Hollywood • Identity Politics • Post • The Left

John Wayne, Frank Capra, and C.S. Lewis—Haters All!

Mean People Suck.”

I first saw that bumper-sticker slogan almost 20 years ago, pinned to the office bulletin board at the newspaper where I worked. It struck me as a little strange, much like what Jon Stewart called a “moment of zen.” Isn’t it mean to tell people they suck? Yet my progressive media colleagues who embraced the slogan certainly didn’t think of themselves as “mean.” They didn’t see themselves as a Mobius strip or a dog chasing its tail either, though such they really may have been.

No, what the journalist who posted that slogan meant was: “Other people suck. The people I disagree with, the ones I disapprove of. They suck. They’re mean. Not like me. I’m not mean. I’m ‘woke.’”

“Woke” hadn’t been coined yet, but when the word finally did appear, it walked right into that “Mean People Suck” meme and made itself at home. We’ve been watching the antics of “woke” people who aren’t “mean” and don’t “suck” for quite a while now. The best way to bring one out is to wear a MAGA hat in public. The results can range from hilarious to obnoxious to frightening.

Another way to bring them out is to criticize the “march of progress.” Commit your thought crime to paper, and you can make the woke wax wroth even from beyond the grave. That’s what John Wayne did in giving an interview to Playboy magazine in 1971. The movie star best known for such classic Westerns as “Stagecoach,” “The Searchers,” and “True Grit” is now known in progressive circles as a bigot, a hater, “a total piece of shit,” because of the sentiments he expressed to Playboy. Sentiments such as:

Movies were once made for the whole family. Now, with the kind of junk the studios are cranking out—and the jacked-up prices they’re charging for the privilege of seeing it—the average family is staying home and watching television. I’m quite sure that within two or three years, Americans will be completely fed up with these perverted films.

“What kind of films do you consider perverted?” the interviewer asks.

Oh, “Easy Rider,” “Midnight Cowboy”—that kind of thing. Wouldn’t you say that the wonderful love of those two men in “Midnight Cowboy,” a story about two fags, qualifies?

Wayne’s comment shows he never actually saw “Midnight Cowboy.” Lucky him. Though the milieu that film depicts is perverted as perverted can be, its two main characters are not “fags.” One is a would-be gigolo from Texas; the other is a lousy grifter from the New York gutter. Their ultimate friendship—especially the way the gigolo, for the grifter’s sake, turns his back on his loathsome career just as it is starting to pay off—is touching, but not touching enough to compensate the viewer for having spent two grimy hours watching what the two of them have been crawling through.

Wayne was correct, however, to point out that audiences were getting “fed up” with movies like “Midnight Cowboy.” As film critic Michael Medved put it in Hollywood vs. America :

The distance the movie business traveled in a few short but disastrous years can be measured by the titles it chose to honor with Oscars as Best Picture of the Year. In 1965, the Academy selected “The Sound of Music.” Four years later, it chose . . .  “Midnight Cowboy.” Is it entirely coincidence that in the year of “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) Hollywood films drew scarcely one-third the number of paying customers who had flocked to the theaters in the year of “The Sound of Music”?

Who was to blame for this sea change? Medved quotes a passage from the memoirs of a “three-time Oscar winner and creator of several of the best-loved motion pictures ever made, [who] walked away from the business at age sixty-four because he refused to adjust to the cynicism of the new order”—the legendary Frank Capra:

The hedonists, the homosexuals, the hemophilic bleeding hearts, the God-haters, the quick-buck artists who substituted shock for talent, all cried: “Shake ’em! Rattle ’em! God is dead. Long live Pleasure! Nudity? Yea! Wife-swapping? Yea! Liberate the world from prudery. Emancipate our films from morality!” . . . There was dancing in the streets among the disciples of lewdness and violence. Sentiment was dead, they cried. And so was Capra, its aging missionary. Viva hard core brutality; Arriba barnyard sex! . . . To hell with the good in man. Dredge up his evil—Shock! Shock!

Harsh words, much harsher than anything John Wayne said in Playboy. So I guess Capra is a hater, too. But what about the Duke’s word, “fags”? That is a genuine slur, though perhaps not quite as hostile and judgmental as calling someone “a total piece of shit” is. (Too bad Wayne didn’t say “queers” instead. Then he could be counted among the wokest of the woke. LBGTQ, after all, has no F, but it does have a Q.)

One clue to whether a man is a hater is how he behaves toward those whose behavior or opinions he disapproves. In 1969, Wayne co-starred with Rock Hudson in a rather forgettable Western, “The Undefeated.” Though Hudson’s homosexuality only became publicly known years later, after he died of AIDS-related illness, it had long been an open secret among his colleagues. Yet that caused him no grief from Wayne.

