One Hundred Years of Henry Fonda Stage and screen actor Henry Fonda was born 100 years ago this month. The Oregonian newspaper's film critic, Shawn Levy, has written about Fonda's life. He offers perspective on a diverse and utterly American film icon.

One Hundred Years of Henry Fonda

One Hundred Years of Henry Fonda

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Stage and screen actor Henry Fonda was born 100 years ago this month. The Oregonian newspaper's film critic, Shawn Levy, has written about Fonda's life. He offers perspective on a diverse and utterly American film icon.


This month marks the centennial of Henry Fonda. The film legend was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, in 1905. He was a stage actor before he ever went to Hollywood, but it was his work in front of the camera that we tend to remember the most. Shawn Levy is film critic for The Oregonian newspaper in Portland. He's written about Henry Fonda's career and joins us from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland.

Nice to have you back with us.

Mr. SHAWN LEVY (Film Critic, The Oregonian): Thank you.

SIMON: What significance do we draw from the fact that Henry Fonda and Marlon Brando both came from the same area of Nebraska and at least superficially seemed to be totally different kinds of actors.

Mr. LEVY: Brando was drawn to the method...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEVY: ...whereas Fonda represented a less cerebral approach and somehow a more instinctual and sort of giving yourself over to the material rather than trying to find yourself in it.

SIMON: Henry Fonda referred to method acting as a crutch. With the advantage of hindsight, could there have been more method to Henry Fonda than he either knew or was ready to acknowledge?

Mr. LEVY: Oh, yeah, most definitely. I mean, Fonda had a great deal of range, and he was very willing to take on the dark side of a character, even a character that was ostensibly a good guy.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEVY: There's something monstrous in his Abe Lincoln. Toward the end of the film, he ambles with a very stiff back, and he looks a little like Frankenstein. His Wyatt Earp is a cold-blooded killer in some regards.

SIMON: We, of course, are going to play a clip of Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.

(Soundbite of "The Grapes of Wrath")

Mr. HENRY FONDA: (As Tom Joad) I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere, wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. I'll in be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready. And when the people are eating the stuff they raise and living in the houses they build, I'll be there too.

SIMON: One of the most famous speeches in film history. And it's a little--maybe we need to remind ourselves today what that speech meant in the time it was delivered.

Mr. LEVY: In "The Grapes of Wrath," Fonda, particularly in this part of his life, was sort of an old Midwestern populist, you know, a leftist of the people, and--personally and in this role. I mean, it's not necessarily the way people speak, but the way he delivers the line--the kind of breathy, halting quality and, of course, the timbre of his voice, you know, is so--there's really no other way to describe it--it's so American. There's, like, hickory and flint and molasses in it.

SIMON: That film also marked the beginning of his long working relationship with the director John Ford. How did that affect Henry Fonda's working career?

Mr. LEVY: Well, they made these films: "Young Mr. Lincoln," "Drums Along the Mohawk," "The Grapes of Wrath," "My Darling Clementine," "Fort Apache"--in about seven, eight years' time. And you get a real portrait there of the American male, particularly the man who made America about 80 to a hundred years before the time the films were made. And it's a hard, honest, sometimes dangerous man, but there's an emphasis on family and community. When Ford then started using John Wayne more in the wake of Fonda's quitting the screen in '48, you get a slightly different version of the American hero, so not so much a social man as a man of institutions.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEVY: Fonda was--you could picture him with a family more than you could John Wayne.

SIMON: Why did Henry Fonda go back to the stage for eight years?

Mr. LEVY: His son, Peter, has written that he believes his father was gray-listed because of his political beliefs by the end of the '40s. There was trouble at home. Fonda's wife killed herself in 1950; that's Peter and Jane's mother.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. LEVY: So I think there were things that drove him from the business and then things that kept him away from it. And it was finally "Mister Roberts" that brought him back to the screen when that film became inevitable after Fonda toured with it for more than three years.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. LEVY: The writer, Josh Logan, insisted that Fonda get the role.

SIMON: It could be surprising how good he was in comedy. And we want to play another clip. He's with Barbara Stanwyck in the 1941 film "The Lady Eve." She's a grifter, he's a young millionaire adventurer, who's just become smitten by her. Barbara Stanwyck begins.

(Soundbite of "The Lady Eve")

Ms. BARBARA STANWYCK: What were you doing up the Amazon?

