Henry Fonda: Inward opposites attract

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CANNES -- Henry Fonda was one of our greatest actors of the subtext. Any decent actor can play the text -- get the villain, win the girl, save the town. Great ones play the subtext, the thing that skulks beneath the surface and tells us what a character really means or feels even when he may say something quite different. A great actor can suggest darkness that lurks within a hero or weakness that dwells within strength. Such an actor was Henry Fonda, who is receiving a well-deserved tribute this year at the Festival de Cannes.

Like his best friend, James Stewart, Fonda was uniquely American. He seldom played any other nationality. He embraced a flexibility and a craftiness that saw him through the damnedest scrapes. He embraced honesty, decency and openness to life. Yet there was always a sense of the contrary within him, a dark side if you will, something unknowable to the moviegoer. There was always that subtext in his best performances on screen, television or the stage.

The author John Steinbeck, who created Fonda's most memorable screen character, Tom Joad, in his novel "The Grapes of Wrath," published a tribute to the actor in 1974. In it, he touched on this inner conflict within Fonda: "I suppose one human never really knows much about another. My impressions of Hank are of a man reaching but unreachable, gentle but capable of sudden wild and dangerous violence, sharply critical of others but equally self-critical, caged and fighting the bars but timid of the light, viciously opposed to external restraint, imposing an iron slavery on himself. His face is a picture of opposites in conflict."

Let's repeat that: His face is a picture of opposites in conflict. What a perfect description of Fonda's great art, his ability to play the text and its subtext simultaneously.

Sometimes he had directors smart enough to assist in communicating these other meanings. In John Ford's great western "My Darling Clementine," where Fonda played that ultimate Western hero, Wyatt Earp, Ford had him repeatedly stare at himself in mirrors and shop windows: the frontier marshal as hero and self-conscious media celebrity as well.

Other times he was what one critic called "Hollywood's Statue of Liberty" -- playing well-meaning, Kennedyesque politicians in "Advise and Consent," "The Best Man" and "Fail-Safe"; a liberal Supreme Court justice in the play "First Monday in October"; or Admiral Nimitz in the bombastic "Midway."

A certain flintiness in his own personality may have added depth to his best performances. There was a coldness to him. He married five times and was often estranged from his children during their early years. His biographer Howard Teichmann quoted one of the actor's former wives, Susan Blanchard, as saying, "I think there's a scream inside Hank that's never been screamed, and there's a laugh that's never been laughed."

Reports of offscreen conflicts with directors surfaced from time to time. King Vidor is one who acknowledged arguments with Fonda during the making of "War and Peace." (Perhaps Fonda, the quintessential American common man, didn't cotton to playing a Russian aristocrat.)

In his book "On Film Making," Vidor wrote of his relationship with Fonda: "On occasion, I arranged to accompany him on the hour's ride to and from the location site in order to get to know him better, but I never did. Something going on here that takes a better psychoanalyst than I am to fathom. However, some sort of hang-up usually makes for a more interesting performance on the screen."

Exactly.

Critics usually define stardom in terms of an actor being larger than life. Fonda, despite the mythic appeal of a Tom Joad, a Clarence Darrow or an Abe Lincoln, settled for being as large as life. He revealed himself through his characters.

A lanky, handsome lad from Omaha, Neb., Fonda was born in 1905, the same year that saw the appearance of the nickelodeon. He could play either side of the law -- Frank James in "The Return of Frank James" or Wyatt Earp or even a guy wrongly accused in "The Wrong Man" -- yet a basic honesty and decency shone through. As years went by, other qualities were sensed -- a stubborn, moody nature and a cool reserve. He dropped his good-guy persona when it came time to play older men: the querulous, old Texas colonel rolling around the stage in "The Oldest Living Graduate" and the cantankerous college professor in the shamelessly sentimental "On Golden Pond."

His major brush with absolute villainy came as a ruthless assassin in Sergio Leone's terrific wide-screen Western "Once Upon a Time in the West." In his first appearance, he slaughters an entire family. Then he forces himself sexually on a beautiful widow, played by Claudia Cardinale. It's a great performance, but Fonda more or less dismissed the picture. Perhaps playing villainy so on the nose went against his actor's nature: Not enough subtext.

Fonda possessed comedic flair, but Hollywood seldom took advantage of this. His best comedy work occurred early in his career, in 1941, in Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve," which lead the critic Andrew Sarris to call him "the funniest deadpan comedian since Buster Keaton."

He developed an image of social consciousness in films such as "Immortal Sergeant" and "The Ox-Bow Incident" and after World War II in plays such as "Mister Roberts" and "The Caine Mutiny." (He appeared in the 1955 film version of the former but not in the filmization of the latter.) He sometime was the defender of the dispossessed or wrongly accused. He personally brought Reginald Rose's original television drama, "12 Angry Men," to the screen. It was the only film he ever produced.

"What is so fascinating to me about Fonda as a talent," that film's director Sidney Lumet told Teichmann, "is I don't think if you took a stick and beat him he could do anything false, he's incapable. As a performer, as a man, he's pure. He's like a barometer of truth on the set. Fonda has the inner resources to make the lines deeply true. Great actor. I don't use that term often."

Certain roles hinted at less sympathetic character traits. He was a cowardly priest in "The Fugitive," a pathological glory-seeker in "Fort Apache" and an adulterous husband in "Ash Wednesday." One can only bemoan that he never got to play one of the great theatrical roles that was actually written for him -- the bitter, weak, alcoholic English professor in Edward Albee's landmark play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" His agent told Albee that Fonda was interested. When Fonda found out, he fired the agent.

But as Steinbeck so sagely observed, his face conveyed a basic honesty and conviction that worked in contrast to these darker sides to his roles. Fonda himself once said, "If there is something in my eyes, a kind of honesty in the face, then I guess you could say that's the man I'd like to be, the man I want to be."

For generations of moviegoers, he was that man.
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