John Ford (1894 – 1973):
“It’s easier to get an actor to be a cowboy than to get a cowboy to be an actor.”
In a year filled with great performances in small role, one of my favorite cameos of 2022 was the great filmmaker David Lynch as legendary director John Ford in Steven Spielberg’s touching ode to movies, The Fablemans. The Spielberg stand-in charcter, Sammy, has a network executive invite him to meet Ford, who offers Sammy some pointers to Sammy about framing a shot.
Why is your writer choosing a straight man who made macho movies as the subject of a February 1st entry for a daily column celebrating LGBTQ figures, their icons, and their allies? Could he make that work? Stick with me here.
Ford’s career spanned more than 50 years, directing more than 140 films. He is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential film-makers of his generation. His work was held in highest regard by his colleagues and film critics. He is most noted for his Westerns, of course, but too often he seems to only be considered “an artist” when he was working in other genres. Ford won a total of six Academy Awards, four of them were for Best Director, none of them Westerns: The Informer (1935), The Grapes Of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952). His four Oscars for Best Director remain a record.
Ford was so identified with his Western films and his evocative use of images and powerful vistas of the American West that Orson Welles said that other filmmakers were reluctant to take on the genre for fear of accusations of plagiarism.
Ford had an intense personality filled with idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. Beginning in the early 1930s, he always wore dark glasses and a patch over his left eye, which was only partly to protect his delicate eyesight. He always had music played on the set and he would always break for tea at mid-afternoon every day during filming. He discouraged chatter and swearing on the set. He never drank during the making of a film, but when a production wrapped, he would often lock himself in his office, wrapped only in a sheet, and go on drinking binge for several days, followed by his usual contrition and a vow to give up drinking. He was very sensitive to criticism. He rarely attended premieres or award ceremonies, although his Oscars and other awards were proudly displayed in his home.
Ford was highly intelligent, erudite, sensitive and sentimental, but he cultivated the image of, as he put it: “a tough, two-fisted, hard-drinking Irish sonofabitch“.
Ford was known for his discipline and efficiency while filming. He was extremely tough on his actors. Any actor foolish enough to demand star treatment would receive the full force of his scorn and sarcasm. He is often noted for being the only man who could make John Wayne cry.
Because of his long association with Wayne, James Stewart, and Maureen O’Hara, you might assume Ford was a Republican, but you would assume wrong; Ford was a solid progressive, and a major supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Ford pushed back against McCarthyism in Hollywood. A faction of the Directors Guild Of America (DGA), led by Cecil B. DeMille, tried to make it mandatory for every member to sign a loyalty oath. A whispering campaign was being conducted against screenwriter/director Joseph Mankiewicz, then President of the Guild, alleging he had communist sympathies. At a crucial meeting of the Guild, DeMille’s faction spoke for four hours until Ford spoke against DeMille and proposed a vote of confidence in Mankiewicz, which was passed. Ford said:
“My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns. I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B. DeMille and he certainly knows how to give it to them… But, I don’t like you, C.B. I don’t like what you stand for and I don’t like what you’ve been saying here tonight.”
Ford was rumored to be bisexual. In her memoir, ‘Tis Herself (2004), his favorite actor, Maureen O’Hara, writes about catching Ford kissing a famous male star (whom she did not name) in his office at Columbia Studios.
Ten Best Ford Films:
The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
The Grapes Of Wrath (1940)
My Darling Clementine (1946)
The Quiet Man (1952)
Mister Roberts (1955)
The Searchers (1956)
Sergeant Rutledge (1960)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)