Why John Wayne Once Entered a Legal Battle Over ‘True Grit’

by Craig Garrett
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John Wayne only won a single Academy Award during his legendary career, and the Duke wanted to make sure its value was recognized. The film in question, of course, is 1969’s True Grit. Based on Charles Portis’ novel of the same name, Wayne plays a tough, drunken one-eyed U.S. Marshal. He teams with a Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell) and a young woman (Kim Darby) to find the killer of her father.

Though a drama, True Grit has a lot of wit and light-hearted moments. In many ways, it feels like a western from an earlier era. The film provided a change of pace for movie audiences in the late 1960s, who were enduring a lot of gritty realism at the movies. Following the film’s debut, there was talk that John Wayne might receive his first Academy Award for Best Actor.

Paramount Pictures was in a rush to sell the film’s television rights as soon as possible, despite Wayne’s Oscar buzz and the critical acclaim for True Grit. This led to a courtroom battle with Wayne leading the charge against the studio. Along with critical acclaim, the film did great numbers at the box office. Paramount was quick to capitalize on True Grit‘s popularity. The sale of the television rights to True Grit, along with 24 other films for $15 million, took place before the film had ended its run in theaters.

How John Wayne used his only Oscar in court

Producers and John Wayne took issue with the sale. They felt like the critical acclaim alone should earn them more money for the TV rights sale. It was also thought that winning an Oscar might increase the value of the film’s TV rights. They even personally appealed to Paramount before taking any legal action. However, their pleas fell on deaf ears, and the studio went forward with the deal. This forced Wayne and his producing partners to go forward with suing the studio.

In June of 1970, John Wayne won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in True Grit. The award proved beyond a doubt that the film was more valuable than the studio had previously said. The court ruled that Wayne’s Academy Award helped True Grit become far more valuable, and The Duke and his partners were compensated by Paramount much more than previously.

In retrospect, it’s understandable that John Wayne may have been sensitive to the studio overlooking his Oscar potential. By 1969, the veteran actor had already been overlooked by the Academy Awards many times. He may have felt the studio was taking his acting ability for granted. True Grit also established an aging character type that would dominate the last chapter of his career.

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