A certain number of celebrated figures I knew only in their later days as once-was-somebody, along with maybe a little much-mentioned thing about 'em. Jimmy Durante said Ha-cha-cha-cha with a big nose, called a "schnozz," and wished some old lady goodnight. Edward G. Robinson was, oh, I make the connection, who that weird-looking character in the celebrity Looney Tunes was. Jimmy Cagney, someone I confused with Edward at first, people did impressions of as a gangster, but apparently he'd also had a patriotic turn, and he had an odd way of holding himself physically. But John Wayne I knew not only from those sorts of impressions, or the imitation sort of impressions people did on TV of celebs an awful lot back then. I didn't know the young John Wayne, but the blustery older cocky sauntering shooter-up I figured I had a handle on. And I wasn't too crazy about him. I didn't have a deep, gut recoiling at him, as I did at the likes of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, but I figured he wasn't so much for me. And anyway I liked things noted as "comedy" in the TV Guide. #1 factor. "Drama": ugh.
As years went by and I came of awareness in a feminist way, and even in a queer one, I didn't figure I'd have much fondness for the Duke, nor did I much want to check out his movies. I could tell there was a buttload of cultural fondness for him, and I do think I felt a bit bad to hear that he had died of a cancer he might have picked up from shooting a movie in the desert near above-ground nuclear weapons testing. I also understood the contrast between his former strength (along with his image of strength) and weakening to mortality via the scary disease people, I gathered, had only just started to talk about by name without a hint of whisper, or even a veil of taboo.
TV Guide likely noted that The Shootist was his last movie. I probably picked up that the actors in it, and the Duke himself, knew he was dying when he made his last movie, about a gunslinger who was dying, and so that "true" sadness would overlap the sadness within the film.
Last year, in anticipation of the Coen Bros' version of True Grit (which I didn't yet realize isn't a remake per se), I watched the original. In 1969 it must have seemed backward. Establishment. Unconventional in the lead female, anyway, and she was something, I think, I wish I'd seen then. But it would have the weight of ideas and politics that looked (errantly) (to a kid, and maybe to a lot of hippies) as if they were on their way out for good. Despite those flavors, in 2010, I liked the movie. I liked the story and how it was shot, and how absorbed in it without disruptive qualms I managed to be. And I didn't hate John Wayne in it. In fact I liked him more in the part that film had for him than I liked Jeff Bridges in his part in the remake.
Yesterday and today I watched The Shootist, in stints of half an hour, 15 minutes, maybe a stretch of 45. Somehow its flat production values, predictable story arc, and stodgy turn-taking dialogue fell away, and even the meta-texty pathos of the tension around the real Wayne's imminent demise and his character's wasn't the main thread. That was in there, along with the other observations, and a kind of fond amusement at the popping up of familiar faces like Harry Morgan's, offering an unsubtle turn. Yet there really was something about actual death. End-of-the-story stuff.
And then too, there was Lauren Bacall, serious, convincingly teary, looking older than she probably really looked, as the widow who'd lost her husband before the movie started but also as the actress who'd lost Humphrey B, and as the actress who was losing John Wayne, whom she may not have even liked, but dying is dying. The widow didn't much like the gunslinger, except for his dignity, except for his honesty, except for okay yes she does like him; she likes him very much. AND dying is dying.
Ron Howard, not yet balding, had already connected with lotsa Hollywood legends. I don't know why I find it hard to understand that he's older than I am. He must be.
For me, there's something nice about having now, finally, decades later, watched enough old movies to have my own sense for folks like Edward G., whom it turns out I love in the movies, and for John Wayne, who remains something of a cartoon, but just a bit less so now that I have seen him give so convincing an impression, in the middle of a formulaic TV-movie type relatively artless movie, of what it is to be dying.