Friday, May 13, 2022

#2,753. The Shootist (1976) - John Wayne in the 1970s


1976’s The Shootist is notable because it features John Wayne’s final film role, and is quite fitting in that the legendary actor plays an aging western gunman who discovers he is dying of cancer (Wayne himself was suffering from cancer at the time).

Wayne is J.B. Books, who recently learned he has terminal cancer. Advised to take it easy by his good friend Doctor Hostetler (James Stewart), Books settles in Carson City, Nevada, renting a room from recent widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), who lives with her son Gillom (Ron Howard) and several other tenants.

Though Bond is none too happy to discover she has a famous gunfighter living under her roof, Gillom quickly befriends Books, and does what he can to help the dying legend with his final wish: to go out in a blaze of glory!

The opening images of The Shootist are just about perfect: a western landscape, in stunning black and white. Using footage from previous John Wayne movies like Red River and Rio Bravo, director Don Siegel gives us his lead character’s backstory (narrated by Ron Howard), establishing Books’ reputation as a shootist. From there, we discover right off the bat that J.B. Books is still a force to be reckoned with when he out-draws a potential thief!

Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard are both superb as the mother and son who welcome Books into their home. Also solid in support are some of Wayne’s co-stars from his Hollywood heyday; James Stewart, who was with Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, plays Doc Hostetler, who has the unenviable task of confirming a previous diagnosis that his pal Books is dying. Harry Morgan, who appeared alongside Wayne in a key scene in How the West Was Won, plays Carson City’s marshal, who isn’t exactly heartbroken to discover his newest “citizen” is critically ill (Morgan’s glee at Books’ misfortune borders on comedy). In addition, there’s Richard Boone (The Alamo) as a former adversary of Books’ just itching to be the one to end his life; and John Carradine (Stagecoach) as an opportunistic undertaker.

But The Shootist is all about John Wayne, and he is outstanding as the lead, delivering an understated performance as a man past his prime who nonetheless commands respect, and maintains strength and dignity throughout. In one very fun scene, Books kicks the ass (literally) of an exploitative reporter (Rick Lenz) who wants to write an expose of his life; and the moments when he and Bacall’s character butt heads, only to develop a mutual respect for one another, are a definite highlight.

Bacall was nominated for a BAFTA award as Best Lead Actress, while Ron Howard received a nod from the Golden Globes for his supporting role in the film. Both nominations were well-deserved, but The Shootist is John Wayne’s movie, and he delivers a performance that ranks right up there with his turns in Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers.

How fitting that in his final performance, Wayne played a man very much like himself: an icon from a bygone era who knows the end is coming, and is going to go out on his own terms. The Shootist is a movie to treasure.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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