When John Wayne FINALLY won an Academy Award for his role in True Grit

7 March 2024, 13:25

True Grit (1969) - trailer for John Wayne’s classic Western

By Mayer Nissim

"If I'd have known that I would have put that patch on thirty-five years earlier."

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Movies are always a matter of taste, and the tastes of the Academy haven't always aligned with those of the masses.

Despite an Oscar being seen as the ultimate seal of approval, the record books are littered with odd decisions by voters (Driving Miss Daisy in 1989, anyone?).

That's led to some of the greatest actors, directors and writers not being recognised for their very best work, and on more than one occasion we've seen artists get their due much, much later than you would have thought.

So Steven Spielberg had to wait until 1994 and Schindler's List for his first Oscar, but at least that was a masterpiece.

After missing out on Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull and many others, it wasn't until 2004's messy The Departed that Martin Scorsese finally got his Academy Award for Best Director.

John Wayne on the set of True Grit
John Wayne on the set of True Grit. Picture: Getty Images

On a similar note, John Wayne only won a single Academy Award in his whole career. That was in 1970, for his role in the previous year's True Grit.

By this point, Wayne was already in the long twilight of a career that had started way back in the mid-1920s with a number of uncredited roles, and kicked off in earnest in 1930 with his first starring role in The Big Trail.

He racked up the roles in pre-WWII low-budget Westerns, before becoming a superstar with John Ford's Stagecoach in 1939.

John Wayne Wins Best Actor: 1970 Oscars

After then he starred in hit after hit after hit, with a focus on war movies and Westerns, including over 20 John Ford films, and pictures from the likes of Howard Hawks, George Sherman and Henry Hathaway.

There was The Searchers, Red River, Rio Bravo, The Quiet Man, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Sands of Iwo Jima and countless others.

But despite packing out theatres and also often winning rave reviews from critics, by the time he was in his early 60s he had picked up only two nods from the Academy.

John Wayne gets the Oscar (and a kiss) from Barbra Streisand
John Wayne gets the Oscar (and a kiss) from Barbra Streisand. Picture: Getty Images

In 1950, he missed out on the Best Actor prize for Sands of Iwo Jima to Broderick Crawford in All the King's Men.

He was actually up for Best Picture in 1960 as producer of The Alamo, which he also starred in and directed, but he missed out to Billy Wilder's The Apartment.

Despite his somewhat iffy political views, Wayne was a powerhouse of an on-screen presence – he called himself a "reactor" rather than actor because of his naturalistic approach to the craft – who defined an era and a genre.

THE ALAMO (1960) | Official Trailer | MGM

And so by 1970, his Oscar was long, long overdue, even if his performance as drunken one-eyed US Marshall Rooster Cogburn wasn't necessarily his greatest work.

There's a fair argument that the 2010 remake starring Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges is the better film, but True Grit is still a very solid movie, not least because of the excellent performance of 'Wichita Lineman' superstar Glen Campbell in a supporting role as young Texas ranger La Boeuf.

Regardless, he was given the gong by the previous year's Best Actress winner Barbra Streisand, who had shared the award with Katharine Hepburn in a shocking tie.

"Wow! If I'd have known that I would have put that patch on thirty-five years earlier," Wayne quipped in his acceptance speech.

Kim Darby, Glen Campbell and John Wayne on the set of True Grit
Kim Darby, Glen Campbell and John Wayne on the set of True Grit. Picture: Getty Images

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm no stranger to this podium. I've come up here and picked up these beautiful golden men before, but always for friends. One night I picked up two: one for Admiral John Ford, one for our beloved Gary Cooper.

"I was very clever and witty that night, the envy of even Bob Hope, but tonight I don't feel very clever or very witty. I feel very grateful, very humble, and all thanks to many, many people."

Wayne continued to act, with his final role being the lead in Don Siegel's The Shootist in 1976. In that film, his character JB Brooks was dying of cancer.

Three years later – and less than a decade after his Oscar – Wayne himself died of the disease at the age of 72.