John Wayne in Hot Pantsby John Calendo
No, we didn’t use Photoshop on this picture.
That really is John Wayne — in hot pants.
John Wayne, who was for generations the archetype of rugged cowboy manhood. Broad shouldered. Self-contained. All pensive, wounded looks and a slow-to-anger, two-fisted approach to solving problems.
During the late days of the American Empire, he was “the ugly American” as photogenic movie star, a world conqueror with shameful face, at home as much on the Sagebush Trail as on the Sands of Iwo Jima — two typically iconic titles of his America-Myth building movies.
And yet, there he is, at right, in a not-ready-for-icon-worship private moment.
Exactly how many things are blowing our mind about this photo? Let us count the ways. Not merely the super-tight hot pants, but the super-tight hot pants with the cowboy hat.
Then there’s the little issue about the man-bag — man-bag! — oxygen, please. This is 1952! That’s when the photo was taken, in Acapulco. Not even the dizziest bottle-blonde chorusboy, staggering about drunkenly on a gay holiday in Capri, French poodle in beach bag, would be this gay or this proud.
But wait, as Bette Davis says in All About Eve, it gets better!
Mr. True Grit, Mr. Who’s Your Daddy, Mr. Hollywood Republican (whose movies were used to sell the Vietnam war, among other doubtful conflicts) is smoking a cigarette with the sort of anxious self-involvement we usually associate with women on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
We don’t know about you but our gaydar is ringing off the hook right now. We are waking the whole neighborhood. We are buzzing. We are fizzing. We are blinking like a Vegas slot machine in one of the whorey-er Glitter Gulch casinos.
Yet we have no illusions about whose team Marion (Wayne’s real first name) was batting for. By all accounts, ole Duke was a straight-shooter with a weakness for Latina spitfires (his three wives were all Spanish speaking).
He just had worked in Hollywood most of his life. He worked for and with homosexuals, and so, as the top photo suggests, one of the benefits of such daily contact was that John Wayne — even John Wayne — was cool with his feminine side.
Manly enough to be girly. And speaking of girly, at this point we must point out the girl slippers on John’s surprisingly petite feet, on his surprisingly slender legs that would not be out of place at the Follies Berger, let alone Iwo Jima.
Perhaps the “queer scholars” get it right when they posit that men who make a living being photographed, lit and made-up for the camera have no problems accepting the traditional female role of being the apple of everyoneâ€™s eye. (A topic Nightcharm explored in The Discrete Charm of Half-Dressed Men.)
Certainly there is something magical about our top photo: The clash — or at least it should be a clash — of the hard granite masculinity we are expecting from this iconic Man and the softer, smaller reality, the human availability of the body on display, the almost balletic position of the feet at a right angle. Never before has a still of John Wayne seemed so human and touchable.
Unexpectedly, he is showing no basket. His shorts are so tight they are, in effect, gaffing him. In fact if we didn’t know better, we’d think we had just got off the bus in Camel Toe City.
Why so tight? In the words of our great poet laureate James Brown: “‘Cause a woman got to use what she got … To get just what she wants, hey! … Hot pants — uh! smokin’!”
Here then is your Diane Arbus moment for the week.
Let it serve for a more profound meditation on what it is to be human, how much of manliness is a sales job, and how the human will always give the truth away — even when it’s cast in the iron mold of an icon.
Want more SPY — the 80’s smartest, sassiest satirical magazine? You’re in luck.Out this week from Miramax Books, SPY: The Funny Years, compiled by the mag’s original editors Kurt Andersen, Graydon Carter, George Kalogerakis.