TALKING WITH SCOTT EYMAN
Although Scott Eyman already had books about director Ernst Lubitsch and actress Mary Pickford to his credit, he approached the subject of John Ford with some trepidation. “I’d always liked his movies but, I mean, it’s the white whale,” he says. “I didn’t know if I was capable of writing a life that size, a career of that dimension.
“He’s unusual in that, unlike most directors, he made great films at every stage of his career,” Eyman continues. “Most directors have a bell-shaped curve; there’s a rise to when they’re 30, 45 years old; and there’s a slow and gradual descent to when they’re in their sixties, like writers. But Ford, although there was a descent, he did manage to make a couple of really first-rate movies even when he was an old man.”
Although a much-admired director, Ford was a less-than-admirable human being, who gained a reputation for often appalling behavior. Eyman says Ford was a “needler,” and the usual objects of his abuse were actors, especially John Wayne. “He always had this prejudice against actors, that it wasn’t a fit way for a grown man to make a living. I’m sure he was projecting because I think there was a great deal of conflict within him that making movies wasn’t any way for a grown man to make a living either.”
Why, then, did many actors work for Ford in movie after movie? “On one level there was the fact that you were doing something worthwhile, that even if he was making your life something of a living hell on a daily basis, there was a really good chance that you were going to be in a remarkable movie,” Eyman says. “Let’s not overlook that. Secondly, he paid well. He didn’t attempt to beat people down on price, he always paid whatever the going rate was. And thirdly, he had a way . . .” Eyman pauses. “I don’t know, I must have talked to 110, 115 people for the book and I could only really find two or three people who disliked him. He didn’t act any differently with them than he had with anybody else; they were simply as capable of holding a grudge as he was.”