Saturday, February 01, 2014


Last night on TCM I watched Fonda on Fonda, a recollection of Henry Fonda from family and friends who loved him.  Jane is the narrator and seems a bit wooden in that role.  I know from other interviews she has done that she had enormous psychological issues about the relationship with her dad.  All of that was put in a bottle for this retrospective.  She keeps her distance in this piece and refers to him throughout as Henry.

From those interviews I knew that Henry Fonda was a reserved man in private.  But I didn't understand fully until Fonda on Fonda that this was a consequence of shyness and that in his non-acting life he often didn't express what he was thinking or feeling.  Somehow, in spite of the shyness, he found he liked acting, particularly acting on stage.  It is a terrible thing to generalize from only one observation, but one has a sense that for Fonda the shyness acted as a spur toward excellence in performance.  The general proposition is that many shy people know they have excellence within and are only waiting to find some means for the excellence to be expressed.  It is an interesting hypothesis to entertain.

I would have preferred a greater discussion of his films, and particularly about the relationship with John Ford.  Some of the personal stuff seemed trivial, except for how the family itself thought about it, and didn't help me as a viewer understand the man as a performing artist.  But there was little bit of trivia I found fascinating.  Fonda grew up in Nebraska and it was Marlon Brando's mother who got Fonda started on the stage.  That made this acting business seem a very small circle.  But it also meant that to be excellent as an actor one had to be rooted in the norms of ordinary life, as Fonda was. Nebraska was a better incubator for that than New York City.

I saw Fonda perform in the theater playing the Stage Manager in Our Town.  The notes at the link say that production happened in 1969.  I was fourteen then.  In the movies at the time there was a change underway in how a star actor appeared, with Dustin Hoffman emblematic of the new model, the character actor in the lead role. The Graduate had come out a couple of years earlier and surely I saw that. (But at the time?)  Midnight Cowboy was more or less contemporaneous with that production of Our Town. I knew about it through the Academy Awards.  I don't think I saw it till around the time I was entering college.  Nevertheless, I was slow to embrace the new model, I suppose because I wanted star actors to be my heroes.  Fonda fit that notion to a tee.  Growing up, I thought of him as America's best actor.   Jimmy Stewart was more likeable, but sometimes he seemed overly sentimental.  Fonda's characters were always spot on but more reserved.

Many of Fonda's best pictures have a strong ethical component to them - our entertainment should provide our moral education as well.  I suppose that many people want their entertainment to be escapism, pure and simple.  Leave the ethical education to religious training or family upbringing.  I, for one, loved Fonda's approach, as it made the ethical issues more real.  The Oxbow Incident is one of my favorite pictures.  I think it holds up well even now.  So does Twelve Angry Men and, of course, The Grapes of Wrath.  Twelve Angry Men is particularly relevant now because it shows reason based on evidence engaged with deeply held conviction based on prejudice.  Ed Begley, who also starred with Fonda on stage in Our Town, and particularly Lee J. Cobb are masterful in depicting the latter.  If only our current "debates" showed this sort of engagement rather than each side preferring to preach to the choir.

A few nights ago I started to watch Young Mr. Lincoln, which is also in this mold, though on whether it still holds up for general audiences I'm less sure.  I will watch pretty much anything with Lincoln in the title, unless Vampire is also in the title.  Unfortunately, the DVR was set to record  a different show right about the middle of the movie and at the time I didn't know how to keep watching what I wanted to watch without stopping the recording. (In theory, this is possible. In practice, you have to learn how to do this before it happens in real time.  That particular training still lies ahead of me.) But I was able to get as far to see the scene where Lincoln, a lawyer on his very first case, talks down a mob that aims to lynch his two clients because the mob is sure these young men are guilty of murder.  So the same themes appear in Young Mr. Lincoln, The Oxbow Incident, and Twelve Angry Men, though those themes are set in very different contexts.  A point worth making well is worth making more than once.

There are some Fonda movies that are not in the mold described above.  One of those that gets a mention in Fonda on Fonda is Once Upon a Time in the West, a Spaghetti Western.  Growing up, my favorite was Advise and Consent, with Fonda playing Robert A. Leffingwell, an egghead with a hidden past as a former Lefty (member of the Communist Party) and current nominee to become the next Secretary of State. It is a story full of political intrigue, where hardball politics is depicted as amoral, or worse.  I loved this story too, though I was more attracted to the Walter Pidgeon character.  He plays Senator Robert Munson from Michigan, the Majority Leader, confidant of the President, a true statesman and team player.  Fonda's character may have had a noble side regarding the policies he espoused, but by hiding his past he showed more concern for winning the game he was playing than for doing the right thing. 

Fonda continued acting till very near the end of his life.  On Golden Pond is in some sense a tribute to the rest of his career.  It is also a clearing of the air between Henry and Jane.  At some point past slights need to be forgiven.  It is a lesson all of us should learn about our parents.  As talented as they might have been, they were not perfect and they may have made serious mistakes regarding our welfare.  Those mistakes should not be confounded with a view that they didn't love us.  They did.

For some extroverts, those who are unable to see the world as others with personalities unlike their own do, shyness is taken as a type of criminal behavior, a willful lack of engagement with their fellow humans, where the social obligation dictates otherwise.  Fonda on Fonda shows a different view is better.  Let's give the shy person space to be themselves, even if at times that means he is asocial.  Let the shy person chose the domain for self-expression.  Henry Fonda's life exemplifies the virtues in this more enlightened view. His character is something we, who also have our shy ways, should try to emulate. 

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