John Wayne Needed to Be ‘Bullied’ to Get a Good Performance out of Him
John Wayne‘s critics often pointed out that his style of performance wasn’t really acting, but him simply playing himself. However, that isn’t to say that he didn’t earn praise for movies, such as the Oscar-winning True Grit. Wayne’s The Horse Soldiers co-star William Holden said that the actor was “bullied” to get a good performance out of him.
‘The Horse Soldiers’ star John Wayne had issues to deal with on the set
The Horse Soldiers set had non-performance issues for Wayne. Michael Munn’s John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth explored the difficulties he encountered throughout production. His wife, Pilar, developed a dependence on sleeping pills, so Wayne had his mind on personal matters outside of his performance.
“It was a difficult picture to make all round,” director of photographer William H. Clothier said. “Pilar had become addicted to sleeping pills and Duke insisted she join him on location so he could keep an eye on her. Before they left home, she had run out of pills and after a day without them she got terrible withdrawal symptoms.”
Clothier continued: “Her doctor wanted to put her in a private sanatorium for people with drink and drug problems. But Duke wanted her in Louisiana and said he’d be with her as much as he could. So she arrived in Alexandria where we were based with little Aissa and a couple of maids.”
John Ford had to ‘bully’ John Wayne to get a good performance from him
Photo: John Ford and John Wayne on the set of The Horse Soldiers (1959)
Munn wrote that it was Holden’s first time working with director John Ford, who was battling alcoholism, and Holden swore to work with him ever again. The actor recalled Ford’s cruel behavior toward Wayne for the sake of a better performance from him. However, it initially started with the filmmaker telling the actors that they aren’t allowed to have any alcohol.
“I liked Duke a lot,” Holden said. “I wasn’t sure how we’d get on, but he was a really nice guy. But I was pretty disgusted with the way Ford treated him. Ford would yell at him and treat him like he was a newcomer. I said to Duke, ‘Why do you let that old bastard treat you like that?’ He said, ‘Aw, Bill, that’s just his way of making sure I give him a good performance.’”
Holden continued: “I said, ‘Duke, you’ve been at this longer than me. You got nominated for an Oscar, didn’t you?’ He said, ‘Yeah!’ I said, ‘And what film was that for?’ Of course I knew the answer. Sands of Iwo Jima. I said to Duke, ‘Did Ford get a good performance out of you for that?’ He said, ‘Ford didn’t direct Iwo Jima.’ I said, ‘That’s what I mean.’ But Duke would just do anything for Ford, and I admired his loyalty.”
William Holden would never allow John Ford to treat him the same way
Holden would never allow Ford to give him the same treatment that he gave Wayne for the sake of performance. However, he was much more outspoken regarding his feelings toward the filmmaker.
“But I wasn’t having Ford talk to me that way,” Holden said, according to Munn. “I told him [and] said, ‘Jack, I’ll sweat blood to give you a good performance, but if you ever talk to me that way you talk to Duke, I’ll walk off and I won’t come back.’ Ford said, ‘Oh Bill, I don’t need to force a good performance out of you. I saw Sunset Boulevard. You’re twice the actor Duke is. He needs me to bully him.’”
Holden continued: “I couldn’t believe it. I never worked for Ford again. I never worked with Duke again, either, but that’s just because nothing came along that suited us both.”
Holden snuck Wayne away from Ford for a whole day by scheduling a teeth cleaning appointment, where they day drank afterward.
Clothier recalled: “When Ford found out, he was furious. He went into one of the worst tantrums I’ve ever seen. You’d think Duke had broken all Ten Commandments. Ford would go sneaking into Duke’s room looking for bottles.”