John Wayne’s Leading Ladies – My Top 9

This is a mildly diverting read concerning 9 of the leading ladies we love and remember from co-starring opposite John Wayne.

For a quick video rundown…

The choice is not necessarily restricted to the actresses who appeared with Wayne in his Westerns but inevitably there’s going to be some bias towards that genre.

I’m going to consider the actresses in ascending order of my own personal preference, confident that anyone reading this article will totally agree on who holds the number one spot.

Vera Miles in The Searchers

So in ninth spot, it’s…

9. Vera Miles

Who is the real leading lady in The Searchers? Natalie Wood or Vera Miles? Neither of them plays Wayne’s romantic counterpart in the film, Wood obviously way too young for that, whilst Miles is the object of affection for Jeffrey Bunter’s character, Martin Pawley.

Vera Miles definitely comes into her own, however, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as Hallie, forsaking Wayne as Tom Doniphon for the more reserved, and by dint of having arrived from the East, civilised lawyer Ransom Stoddard, played by James Stewart.

It’s only right at the end of the film that we the audience realise that Hallie did, in fact, love Tom Doniphon all along, taking home on the train the cactus rose that had been placed on Doniphon’s funeral casket.

I’d say this is her finest moment in the three Wayne films she appeared in, her turn as Duke’s husband in Hellfighters just not providing Vera Miles with enough substance for her to make too much of an impression on the film.

Joanne Dru in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

8. Joanne Dru

Wayne’s leading lady in Red River, with Wayne as ruthless trail leader Thomas Dunson offering to sire children with her like a bull mating with a heffer.

Not surprisingly Dru, as pioneer Tess Millay, spurns Dunson’s offer and takes up with Dunson’s orphaned friend Matt Garth instead, played by Montgomery Clift.

My favourite scene in the film with Joanne Dru is when she gets pinioned to a wagon by an arrow through the shoulder but doesn’t let on to anyone. A typically stoic Hawksian woman if there was one. They really don’t make them like that anymore.

In the same year as Red River was released – it was actually filmed in 1946 but not exhibited until 1948 – Joanne Dru turned up in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, sharing a few scenes with Wayne who plays the ageing Captain Nathan Brittles, whilst Dru is the prevaricating love interest of both John Agar and Harry Carey Jr.

She settles for Agar in the end. In my opinion, Carey should have put up more of a fight, something I forgot to mention to him back in 2007.

Marlene Dietrich with John Wayne

7. Marlene Dietrich

It appears to be a matter of public record that Mr Wayne and Miss Dietrich enjoyed a meaningfully lustful relationship for nigh on three years whilst Wayne was married to his first wife, Josephine Saenz.

Dietrich appeared opposite Wayne in three films, Seven Sinners (1941), The Spoilers and Pittsburgh (both 1942). Out of the three films, I’d say The Spoilers is probably the best, mainly because it’s a Western with a good old punch-up between Wayne and Randolph Scott.

These two, along with Dietrich, were reunited in Pittsburgh the same year so I guess the combination of the three of them gave good box office.

Dietrich’s best Western was opposite James Stewart in Destry Rides Again, made back in 1939, but The Spoilers (along with the later Rancho Notorious) comes a close second. And the good thing about The Spoilers is that, unlike the other two films, she’s still breathing by the end of the movie.

Claire Trevor with John Wayne

6. Claire Trevor

Claire Trevor’s turn as lady of the night Dallas in Stagecoach – she was the nominal star of the film – is now somewhat overshadowed by the rising fame of her co-star, a certain John Wayne.

That should not in any way diminish her performance in the film, as well as that of the other actors in Stagecoach such as Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine and Andy Devine. It’s a great ensemble piece with both Wayne and Trevor complementing each other very well.

So well in fact that they starred together in another three films, Dark Command, Allegheny Uprising and The High and the Mighty, for which she received her third Academy Award nomination, winning the Oscar for Key Largo in 1948.

I would say that Claire Trevor was Wayne’s best female co-star up to this point before he finally made it big with audiences after the release of this film, which is enough excuse to include her in this list.

5. Gail Russell

Gail Russell with John Wayne

Gail Russell is another supposedly rumoured off-screen partner of the Dukester, appearing with him in both Angel and the Badman and Wake of the Red Witch.

She comes across very well as the beguilingly innocent Quaker’s daughter in Angel, possessing the acting ability to indicate there was something not so innocent stirring beneath the plethora of petticoats she sported that if the Quaker elders had been aware, would have probably had her thrown out of the movement.

Her performance in Wake of the Red Witch along with her slightly less demur off-the-shoulder costume would appear to confirm this. Out of all of Wayne’s leading ladies considered here, Gail Russell’s personal life is probably the saddest of all, dying of alcoholism at the much too young age of 36.