Mr. FONDA: Looking for snakes. I'm an ophiologist.

Ms. STANWYCK: I thought you were in the beer business.

Mr. FONDA: Beer? Ale.

Ms. STANWYCK: What's the difference?

Mr. FONDA: Between beer and ale?


Mr. FONDA: My father'd burst a blood vessel if he heard you say that. There's a big difference. Ale's sort of fermented on the top or something, and beer's fermented on the bottom, or maybe it's the other way around. There's no similarity at all. You see the trouble with being descended from a brewer, no matter how long ago he brewed it or whatever you call it, you're supposed to know all about something you don't give a hoot about.

Mr. LEVY: What's striking also is this is a 35-year-old man in that speech. He's not a kid, but he has that open-faced freshness that you'd expect of a younger--you know, he could be 23 years old. It's brilliantly played.

SIMON: Peter and Jane Fonda have both given interviews. And most recently, Miss Fonda's written a book certainly called "My Life So Far," in which they talk about loving their father but finding him emotionally distant in the extreme. And I mention that firstly because his privacy on this issue has been invaded long ago, in a sense, by his children, but also because it's almost shockingly at odds with the image on screen of decency and sensitivity.

Mr. LEVY: Well, there's a reason they call it acting, too, you know? Peter called his memoir "Don't Tell Dad," you know? This is a man nearly 60 writing a book with that title, and, you know, it gives you an idea of the impact that Fonda both, you know, as a figure of achievement and, you know, sort of great, passionate poetry in his art and then as a figure of authority and iciness in his private life.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. I want to ask you about "On Golden Pond," which, of course, was the film he made very famously with Katharine Hepburn and his daughter, Jane Fonda. He plays an aging, decent man, who's angry about the end of his life being at hand. Henry Fonda with Katharine Hepburn.

(Soundbite of "On Golden Pond")

Mr. FONDA: You want to know why I came back so fast? I got to the end of our land, I couldn't remember where the old town road was. I wandered away in the woods, there was nothing familiar, not one damn tree. Scared me half to death. That's why I came running back here to you. See your pretty face, I could feel safe. I was still me.

Ms. KATHARINE HEPBURN: Listen to me, mister. You're my knight in shining armor. Don't you forget it. You're going to get back on that horse, and I'm going to be right behind you, holding on tight, and away we're going to go, go, go.

Mr. FONDA: I don't like horses.

SIMON: I mean, that scene is treacly and sentimental, and Darth Vader would cry while seeing it.

Mr. LEVY: What voices the two of them have, you know? He still--you hear...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. LEVY: ...the same effect that he used as Tom Joad, the breathiness and the pauses that make you think he's not--he hasn't memorized these words, he's saying them as they occur to him, saying them for the first time.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEVY: That's real acting.

SIMON: I want to--have you read Jane Fonda's book?

Mr. LEVY: Not in its entirety, no.

SIMON: Let me pass along an anecdote that she has in her book "My Life So Far," where she recollects making that film with her father. And she says, `We were filming the scene in "On Golden Pond" when standing in the water next to his boat, I tell him I want to be his friend. We'd rehearsed many times. I had stifled the urge to touch his arm, wanting to save it for when it would matter most, his close-up. Dad very rarely had tears on camera, and I wanted him to have tears in this scene, which meant so much to me on a personal level.' She says, `When the moment came, I reached out, placed my hand on his arm as I said, "I want to be your friend." For a millisecond, he was caught off-guard. He seemed angry. `This isn't what we rehearsed.' Then the emotions hit him, tears came into his eyes, then anger again as he tensed up and looked away. I loved him so much just then. It amazes me what a great actor he was in spite of his fear of spontaneity and real emotions.'

Mr. LEVY: It's worth noting this: 1982, "On Golden Pond" was only the second time the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences saw fit to nominate Henry Fonda for an Oscar for acting. The two nominations were for Tom Joad in "Grapes of Wrath" and the professor in "On Golden Pond," and that is just extraordinary because now he's someone who, you know, is on a postage stamp, and has theaters named after him and, you know, belongs on a Mt. Rushmore of acting.

SIMON: Shawn, nice to have you back. Thanks very much.

Mr. LEVY: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Shawn Levy, film critic for The Oregonian, speaking with us from Portland.

(Soundbite of theme music from "On Golden Pond")



SIMON: I'm Scott Simon.

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