THE MAN WHO SAW A GHOST: THE LIFE AND WORK OF HENRY FONDA

October 16, 2012

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Devin McKinney has written a biography of uncommon urgency and feeling, about a man not prone to either.  Henry Fonda’s performances and, the book suggests, his private life, were built on varieties of withholding. Fonda’s greatest performances are models of underplaying, using his middle-Western sincerity to mask the losses that fissured his characters, manifesting only as haunted stares.   McKinney’s The Man Who Saw A Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda traces the tragedies in turn that marked Fonda’s personal life, those which lined his face and lie hidden behind his icy blue eyes. McKinney draws broad conclusions from these traumas, finding constant echoes in Fonda’s screen roles, an occasionally problematic approach that tends to reduce collaborative film efforts to manifestations of Fonda’s personality. But McKinney is a seductive and patient writer, and whenever he focuses on the physical details of a Fonda performance, his various postures and gaits, it is a revelation of the actor’s craft, how Fonda positioned himself most often to disappear, whether by shading his face or turning his back. McKinney exalts him for this reserve and modesty, a reticence and chastened demeanor the author will trace back to the ghosts that populate Fonda’s past and present, the human wreckage he has left behind in his fabulously successful life. Of all the iconic Hollywood screen presences, McKinney argues, Fonda stands apart, a symbol not of American exceptionalism but of hesitation and regret for the country that could have been.

McKinney is up front about the intent of his biographical project. It is not a data dump, replete with detailed production histories on all of Fonda’s stage and screen ventures, but selective, with “many interesting data, anecdotes, postulates, and possibilities…left out because they contributed insufficiently to the whole.” It is a crafted, thematic work, and might disappoint those looking for a linear immersion into his life. McKinney is after something grander, to position Fonda as a divided, haunted figure, his best performances “animated by the dark energy of contradiction”. He goes on to describe the types that fuel this dark energy, the “satisfied man’s paranoia, the good man’s bad urge, the hero’s despairing shade, and the patriot’s doubting conscience.” McKinney will then pair these fictional shades with Fonda’s real life losses, which include a spate of suicides of loved ones, his four busted marriages, and most paramount for McKinney, his witnessing a lynching at the age of fourteen in Omaha, Nebraska (anticipating the scenes in Young Mr. Lincoln and The Ox Bow Incident). McKinney argues that these real-life events creep their way into his work, and that through his performances “the hidden becomes visible, specters are raised, and shadows begin to move on their own.”

There is a grandiloquent intensity to these early passages in the book, using a dualistic template (light/dark, hidden/visible) that treats Fonda more as myth and symbol than as a man.  McKinney is mythologizing Fonda as much as Fonda did with Lincoln, which made him wary to take on the part. To such mythologizing, John Ford, director of Young Mr. Lincoln, responded with (as McKinney quotes): “What the fuck is all this shit about you not wanting to play this picture? You think Lincoln’s a great fucking Emancipator, huh? He’s a young jack-legged lawyer from Springfield, for Christ sake.” Early on, McKinney seems to forget that Fonda is a jack-legged actor from Grand Island, Nebraska, and not only a fading symbol of a conflicted America. But the book has a flashback structure which fills in Fonda’s life, his jack-legged roots, in between analyses of the myths he was creating in his movies. Patience is required to recognize the edifice McKinney is constructing.

Even as the structure goes up, there is plenty to inspect, as McKinney digs into the features he considers central to his career. He is dazzling when describing Fonda’s meticulous performance, but perfunctory and vague with questions of film style, or how Fonda worked with his directors or fellow actors. Consider this stunning bit on Fonda’s turn in The Grapes of Wrath:

From the start, Fonda’s body stance is nervous but composed, tense and ready. Skinny body in its black suit with high-water cuffs, arms angled outward to stick hands in pockets, pelvis jutting slightly; lots of sunlight between the bony elbows and narrow hips. Watchful eyes in a rectangular head, topped by a huge cloth cap shadowing the eyes throughout the story.

This is a conjuring act, making Fonda’s awkwardly intense Tom Joad appear before your mind’s eye, and indicating how he creates the character through angled limbs and and that insouciantly rebellious “pelvis jutting slightly.” Compare that to his description of John Ford’s compositions:  “Ford is in complete command of his early scenes… He shoots in high-contrast light and rough-hewn settings, pruning Steinbeck’s flowers of prose to leave only stalk and stem.”  Later he will say  the movie “threatens to break down when overheated by bad acting or false framing” without elaborating upon what would make a framing “false”.  I had hoped for more detail of how Fonda worked with collaborators on set, but that is something in rich supply during his extended Broadway period, which pulled him away from Hollywood for a while with the smash hit Mister Roberts (1948,  made into a film in 1955).

It is a tragi-comic navy tale for which Fonda will wear his own Navy blues, having recently been demobilized after serving as an officer on the U.S.S. Curtiss during WWII, deployed in the Marshall Islands. Mister Roberts  ends with a devastating kamikaze attack, one which Fonda himself narrowly escaped during his years of enlistment. The show was a huge hit, but Fonda still played things great interiority and reserve. Director Joshua Logan said that Fonda, “always wanted  to face upstage. I had to use tricks to get him so the audience could see him work.” As Tom Joad shades his eyes, Roberts turns away, and, McKinney writes, “the audience is again left to feel what is hidden.”

As McKinney returns again and again to Fonda’s deflective, recessionary performance style, and outlines his similarly distant relationship to his wives and children (although despite a rocky relationship, Jane’s political misadventures eventually do turn him against the Vietnam War), his arguments gain heft and weight. Fonda commits stage suicide in A Gift of Time, “a private act of empathy and remembering” for his ex-wife, Frances, who took her own life. The deaths that had marked his life continue to enter his work, until even offstage, his body begins to erode, and Henry Fonda is as synonymous with America as Abraham Lincoln. That McKinney can make one weep for the loss of his talent makes it a powerful biography, but then cry again for the evanescence of what he used to represent – the memory of a dream of a just United States, makes it a work of art.

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