Wayne and my father off. But when I actually met
him, I was so impressed that he completely disarmed me. I admired
him in a way I couldn't account for then.
Years later, when I was studying at Berkeley and watching old
movies at the Pacific Film Archive, I got to see the old John Wayne
films, and they were the best films I'd ever seen. Seeing a film like
The Searchers for the first time was a religious experience, and
a lot of that is about what John Ford brought to the table, but he
couldn't have made that film without John Wayne. Through this great
art, I found my way back to Wayne. The more seriously I took him,
the more seriously I had to take him. As I got older and was
forced to face a lot of the same choices and issues that my father had
confronted as a man, that Wayne had confronted, I developed a
forgiveness for their faults -- which were legion in both my father
and Wayne -- and an admiration for the way that they soldiered on
despite their great deficiencies. The things that I find admirable
about Wayne -- ordinary things like the respect for the people
around him -- are the same things I was able to find admirable
about my father once I was far enough from our personal war.
RH: What was harder, getting inside John Wayne's head or getting
inside your mom's head?
DB: I think sometimes getting inside John Wayne's head was
harder. One of the surprises of the book for me was how much I was
already in my mom's head. When I first conceived of the novel, it
wasn't about my mom at all. It was pretty much about John Wayne
and my family at best would be secondary characters. But because I
was so deep inside my mother's head, her character just took off and
this whole narrative line opened up.
RH: The final novel seems split down the middle as to who's the
most important figure.
DB: I like to think of John Wayne as the main character and
my mom as the protagonist. He's the larger structure that holds the
book together, but she's the emotional core.
RH: How do you want to continue as a writer? There's a certain
danger in being pegged as "that John Wayne guy".
DB: Yeah. I'm never writing another book about a movie actor
again. But, if I can be pretentious for a bit, the deeper structure of
this book is about finding an obsession big enough and bright
enough, meaningful enough to carry me deep into my own heart and
create something really good. My great discovery in this book was
that if I wrote about something I was completely obsessed with, I
would find a way to write about the issues most meaningful to me.
But I didn't know that when I started. Another novelist had
suggested that I write this book, and my first thought was that a
literary novel about John Wayne was a silly idea, but it had
incredible power because it was what I cared about more than
anything. I just sat around and thought about John Wayne for days.
As I move on from this, and I hope that the book I'm writing now is
a part of this process, I'm looking for other things to write about that
will also bring me back to what's most important.
RH: Will you continue writing essays as well?
DB: Yes. Writing novels is a bit more fun for me, but every
now and then something comes along that I'll choose to write about
in an essay. The distinction between fiction and non-fiction for me
isn't that big. It's more about what you can be sued for than anything
else. I hope that whatever I write is as true as I can possibly make it.
But when you're writing a non-fiction essay, you're still definitely
fudging things in order to make the structure adhere to a higher
truth. So how is that not fiction? I've read novels that seem as
absolutely true as they could possibly be, and I've read memoirs that
are complete bullshit. I don't care if the author can verify every
incident in the book, they're still complete bullshit.