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Summer 2013

Acting Beneath the Skin

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Steve Vineberg

“He seems smarter than Cooper, more virtuous than Gable, more melancholy than McCrea, more elusive than Tracy. Viewers who haven’t seen anything quite like him before, who lack better words to describe it, call it ‘modest,’ ‘honest,’ ‘simple.’ But how do we describe simplicity in a way that does justice to its complexity?”
—Devin McKinney, The Man Who Saw a Ghost



The Man Who Saw a Ghost:
The Life and Work of Henry Fonda
by Devin McKinney.
St. Martin’s Press, 2012,
$29.99 cloth.




Throughout a career that spanned about half a century, Henry Fonda was such an easy, relaxed camera presence that you could make the mistake of thinking he wasn’t acting at all, if it weren’t for the way his best performances live on in your head: the comic ones (The Moon’s Our Home and The Lady Eve) because of his loping, sometimes stormy-browed, occasionally pixilated charm, and the serious ones (You Only Live Once, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Ox-Bow Incident, My Darling Clementine) because of a haunted interaction with what acting teachers call the given circumstances of the material. It’s useful to think of Fonda in contrast to two other American movie stars who are superficially like him. Like Spencer Tracy, the Nebraska-born Fonda has a folksy quality that, paired with his Remington-print sculpted handsomeness, made him ideal for westerns and for playing Tom Joad in Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, the role with which he’s still most deeply associated. And Fonda is just as deserving of the compliment famously paid to Tracy, that you never catch him acting. But Tracy could be dull and got duller as the years passed, and eventually that just-folks simplicity began to look fake; Fonda made a lot of mediocre and even terrible movies, but he never lost his authenticity. Like Gregory Peck, he was identified with liberal causes and often played reasoning liberals (and occasionally reasoning presidents) whose consciences were at the core of the movies in which they appeared. But Peck’s air of unerring rectitude could make him seem preachy even when his dialogue didn’t, and often it substituted for true acting. Viewers fell in love with Peck because they confused him with Atticus Finch, the role he won the Oscar for playing in To Kill a Mockingbird; but he was less an actor than a poster boy for liberal ideas, and so on the rare occasions when he ventured into darker regions, as Captain Ahab in John Huston’s film of Moby Dick or as a Nazi in The Boys from Brazil, he seemed ridiculously miscast. Fonda could slip into that moral and psychological darkness as effortlessly as he could play immensely likable men like Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine. He almost always came across as complicated.

Devin McKinney, the author of a major new examination of Fonda, refers to that haunted quality in the title of his book, The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda. McKinney suggests that Fonda’s stardom probably had to do with Hollywood’s desperation in the Thirties to make nicer movies with wholesome virile men, to “shake off the taint of decadence” that clung to the movie industry after the sex and drug and murder scandals of the Twenties (an excellent insight); but he concludes that Fonda gave the moguls more than they bargained for. He quotes Fonda’s friend John Steinbeck, who called Fonda’s face “a picture of opposites in conflict,” and goes on to contrast his “rare feel for anger and sadness” with an ability to seem “closed off, unreachable, an enemy of feeling.” McKinney has a theory that what plays out in Fonda’s acting is both an internalization of private tragedy (especially the suicide of his long-troubled second wife, Frances, shortly after he left her) and an awareness of the tragic implications of the quintessentially American subjects of so many of his most memorable pictures. And though this notion sometimes leads McKinney into some fancy mystical territory, and though he sometimes overstates his case, in the final analysis it’s a convincing one, especially when he deals with Fonda’s portrayal of Lincoln in John Ford’s 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln at one end and his scenes with Vera Miles in Hitchcock’s 1956 The Wrong Man at the other.