Here’s what Hudson said about the Duke: “John Wayne was then the Hollywood legend, and I was on screen with him. The guy is an angel. He saved my life back then when no other filmmaker wanted to know me.” And Wayne, an avid chess player who would bring a board to the set for play between takes, said of Hudson: “Who the hell cares if he’s queer? The man plays great chess.”

This is not to say it’s OK to toss slurs at people. Neither is it OK to minimize people by labeling them Neanderthals, knuckle-draggers, troglodytes, dinosaurs, or any of the other dehumanizing epithets cast blithely about by those who like to tell each other, “Mean people suck.” But it seems to me the word from the Playboy interview that really rankles our progressive thinkers, the word that cuts them to the quick, is not the slur. It’s the idea that something like “Midnight Cowboy” could be called “perverted.”

If you Google the word “perversion,” the first definition that comes up is: “The alteration of something from its original course, meaning, or state to a distortion or corruption of what was first intended.” For those who believe—to borrow from another old bumper sticker—“God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” homosexuality would seem to fall within that definition. But you won’t likely hear it described that way today, not in polite company, at least.

I won’t argue here whether homosexuality is perverted or not. For what it’s worth, I’m in the “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” school. In other words, for me the answer is “yes.” That may make me a fool in some people’s eyes, but I’m not fool enough to think I can argue such people into my school. The question I want to explore is this: If you think the answer is “yes,” does that make you a hater?

We’ve already looked at John Wayne and Frank Capra, neither of whom can compete with, say, Fidel Castro when it comes to hating homosexuals. Now let’s look at someone even further removed from the category of “mean people.”

C.S. Lewis, the Oxford and Cambridge scholar and renowned Christian apologist, has been called “one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century.” His Chronicles of Narnia novels alone have sold more than 100 million copies, and thousands of new readers discover him every year.

In his essay “The Poison of Subjectivism,” Lewis defends the universal validity of traditional morality, taking issue with the idea that “the ethical standards of different cultures differ so widely that there is no common tradition at all”:

If a man will go into a library and spend a few days with the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics he will soon discover the massive unanimity of the practical reason in man. From the Babylonian Hymn to Samos, from the Laws of Manu, the Book of the Dead, the Analects, the Stoics, the Platonists, from Australian aborigines and Redskins, he will collect the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery, and falsehood, the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving and impartiality and honesty. He may be a little surprised (I certainly was) to find that precepts of mercy are more frequent than precepts of justice; but he will no longer doubt that there is such a thing as the Law of Nature.

Variations in sexual mores do exist among cultures. But those variations, Lewis insists, are far from absolute. He cites the example of the ancient Greeks, whose sexual practices, as reflected in the writings of Plato, included grown men having it off with adolescent boys. Lewis comments:

It is untrue to say that the Greeks thought sexual perversion innocent. The continual tittering of Plato is really more evidential than the stern prohibition of Aristotle. Men titter thus only about what they regard as, at least, a peccadillo: the jokes about drunkenness in Pickwick, far from proving that the nineteenth-century English thought it innocent, prove the reverse. There is an enormous difference of degree between the Greek view of perversion and the Christian, but there is not opposition.

Most people today, even in gay-friendly America, would deem pederasty a bit worse than a peccadillo. But that particular perversion is unfortunately not unique to the ancient Greeks. Some of today’s Afghan tribesmen have been guilty of it, to the consternation of their American military advisers. Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben, the drillmaster of George Washington’s Continental Army, had fled to America from Europe after being accused there “of having taken familiarities with young boys which the laws forbid and punish severely.” Peter Tchaikovsky had a thing for boys, too—a proclivity that tormented him to the end.

I don’t know if Rock Hudson belongs in such company or not. But late in his life, the AIDS-withered actor posed for a magazine spread in his mansion’s backyard, with creepy statues of naked boys at poolside.

Perversion? I think so.

Those who condemn John Wayne for his Playboy interview are upset about more than just his comments on perverted movies and such. I won’t try to defend the Duke on every score. Lots of people more knowledgeable than I am have already had their say about it. But was Wayne wrong to speak as he did about that one point? I don’t think so.

He followed up his slam on “Midnight Cowboy” with a polite bow to the preoccupation of Playboy readers:

Don’t get me wrong. As far as a man and a woman is concerned, I’m awfully happy there’s a thing called sex. It’s an extra something God gave us.

Count Wayne, then, as among those who view homosexuality as a perversion of something good, “a distortion or corruption” of what God intended for us. Count Lewis in that group, and throw in Capra, too.

Argue with them all you want. But if you call them haters, if you spit on them in the flesh and dishonor them in death, then be warned: People are apt to conclude the hate is coming from you.

Photo Credit: John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images