It takes a real tough guy to know his limitations. John Wayne had romanced dozens of ladies on screen by the time he made Rio Bravo in 1959, but he was finally beginning to feel (and look) his 51 years, and he wasn’t shy about voicing his concern that his days as a romantic lead were over. So how in the world did he wind up paired with then 26-year-old Angie Dickinson? We (and Angie) have director Howard Hawks to thank.
Hawks decided to compensate for the Duke’s declining studliness by amping up the complexity of Dickinson’s character, the saloon girl known only as “Feathers,” in the process cracking the ceiling that had kept women in such limited roles in Westerns. Provocative and bold to a degree that mystifies and unsettles the staid Sheriff Chance (Wayne), Feathers steals all the best lines and all the first kisses–but she’s no beguiling siren. She’s simply as frustrated, shrewd and independent as all the boys in the room, making her more mysterious and baffling to Wayne than any woman he’d ever ridden off into the sunset with before.
Wayne made it clear to Hawks how uncomfortable he was being paired with someone half his age–young enough to have grown up watching his movies–but Dickinson provided the perfect romantic counterbalance, helping to ease Wayne’s transition out of his career as a ladies’ man. It didn’t do her own career any harm either: Rio Bravo rescued Angie Dickinson from her B-movie niche and made her an A-List star in her own right. As Police Woman would reiterate years later, this was one actress audiences liked to see with a gun.
Rio Bravo plays tonight Tuesday, January 22 at 8 p.m. | 7C.