In her long and celebrated career, the North Dakota-born actress stood toe-to-toe on screen with the biggest leading men of the day — names like Frank Sinatra, Lee Marvin, Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum and Rock Hudson. But her first splash was perhaps her biggest. Dickinson became a marquee name when she co-starred with John Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan and Ricky Nelson in Howard Hawks’ 1959 Western classic, Rio Bravo.
Dickinson will be on hand Thursday at the Austin Film Society’s annual Texas Film Hall of Fame Award induction ceremony at the ACL Live’s Moody Theater to accept the Star of Texas award on behalf of gambling of the film.As “Feathers,” the traveling lady who excites John Wayne’s attention (in more ways than one), Dickinson excelled in a role that called for her to face down the Duke — the biggest star in the world at that point — with a subtle combination of flirtation, comedy, romance and resolve.
A tall order for a woman who’d only been in the business for four years at that point. Dickinson continued to act on film and television (where her mid-70s hit series Police Woman was the first hour-long drama to star a female lead) for the next half-century.CultureMap spoke with the actress about her early roles, her future projects and the women she’s watching now.
CM: You were in town last April to screen Rio Bravo at the Paramount Theater as part of TCM’s “Road To Hollywood” series. Are you looking forward to coming back?AD: It’s a terrific night. And I did not realize that it was such a beautiful town. I don’t know what I expected, maybe Dallas. Not that there’s anything wrong with Dallas. But when I flew in, I said, oh my God, this is a gorgeous town. I’ve got a couple of great friends there and they just love it. It’s a great university town, too.
CM: Why does Rio Bravo hold up so well these many years later?: AD: Number One, John Wayne. It’s one of the roles where he is so different, in that he’s, how can we say, adorable? He’s not defending the fort, so to speak. I think it’s a side of him we didn’t see in a lot of his movies. He’s enjoying this young woman. And while he’s enchanted with her, he’s also adorable with Walter Brennan. And he’s charming and loving with Dean Martin, and with Ricky Nelson. So we see a warmth and a cuteness about him that we don’t see in many of his other movies.
CM: One also doesn’t always see a John Wayne movie where he confronts a strong female character. How did you two create that rapport?AD: Oh, it was in the writing. The writing is not only underrated but ignored in this movie, because it looks so natural. You forget those words were all written (by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett). It was romantic. Billy Wilder called Rio Bravo a suspense movie, but the suspense was also there in the romance.
CM: In life and in your characters, there was a big age difference between you and Wayne. Was it hard to convey that onscreen romance credibly?AD: No, it never entered my mind. It just didn’t occur to any of us. I think it was a maturity that we all had, that what was most important. The age didn’t matter because we were all mature people. I was never an ingénue.