The Man Who Saw A Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda

 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.

0 Response The Man Who Saw A Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda
Posted By Timewarp : October 16, 2012 12:58 pm

I’m not of his generation but I saw many of his movies:). Mr. Fonda made me appreciate a genre….westerns…I didn’t like before:)! Henry Fonda’s acting prowess puts him up there in lights just like Vincent Price, Steve McQueen, Kirk Douglas, Charles Heston, etc., but his best credit is having given life to one of my fave and talented and sexiest creatures alive in showbiz….Jane Fonda:). I also loved another Fonda and that is Peter Fonda esp in flix like Easy Rider. All I can say is: thanx to Mr. Henry Fonda for all this and more.

Posted By Timewarp : October 16, 2012 12:58 pm

I’m not of his generation but I saw many of his movies:). Mr. Fonda made me appreciate a genre….westerns…I didn’t like before:)! Henry Fonda’s acting prowess puts him up there in lights just like Vincent Price, Steve McQueen, Kirk Douglas, Charles Heston, etc., but his best credit is having given life to one of my fave and talented and sexiest creatures alive in showbiz….Jane Fonda:). I also loved another Fonda and that is Peter Fonda esp in flix like Easy Rider. All I can say is: thanx to Mr. Henry Fonda for all this and more.

Posted By Bill : October 16, 2012 3:32 pm

That last still illustrates the best use of Fonda-Once Upon A Time In The West. Total sneering sadist. His crucial part of the plot obscured for the entire film, only comes into focus at the climax.

Posted By Bill : October 16, 2012 3:32 pm

That last still illustrates the best use of Fonda-Once Upon A Time In The West. Total sneering sadist. His crucial part of the plot obscured for the entire film, only comes into focus at the climax.

Posted By Emgee : October 16, 2012 3:55 pm

I’d watch any movie with Henry Fonda in it, cause you know at least his performance will be memorable.
Casting Fonda as a killer was a brilliant bit of casting-against-type, and he was more than willing to play a baddie for a change.
He put on dark contact lenses to make him seem more sinister, but Leone insisted he wanted to show his natural blue eyes.
That would make him seem vene more disconcerting.

Posted By Emgee : October 16, 2012 3:55 pm

I’d watch any movie with Henry Fonda in it, cause you know at least his performance will be memorable.
Casting Fonda as a killer was a brilliant bit of casting-against-type, and he was more than willing to play a baddie for a change.
He put on dark contact lenses to make him seem more sinister, but Leone insisted he wanted to show his natural blue eyes.
That would make him seem vene more disconcerting.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 16, 2012 5:25 pm

You wrote a terrific book review, which makes me want to read the bio. I don’t often read star bios, because few biographers make the connection between the events of the star’s life and their work. Even when the author’s assumptions are overdrawn, I still get something out of this approach.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 16, 2012 5:25 pm

You wrote a terrific book review, which makes me want to read the bio. I don’t often read star bios, because few biographers make the connection between the events of the star’s life and their work. Even when the author’s assumptions are overdrawn, I still get something out of this approach.

Posted By Doug : October 17, 2012 12:49 am

Two standout performances among many: “The Boston Strangler” and “Fail safe”. In each Fonda was a man in authority-in the Boston Strangler, it seemed he was stepping from Hollywood past to the gritty reality of present day-masterfully. Like stepping from the artifice of a screen set out into the real world.
And Fail Safe-wow. Just checking imdb I see that Fonda made Fail Safe the same year as Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man”…which should be watched during the run-up to every Presidential election.
Henry Fonda was Mr. Roberts. And Tom Joad.
We watched “The Ox-Bow Incident” in high school for a history class. Fonda was excellent.

Posted By Doug : October 17, 2012 12:49 am

Two standout performances among many: “The Boston Strangler” and “Fail safe”. In each Fonda was a man in authority-in the Boston Strangler, it seemed he was stepping from Hollywood past to the gritty reality of present day-masterfully. Like stepping from the artifice of a screen set out into the real world.
And Fail Safe-wow. Just checking imdb I see that Fonda made Fail Safe the same year as Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man”…which should be watched during the run-up to every Presidential election.
Henry Fonda was Mr. Roberts. And Tom Joad.
We watched “The Ox-Bow Incident” in high school for a history class. Fonda was excellent.

Posted By Emgee : October 17, 2012 6:34 am

Fail Safe flopped, because Kubrick refused to postpone the release of Dr. Strangelove, about a similar situation.
After the comedy, nobody took the tragic version seriously.
If (if!) Fonda perhaps had one flaw, it was that he tended to be a bit too earnest to give his performances the necessary shades of grey.

