Critic's Appreciation: A Look Back at Peter Fonda's Career
In the wake of the 'Easy Rider' actor's death earlier this month, The Hollywood Reporter reflects on his screen work that made him a "compelling screen presence right to the end."
Peter Fonda was a master of keeping a cool head when all around were losing theirs. Despite his Hollywood royalty background, he began and ended his career in modestly budgeted cult movies, the kind of biography that says more about dedication to noble ideals than about thwarted superstar ambitions. Even in his most left-field roles, Fonda remained a soulful, thoughtful, compelling screen presence right to the end.
Of course, Fonda's iconic breakthrough came in Dennis Hopper's landmark hippie-biker Western Easy Rider (1969). In a movie seething with volcanic egos and explosive tempers, it fell to Fonda to encapsulate the story's elegiac message with elegant understatement. “We blew it,” his Captain America character says wistfully. Arriving just as the utopian flower-power dream began to curdle into darkness and violence, this poetic prophecy still resonates down the ages, from Woodstock and Altamont to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Fonda was the heart and soul of Easy Rider.
The box office success of Easy Rider gave major career boosts to an entire youthful generation of indie auteur filmmakers, Fonda included. His directing debut The Hired Hand (1971) remains an absorbing and underrated anti-Western, with Fonda quietly magnetic as a high plains drifter who returns to the wife he abandoned years earlier. He also scored a shallow but fun box office hit starring opposite Susan George in John Hough's gleefully nihilistic car-chase movie Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974).
Fonda's cult reputation arguably became more burden than blessing in later years, when he was frequently cast more for his counterculture baggage than for his acting skills. Even so, his finest performances made inspired use of these self-referential echoes, most notably his deliciously sleazy portrayal of veteran L.A. record producer Terry Valentine in Steven Soderbergh's stylish, time-jumping revenge thriller The Limey (1999).
Crucially, Fonda transcended typecasting restrictions with his mature, Oscar-nominated star turn in Ulee's Gold (1997), a much-loved Sundance gem from director Victor Nuñez, in which he played a widowed Florida beekeeper fighting to protect his troubled family from violent criminals. Fonda later confessed his poised, dignified performance was partly modeled on his own father Henry. "Ulee is the best character I've ever read," he claimed, "the kind of role you pay money to do."
Ironically, Fonda was beaten at the Academy Awards by his old Easy Rider comrade Jack Nicholson, who starred in the mainstream comic tear-jerker As Good as It Gets. Fonda may have mostly missed out on the big-league perks of major prizes and mega paychecks, but he was perhaps the last of that entire Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation to keep the faith in low-key, left-field, nuanced indie cinema. A steadfast and subtle screen presence right to the final curtain, he never blew it.