May 26th was the birthday of one of the greatest stars that ever graced the silver or Technicolor screen: John Wayne, the Duke, the quintessential cowboy, who was once every little boy’s idol. The Duke was one of the last of the generation of actors who had risen from obscurity to stardom at the same time that cinema was still developing its place in the heart of American entertainment, and morphing from a comparatively low-budget business into a lucrative multi-million dollar enterprise. He acted in over 100 films, mostly westerns and war films; some were mediocre, some downright bad, and some cinematic masterpieces crafted by director John Ford: Stagecoach, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. To this day, more than 30 years after his death of cancer, John Wayne has an enduring fan-base of movie-lovers who crowd around the TV on his birthday to watch different networks pay their tribute to the legendary icon of American film by playing his movies.
What makes actors like John Wayne so beloved of American audiences? Why do people with vocations that are arguably far more important to the community—policemen, cooks, airplane pilots, engineers, waitresses, manual laborers—tend to admire and even idolize someone who spent his life . . . well, pretending to be other people, people like them? This phenomenon has only mushroomed with the passing of time; Johnny Depp, for instance, could easily be considered more popular and well-known than any politician, writer, or any other public figure of our day.
Sometimes the reason for all this may be attributed to complicated social factors, but it really boils down to this: good actors are beloved by ordinary folks for the simple reason that they satisfy a deep-seated longing in the human psyche to be or do certain things they never can. Aristotle once said that the reason we love the theater—to watch other peoples’ tragedies and comedies acted out before us—is because seeing such dramas “purges”—or relieves—us of the emotions of pity and fear. A recent study showed that Botox, which paralyzes the muscles of the face to prevent wrinkles, can inhibit a person’s ability to read and respond to the emotions of others, because part of the way a person’s brain discerns and empathizes with the emotions on the face of another is by mirroring those emotions on its own face. This is why the faces of an audience of a movie or stage play will often bear the same facial expression as the actor they are watching—will frown, or look sorrowful or frightened, or smile roguishly when he does.
When we watch an actor with a common man persona, like John Wayne, do something good and honorable and admirable, we feel as though we could do it, too—we feel as if we almost are doing it. At the same time, when an actor gives a good performance in a tragedy, we can see—and interiorize—what it feels like to do something horrible or have something horrible done to us. Through the actor, we vicariously can out-shoot a villain in a dusty Western town, or fall madly in love in the hills of Ireland, or have adventures on the high seas, or die fighting for our country. Somehow, if he can do it, so can we. We can live a thousand lives, make a lifetime’s worth of mistakes, be satisfied with a surfeit of happy endings—and learn a thousand lessons. And that’s why John Wayne is still popular, still loved and admired by people like you and I, who can settle down in front of our televisions to watch the Duke at his best, pretending to do the things we all wish we could do.