Posted By Emgee : October 17, 2012 6:34 am

Fail Safe flopped, because Kubrick refused to postpone the release of Dr. Strangelove, about a similar situation.
After the comedy, nobody took the tragic version seriously.
If (if!) Fonda perhaps had one flaw, it was that he tended to be a bit too earnest to give his performances the necessary shades of grey.

Posted By Peter L. Winkle : October 17, 2012 12:29 pm

Dear Mr. Sweeney:

If you would like to review my biography of Dennis Hopper, Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel, I’d be happy to send you a copy.

Please email me at plwinkler@yahoo.com.

Thanks.

Peter Winkler

P.S. This offer is open to other reviewers as well.

Posted By Peter L. Winkle : October 17, 2012 12:29 pm

Dear Mr. Sweeney:

If you would like to review my biography of Dennis Hopper, Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel, I’d be happy to send you a copy.

Please email me at plwinkler@yahoo.com.

Thanks.

Peter Winkler

P.S. This offer is open to other reviewers as well.

Posted By Nisha-Anne : October 23, 2012 8:14 pm

Marvellous review. I’m totally getting this book, duly warned about the mythologising aspect rather than biographical.

One of my top two favourite actors, Henry. The inescapable stillness of him never fails to mesmerise me.

Posted By Nisha-Anne : October 23, 2012 8:14 pm

Marvellous review. I’m totally getting this book, duly warned about the mythologising aspect rather than biographical.

One of my top two favourite actors, Henry. The inescapable stillness of him never fails to mesmerise me.

Posted By Juana Maria : November 1, 2012 1:57 pm

Henry Fonda is one of my favorite actors! He was best friends with another favorite of mine:Jimmy Stewart! Yay!! All I have to say about Henry Fonda is good things,such as he never gave a bad performance in my opinion. He was always the same person deep inside but totally different in all his characters,usually in name of character only. Most of his characters he portrayed were pretty much identical. My very favorite is the priest in “The Fugitive”(1947),I’m a very religious person and I felt his character was a martyr in the true sense of the word. Then another brilliant but completely different role is Frank in “Once Upon a Time in the West”,he is pure EVIL! He is so handsome in the movie though,my twin sister and I had a kind of a crush on him in that! We have thing for ‘bad guys’(well in the movies anyway). I love the movies Henry Fonda chose as his favorites:”12 Angry Men”,”The Ox-Bow Incident”,and “Young Mr. Lincoln”. If I got his favorites wrong,I’m sorry and please correct me. I have seen most of his films and I enjoyed most of them,but not”Jezebel”,”That Certain Woamn”(both with Bette Davis),”Welcome to Hard Times”(“The Terminator” was funny compared to this!),and “Fail Safe”. Why did Henry Fonda drop the bomb on NYC?!! I can’t stand the film! “Dr. Strangelove” is one of my twin sister’s favorites! She probably can quote the whole thing too. I don’t know. FYI:Henry Fonda played another character named Frank! Sure,when he was in those two films as Frank James! I always loved Frank more than Jesse any day. Bye!!

Posted By Juana Maria : November 1, 2012 1:57 pm

Henry Fonda is one of my favorite actors! He was best friends with another favorite of mine:Jimmy Stewart! Yay!! All I have to say about Henry Fonda is good things,such as he never gave a bad performance in my opinion. He was always the same person deep inside but totally different in all his characters,usually in name of character only. Most of his characters he portrayed were pretty much identical. My very favorite is the priest in “The Fugitive”(1947),I’m a very religious person and I felt his character was a martyr in the true sense of the word. Then another brilliant but completely different role is Frank in “Once Upon a Time in the West”,he is pure EVIL! He is so handsome in the movie though,my twin sister and I had a kind of a crush on him in that! We have thing for ‘bad guys’(well in the movies anyway). I love the movies Henry Fonda chose as his favorites:”12 Angry Men”,”The Ox-Bow Incident”,and “Young Mr. Lincoln”. If I got his favorites wrong,I’m sorry and please correct me. I have seen most of his films and I enjoyed most of them,but not”Jezebel”,”That Certain Woamn”(both with Bette Davis),”Welcome to Hard Times”(“The Terminator” was funny compared to this!),and “Fail Safe”. Why did Henry Fonda drop the bomb on NYC?!! I can’t stand the film! “Dr. Strangelove” is one of my twin sister’s favorites! She probably can quote the whole thing too. I don’t know. FYI:Henry Fonda played another character named Frank! Sure,when he was in those two films as Frank James! I always loved Frank more than Jesse any day. Bye!!

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