I watch the Academy Awards with friends. Brokeback Mountain is nominated in several categories, and gay cowboy jokes are sprinkled through the opening of the ceremony. Jon Stewart, the host, introduces a montage — film clips that can be taken as sexually ambiguous, featuring cowboys of past Westerns taking off their coats, their chaps, opening their vests for the showdown; handling and caressing their guns. Then, near the end of the montage, they show a shocked and terrified frontier newspaperman as John Wayne in The Shootist inserts an immense Colt .45 into my mouth. (All I remember about that scene was trying to keep my teeth from getting broken.) My reaction to having a large, metaphorical penis stuck in my mouth in front of hundreds of millions of people on Academy Award night is that I’m thrilled. It’s the largest audience I’ve ever played to.
About two weeks after that scene was filmed, I arrive in Carson City, Nevada, to do more work on the movie and find out that Wayne has been feeling worse than a little ill. He’s been in the hospital with pneumonia for several days. “If shooting lasts much longer,” the wardrobe guy confides, “he may not make it.”
But I know better. I live in this culture. He’s John Wayne.
My last scene with him is an exterior. It’s the continuation of the gun-in-my-mouth scene.
He’s shaky. When he hits me with his pistol hand on the back of my neck, he also hits me with the pistol. After we’re wrapped for the day, I go to the hospital where they put two stitches in the back of my head.
Two weeks later, I’m on the Warner Brothers lot. I have one last scene with Harry Morgan. It’s early in the morning, at least a couple of hours before I’ll be shooting with Harry. I’m alone on an idle backlot street, sitting in a canvas chair with my name stenciled on it. I’m watching some extras at the end of the street, just sitting around, staring. One of them is in a telephone booth. Others are lined up, waiting to make their calls. They’re spending these moments of (what seems to me) their virtually vacant today — trying to get themselves booked for a vacant tomorrow.
I hear a familiar voice, behind me.
“Did you know [director Don] Siegel used a double for me while I was sick?”
I swivel my head around and look up dumbly at John Wayne. I can’t make myself say a word. People come to Wayne, not the other way around.
“A couple long shots in this thing are going to show some other guy being J.B. Books.”
He’s remembered the pistol slap and is telling me he wasn’t himself that day.
“Anyway,” he growls at me, “sorry about that.” He briefly directs his gaze toward the back of my head. “I only ever did that once before.”
He shows me a barely perceptible shoulder shrug, turns, and with his distinctive hitchy saunter, moves off toward his trailer.
I should have saved those stitches. I wonder what they’d bring on eBay?
Sometime after I’ve shot that exterior outside of the widow’s house (the widow is Bacall’s part) in Carson City I run into Ronnie Howard at a blackjack table in the Orchard Casino in Carson City. He’s charming and affable and we chat about not much of anything. Then, out of nowhere, I’m surprised and gratified when he promises me that if he should ever have any success as a director, he will use me in all his films.
I still have a five-dollar chip from that casino. It’s probably worth five dollars today.
Cognitive dissonance is the basis of most good acting. It means that you come to believe what you find yourself doing. You take a job working for a political party, and you come to believe in the cause. You are an actor playing love scenes, and you find yourself falling in love with the actress you’re playing opposite. You are in an easy chair, in a warm pool of light. The rest of the house is in darkness. You’re reading an especially scary mystery novel. You hear a noise from somewhere upstairs. You get up. You move slowly to the bottom of the stairway. You look up. Your anxiety builds. You hear the noise again. It sounds less like the squeaking you originally would have called it and more like moaning. You start up the stairs.
If you are any good, you should now be literally terrified.
If you hang around Hollywood long enough, cognitive dissonance becomes your genetic instruction. Your psyche gets bent into the shape of your eight-by-ten.
At first you say, “Not me.”
I was given a sobriety test by the side of the road early one morning in Beverly Hills. When I was called on to say my ABCs, I got hung up around P or Q and failed. And I was sober. It was the pressure of the moment. It was real life that was the problem — my instinctive cognitive dissonance. It’s a great acting tool. It can also work against you.
When I was ten years old, I used to play with a boy named Dixie Thorpe. He was nine. I have no idea where he got that name. I don’t think his family was from the South. One day, Dixie’s mother took us to Crispell Lake, one of the hundred or more swimmable lakes that pepper Jackson County, Michigan. Crispell was about a half mile across, and the area around it hadn’t been built up much. We were going to swim at the small county park.
Dixie changed into his bathing suit first and got down to the edge of the lake before I did. As I came out of the bathhouse, I saw a group of four or five boys in the water around the end of the swimming dock. Dixie and I didn’t know these kids well. They went to a different grade school. They were a little older than us and the few times we’d run into them, they’d always harassed us with preadolescent taunting for no other reason than they could, and because each of them wanted to prove to his buddies that he was a tough guy.
Dixie had never been to this lake before and wasn’t a strong swimmer, but I was. It was a pretty shallow lake, so no one seemed to be worried. I was almost down to the water when Dixie reached the end of the dock. I saw him look hesitantly down, apparently working up the courage to go in. The boys standing in the water jeered and yelled at him, “Dive in, pantywaist. What are you scared of?”
Dixie was a gutsy kid. He wasn’t scared of anybody. I liked that about him. It made me feel gutsy, too; confident, just like Dixie.
As I reached the lake, he backed up a few steps. The boys, standing shoulder deep in the water, continued to goad him.
I felt something leaden in the pit of my stomach. I ran out onto the dock, yelling, “Dixie! Don’t!”
But by then he was sprinting full tilt toward the water. He threw himself off, head first, launching himself into an awkward jackknife dive.
He seemed to hang in the air forever.
He hung on in the hospital for a week before he died. I never saw him again.
The boys had been standing on their knees.
Whatever punishment they got came from their parents. However much it was, it was surely not as much as they’ve had to live with their whole lives.
I should have seen what might happen to him before I did. I didn’t feel guilty — not exactly. I suppose the right word is angry. I was older than Dixie. I’d been swimming at that park before. I knew how shallow the water was. I shouldn’t have let it happen.
For a while, I tried to shut him out of my mind, to forget he’d ever existed. But it didn’t work. In a sense, I’ve seen him grow up. At every crossroad of my life, I’ve imagined the benchmark moments that never happened to Dixie. In some small way it feels as if I’ve looked at the world through Dixie’s eyes.
About twenty years ago, the anger started to fade. At the same time, I feel Dixie’s presence more than ever. He doesn’t speak to me, but he has quietly forgiven me.
Maybe guilt is the right word.
Anyway, whenever I do something that feels like it’s the decent thing to do, or the kind thing, he sort of pats me on the back. It’s hard to explain.
Every theatre goes dark sometime. There are always other stages, other shows.
Not for Dixie.
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