In the later years of his career, John Wayne said he’d relegated himself to playing “John Wayne.” Producers seemed only interested in seeing him play the unstoppable, white-hat tough guy. Wayne wasn’t unhappy, per se, but they weren’t what he was looking for. Then came along True Grit.
Rooster Cogburn is almost the anti-late-career John Wayne character. He’s a fat drunk whose moral compass has lost its true north. He’s about short fixes and long drinking spells. But he evolves to finds that he still has compassion and strength and grit somewhere deep inside of him. He’ll do whatever he can to help a little girl find justice.
In a revealing profile with Roger Ebert shortly after True Grit was released in 1969, Wayne said he was happy about the change of pace.
“It’s sure as hell my first decent role in 20 years,” he said, “and my first chance to play a character role instead of John Wayne. Ordinarily they just stand me there and run everybody up against me.”
He’d tried to buy the rights to the book the movie was based on, but another producer outbid him. Though, he still got the desired outcome. He got a character that was closer to his roles in films like The Searchers or Sands of Iwo Jima.
“You get something of that in the character of Rooster,” he said. “Well, they say he’s not like what I’ve done before, and I even say that, but he does have facets of the John Wayne character, huh? I think he does.”
Critics consider the role one of his finest. And it would help redefine the Western genre. Something John Wayne had done many times earlier in his career.
John Wayne Had Given Up on Winning an Oscar
John Wayne was nominated for an Oscar for The Sands of Iwo Jima in 1949. But he lost to Broderick Crawford for All the King’s Men. Twenty years later, he said he had basically stopped caring if he won one. Even though, he was the early front runner for his portrayal of the eye-patch-wearing Cogburn in True Grit.
Win or lose, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t proven his abilities as an actor time and again.
“Well, whether or not I win an Oscar, I’m proud of the performance,” Wayne told Roger Ebert. “I’d be pleased to win one, of course, although I imagine these things mean more to the public than to us. There are a lot of old standbys who don’t have one. That comedian… what the hell is his name? Gary Grant. He never won one, and he’s been a mainstay of this business.”
Wayne did win his Oscar for the role.
In his acceptance speech, as he wiped away tears of joy, he joked “if I’d known that, I would have put that patch on 35 years earlier.”