In his analysis of Young Mr. Lincoln, which opens the book, he moves beneath the folk-fable style of the movie and its presentation of the hero as a man of iconic common sense and ingenuity who, in his lawyering days, rescues a pair of brothers accused of murder. McKinney identifies the movie as a collaboration between director and star, one that hints at the depth of the injustice that was nearly brought against these men (Abe saves them from a lynching before he dismantles the case against them in court) while also implying that other innocent men weren’t so lucky. McKinney also points out that we can’t watch this stylized glimpse of Lincoln’s young manhood without thinking about his fate—that what we know about the violence that cut off Lincoln implicitly darkens the portrait and links his end to the one he saves his clients from. McKinney ties the protagonist’s behavior to the loss of Ann Rutledge to “brain fever”: played by Pauline Moore, she’s on screen for exactly one romantic scene with Abe before he’s tending her grave and confiding his hopes and doubts to her tombstone. (This startling and affecting transition, which uses the breaking of the ice floes as spring comes to Illinois to underscore the inexorable passage of time, is the kind of pastoral sequence D.W. Griffith was a genius at; the irony is that Ford achieves here what Griffith failed to pull off nine years earlier in his Lincoln movie, which starred Walter Huston.) And when McKinney looks at the anguish of Fonda’s character, Manny Balestrero, in The Wrong Man—in the scenes where his wife Rose begins to come apart under the stress of his arrest for robberies committed by another man —he sees Fonda’s own experience, with Frances Fonda, of a loved one’s descent into hopelessness. What McKinney is arguing for here is a kind of Stanislavskian acting without portfolio, an instinctual understanding of that most controversial tenet of the Method, emotion memory.

The Man Who Saw a Ghost is an eccentric approach to both biography and acting analysis, and in its worst sections you can feel McKinney stretching to bring all the parts of Fonda’s life and work in sync with one another. He makes too much out of moments in Fonda pictures where he’s turned away from the camera, as if that choice were his and not the director’s. He writes of Afdera Franchetti, who became Fonda’s third wife, “Perhaps she awakens some of Fonda’s ethnic corpuscles? He is of Italian descent, too, after all. Rome is called the Eternal City, and some would say the Latin race, once in the bloodstream, never leaves it.” He alludes to a moment in Fail-Safe, filmed before JFK’s assassination but released after it, when “Fonda holds his hand exactly where the third bullet will, a few months later, enter John Kennedy’s brain as he rides in an open car.” His weakness for overstatement sometimes loosens the sinews of his prose, as when he writes of The Grapes of Wrath that “it was written by an author whose feeling of oneness with his time demanded that he either write exactly the book he wrote or die from having failed to do so,” or gasses on:


Death is the curse on all living things. It is also the answer to all problems, mediator of all fears, and master of all unknowns. And if, like Henry Fonda, you are an artist with an art to apply, maybe you can make death your friend. Maybe you can know the many names of death yet go on living.


And sometimes he puts himself in his subject’s head without evidence for his conjectures: he can’t know that Fonda’s begging Afdera not to break up their marriage came “less out of love than shame.” Despite all these flaws, however, The Man Who Saw a Ghost is a compelling study of a fascinating man whose mystery lies partly in the contrast between the seeming openness of his acting and the depths it belies.

Though it’s intriguing as a biography, the book is mostly valuable for its treatment of Fonda’s acting. Actor bios are generally weakest on the actual acting, just as most bio-pics of artists skimp on the process of making art because they can’t figure out how to dramatize it. Most biographers don’t understand how to talk about acting (Eileen Whitfield in her Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood is a blessed exception), but McKinney does, so even when I think his judgment of a movie is all wet, I rarely disagree with his evaluation of Fonda’s work in it. Here he is on The Lady Eve, where Fonda plays the snake-fancying heir to an ale empire who falls for Barbara Stanwyck’s glamorous card sharp:


[Writer-director Preston] Sturges locates in Fonda fine grades of innocence that have been elusive to other directors. From his first appearance in white dinner jacket, we sense we’re watching not a new Fonda, but a Fonda detailed and sharpened… He is beautiful as he sits and reads his book, with humor in his beauty, precision in the lines of his body: Fonda’s physical discipline produces a funniness of being. Yet his face is magnificently solemn, impervious to the fluttering of the avaricious debs at surrounding tables, sweet predators who want his body, his money, his mouth, and perhaps even a bit of his strange, private mind.