4. Patricia Neal

Patricia Neal with John Wayne

Next to Katherine Hepburn, Patricia Neal is probably the most award-laden of all Wayne’s female co-stars with Academy, Tony and Global nominations to her name along with a BAFTA for her role opposite Duke in the Preminger war epic In Harm’s Way.

Prior to this film, she appeared as Wayne’s estranged wife in Operation Pacific, giving a convincing performance as a Navy Nurse caught between the attentions of Duke as a submarine commander and Phil Cary as an annoying Navy pilot.

She’s even better as a Navy Nurse – again – as Wayne’s love interest in In Harm’s Way, her BAFTA strangely awarded for Best Actress in a Foreign Film. So there you have it. Back in the 1960s Americans were categorised as foreigners. Who knew?

3. Linda Cristal

I think I’ve secretly been in love with Linda Cristal since, as a seriously late-developing teenager towards the end of the 1960s, I devotedly watched her every week in The High Chaparral.

Linda Cristal in The Alamo

I never could figure out what she saw in her old husband Big John, played by Lief Ericsson, as he was at least 23 years older than her. Just her luck to find herself a few years earlier playing opposite Wayne in The Alamo, with 53 years old Duke – assuming I’ve got my sums right –literally over twice as old as her.

For some strange reason their onscreen relationship still appears to work, although the extended version of The Alamo strongly implies that their characters sleep together, which then starts to strain credulity somewhat – or maybe that’s just a case of cinema envy on my part.

Angie Dickinson with John Wayne in Rio Bravo

She is without doubt, however, one of the most attractive actresses to co-star with Wayne, and I make no apology for placing her in the top 3 of my list on that basis.

2. Angie Dickinson

On the face of it Angie Dickinson is also rather too young to be Wayne’s love interest in Rio Bravo, being just a couple of years older than Linda Cristal at the time, but again the disparity in age between Chance and Feathers doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem.

I put that down mainly to the directing talent of Howard Hawks, who more often than not showcased strong female characters in his films. Lauren Bacall was only 20 when she appeared opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not, yet appeared to come across like a woman in her mid-thirties.

Hawks pulls off the same trick with Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, the relationship between her and Wayne a cause for celebration rather than a questionable liaison between an older man and a younger woman.

There’s a palpable sexual chemistry between the two of them that you rarely witness in other Wayne films, so it comes as no surprise within the context of the story when they both end up in bed together midway through the film.

Maureen O'Hara

It’s good to see Duke still capable at the age of 52 of climbing the stairs and then making love – at that age I could only do one or the other.

1. Maureen O’Hara

As I said at the beginning, no prizes for guessing who occupies the number one slot in John Wayne’s list of leading ladies. Maureen O Hara, once described, appropriately, as ‘illegally beautiful’, was also a very good actress and more than capable of holding her own onscreen opposite Wayne.

The majority of roles she played with Duke were mainly as the estranged wife – Rio Grande, The Wings of Eagles, Big Jake, McLintock – but her role as Mary Kate Dannaher in The Quiet Man is the one we’ll always remember, the sparks that fly from their on-off romance in the film a real joy to behold.

When she sadly passed away in 2015 at the grand old age of 95 it really was the end of an era, as she was one of the last surviving members of John Ford’s eminent stock acting company.

John Wayne & Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man

The films she made with Wayne are always worth watching but her performance in Ford’s How Green Was My Valley is up there with her most famous role in The Quiet Man.I’ll leave the last word on Maureen O Hara to Wayne himself;

“There’s only one woman who has been my friend over the years, and by that I mean a real friend, like a man would be. That woman is Maureen O’Hara. She’s big, lusty, absolutely marvelous—definitely my kind of woman. She’s a great guy. I’ve had many friends, and I prefer the company of men. Except for Maureen O’Hara”.

Photo of author
Steve is a film scholar of note, gaining both an MA in film studies and a Ph.D. for his thesis on the silent films of John Ford. Steve, a scriptwriter and published novelist, provides much of the content you see here and is a dedicated aficionado and longtime fan of John Wayne, John Ford and Western films in general.

4 thoughts on “John Wayne’s Leading Ladies – My Top 9”

  1. You missed 2 of Duke’s leading ladies, Capucine In “North to Alaska” !!!
    She was gorgeous & convincingly held her own with him in dialog & romantic scenes !!! I liked how she kissed his forehead after he passed out under the table !!! Then Ella Raines came close to shooting, knifeing & riding her horse over him in “Tall in the Saddle” before she kissed him !!! She drove him to drink !!! Both great movies with fiesty, calculating, sexy leading ladies !!! They had great chemistry with him & the sparks really flew !!! The kind of women the female audience enjoyed watching & wanted to be in their dreams !!!

  2. There is no better actor or actress than John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. When they passed away they took with them a piece of my heart ❤️. I don’t believe there is any actress or actor that acted as well as they did! Not a man nor woman could hold a match stick to either of them.
    God rest their souls ❤️.


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