Popularity profile: Anti-urban America loved the Duke


March 02, 1997|By Don Aucoin | Don Aucoin,BOSTON GLOBE

Technically, John Wayne was a terrible actor, with all the emotional range of a telephone pole. Yet he continues to have a strong hold on the American imagination. In the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills explains why.

Wills draws a connection between our love for Wayne and our hatred of cities. In America, unlike ancient civilizations, there is no "sacred city" that is central to the nation's identity. In fact, in our art, our cinema and our literature, cities are unholy places, snares for the innocent and unwary. The American attitude toward cities -- which Wills manifestly does not share -- is that they are a place to escape from.

"To become urban is to break the spirit of man" is how Wills summarizes our outlook. "Freedom is out on the plains, under endless sky. A pent-in American ceases to be American. The 'young American' Emerson imagined out on the horizon had the easy gait and long stride of John Wayne."

It is not every essay on John Wayne that contains references to Ovid, Henry Adams, Theodore Dreiser, F. W. Murnau, Hart Crane and Kenyon Coxe. But Wills is not every social critic.

The rowdy star

I have two words of advice for the producers of the suddenly sagging "Seinfeld": More Newman!

That said, "Seinfeld" remains at the leading edge of a little-noted phenomenon of popular culture: To wit, that nowadays TV shows are, on balance, better written than the typical theatrical film. Two actors who are beneficiaries of the upsurge in witty writing, Julia Louis-Dreyfus of "Seinfeld" and Kelsey Grammer of "Frasier," are profiled in Vanity Fair and GQ, respectively.

The Grammer profile is the better of the two, detailing just how different the rowdy star is from Frasier Crane, the uptight character he plays. (Their only similarity: Both Grammer and Frasier are addicted to psychobabble.) Author David Kamp spent hours with Grammer the day before the car crash that landed the hard-drinking actor in the Betty Ford Center. Kamp draws a portrait that corroborates his description of Grammer as "nuts, but engagingly nuts, in a robust, omnivorous, Picasso-bare-chested-before-the-canvas sort of way."

Parting shots

Next month is the 25th anniversary of "The Godfather," prompting some ruminations by David Thomson in the March Esquire on the ways movie moguls have adopted the persona of Michael Corleone.

Thomson's piece reminded me of those stories about gangsters emulating the clothes and tough-guy mannerisms of George Raft and Jimmy Cagney in the '20s and '30s.

Only James Wolcott could get me to read another word about Michael Kinsley's overhyped Slate. Wolcott, returning to Vanity Fair after a five-year absence, lets a lot of air out of Kinsley's online balloon, his usual acerbity dulled not one whit by the fact that he has a high regard for Kinsley, his former boss at Harper's.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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