And on Fonda’s Wyatt Earp in Ford’s My Darling Clementine:


We cannot say whether Wyatt is a total square or the ultimate hipster, because Fonda uses his stiffness as a form of innate American poise—leveling his hat in the hotel window, sky and buttes behind him; escorting Clem down Main Street with long, courtly strides; spinning the heroine on the dance floor with a rich smile.


He’s just as precise in his description of Margaret Sullavan as Fonda’s romantic partner in The Moon’s Our Home:


There are delicious moments of innocence, bits of silliness, and Sullavan’s glamour and sporting self-mockery. She looks beautiful in a black turtleneck or sledding togs, and she does funny things with her small body—like striding across a broad foyer in such a way that all locomotion seems to derive from the piston swivel of her hips.


It’s gratifying to read so full a treatment of The Moon’s Our Home because, among the glorious romantic comedies of the Thirties, it’s one of the least known. Fonda and Sullavan had been married for just a few months years earlier, when both were aspiring stage performers; they became reacquainted in Hollywood—friends and neighbors and, this one time, co-stars. The marvelously titled The Moon’s Our Home is a delirious screwball farce credited to four screenwriters, two of whom, Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell, were famous on-again-off-again spouses, and it must be the combination of the writers’ and stars’ insights into the unmoored nature of love that produces the movie’s distinctive quality, a sort of intimate comic moodiness. The scenes where the hero and heroine—a travel writer and a movie star who think they hate each other (based on what they know of each other’s public personae) but fall in love without knowing each other’s identity—are at odds over whether they’re fighting or reconciling are unlike anything else in American comedies of the era. The convoluted plot premise suggests a blueprint for The Shop Around the Corner, the sublime Ernst Lubitsch-Samson Raphaelson picture that crowned Sullavan’s on-screen collaboration with Fonda’s pal Jimmy Stewart, in which the two characters are squabbling co-workers who have no idea they’re also writing each other love letters. Yet the point of The Moon’s Our Home isn’t the duality of human beings, but their ineffable foolishness.

Fonda and Sullavan’s relationship to each other, as screen partners and one-time lovers, not only adds grace notes to the picture but gives it a dash of emotional realism. It’s a charmer, though not in the same league as The Lady Eve. Preston Sturges made a raft of splendid comedies in the Forties, but never another movie that sounds the depths of romance as this 1941 film does. Underneath the plot, which is even crazier than that of The Moon’s Our Home, is a study of pride so ferocious that it comes close to devastating both the protagonists. (I’d say that as an exploration of pride, it’s in the same class as William Wyler’s Jezebel, made three years earlier and set in ante-bellum New Orleans, in which Fonda plays the banker who calls off his engagement to the woman he adores, played by Bette Davis, because her insatiable pride drives her to behave in increasingly reckless ways.) When Fonda’s Charlie Pike learns that Stanwyck’s Jean Harrington hasn’t been straight with him about her shady past, he pretends to have known who she is all along and to have played her for a sucker; he makes her feel so awful that she can’t rest until she’s taken her revenge. The movie’s happy ending would strain credulity, given the extremes of the characters’ behavior, if Sturges’s loopy style and Fonda’s tone of sardonic romantic ardor didn’t steer us unerringly toward it. Jean hooks Charlie by tripping him in the restaurant of an ocean liner, and Fonda—who turns out to be a skilled farceur—executes more pratfalls in this movie than he may have tried over the whole rest of his movie career. They’re a great running gag and a symbolic illustration of love’s tendency to knock a man on his ass.

Fonda had three great romantic matches in the movies. McKinney is good on both Sullavan and Stanwyck, but he doesn’t give sufficient credit to the third, Sylvia Sidney, who played his sweetheart in The Trial of the Lonesome Pine and his wife (and, eventually, fellow fugitive) in Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once. Sidney, like Fonda, was an instinctual Method actor, incapable of inauthenticity, so when her character in Lonesome Pine, which is set in the Ozarks, chooses the imported railroad engineer played by Fred MacMurray over Fonda, you keep waiting for the movie to straighten itself out. (It never does—Fonda dies of a bullet wound—but the picture contains a number of compensatory pleasures.) You Only Live Once, one of the great Depression-era tragedies despite the occasional mawkishness in the writing, is built around the division in Fonda’s personality between sweetness (which leads Sidney’s Joan to fall for his Eddie despite his criminal record) and reserves of rage. The first is especially in evidence in the film’s most remarkable sequence, a honeymoon idyll at a cottage with a pond that turns into a harbinger of doom when the motel owner recognizes Eddie from a photo in a true-detective magazine and evicts them. Throughout the first half Eddie is struggling to repress his tendency to give in to his anger, and then—when he’s framed for armed robbery and murder and put on death row, and he blames Joan for urging him to turn himself in—he flies over that dangerous edge, for a while at least. Whole scenes in this movie prepare you for the one at the opening of The Grapes of Wrath where Fonda’s Tom Joad throws the fact that he’s just been released from prison at the gabby, snoopy truck driver who picks him up hitchhiking, but You Only Live Once is superior to Ford and Steinbeck’s hunk of Great Depression populist revivalism in every way.

Aside from The Ox-Bow Incident, William Wellman’s version of the Walter Van Tilburg Clark novel about lynch mobs, and the marvelous My Darling Clementine, Fonda did his most interesting work in the Thirties. But McKinney gathers up a number of his Fifties and Sixties pictures in a fine discussion of Fonda’s role as one of America’s liberal voices, pausing to consider the real-life ironies, like his inadequacy in the eyes of his radical children, Jane and Peter, and his support of the war in Vietnam. (You need to turn to Mark Harris’s fine chronicle, Pictures at a Revolution, to read the telling story of the bi-generational party at the Fondas’, which Harris uses as a way of showing the split between the old and the new Hollywood in the mid-Sixties.) I think that, though he was too ornery and too uncategorizable to turn into Spencer Tracy, Fonda was a less powerful movie actor in the Fifties. John Ford botched the movie of Fonda’s triumphant stage success Mister Roberts, which made Broadway audiences cheer. (The play reads so much better than the limp, forced movie plays that you can easily believe it was a knockout in the post-war years.) He’s very good as Juror Number Eight in Sidney Lumet’s ingenious social-problem parable Twelve Angry Men, but he doesn’t ignite any sparks. And superbly controlled as he is in The Wrong Man, Hitchcock’s choice to tamp down the picture under a surface of documentary realism has the double effect of burying Fonda’s star qualities and muting his instincts. He gives an alert, sensitively tuned performance, and his way of balancing his character’s emotional expressiveness with the director’s demands is the sign of a master actor. But the movie is flat, the writing doesn’t reveal enough about Fonda’s character, and the limitations of the style are particularly problematic in the scenes around Rose’s breakdown, since Miles isn’t a powerful enough actress to shift the focus away from Fonda; we keep looking to him to galvanize the film, and he’s handcuffed to it. McKinney makes the argument that Fonda found new strengths in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (he’s undeniably charismatic in it, but I just can’t take anything about the movie seriously) and his one-man performance as Clarence Darrow. I missed Clarence Darrow on stage in the Seventies, and I’ve never seen the television transcription; it would be nice to think that McKinney is right about it. I saw Fonda live just once, as the Stage Manager in Our Town, when I was in college. I remember it as an indifferent production, but I was thrilled to be able to see Fonda live. He seemed to me, at nineteen, to be an inspired casting choice for the role of Wilder’s Stage Manager, who imparts genuine wisdom without underlining it and reads genuine American dramatic poetry as if it were everyday conversation. Our Town is a tribute to the sometimes unsettling depths hidden in the ordinary. That’s Henry Fonda.




Steve Vineberg teaches at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and has been writing for The Threepenny Review since 1983. His books include Method Actors and High Comedy in American Movies.
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