Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Manny Farber on Henry Fonda

There is a dreadful notion in criticism that movies, to be digested by aesthetes, must be turned from small difficult into large assets and liabilities. James Agee, who always paid out tribute like a public address system, is never precise, but his fastidious pricing of a Lauren Bacall gave the reader the secure feeling that Bacall could be banked at the nearest Chaste National.
Henry Fonda, during a recent run-through of his films in New York, doesn't add up as "one hell of an actor" (as Bill Wellman declared in a Cinema magazine interview), but he is interesting for unimportant tics: the fact that he never acts one-on-one with a co-actor.

When Glenn Ford is a boneless, liquid-y blur as a cowboy dancer in The Rounders, Fonda fields Ford's act by doing a Stan Laurel, suggesting an oafish bag of bones in a hick foxtrot. Again in The Lady Eve, Sturges kids this Fonda-ism of opposing his playmates in a scene: Fonda's Hoppsy is a frozen popsicle, a menace of clumsiness while Eric Blore, Eugene Pallette are clever acting dervishes playing scintillating types.

Fonda's defensiveness (he seems to be vouchsafing his emotion and talent to the audience in tiny blips) comes from having a supremely convex body and being too modest to exploit it. Fonda's entry into a scene is that of a man walking backwards, slanting himself away from the public eye. Once in a scene, the heavy jaw freezes, becomes like a concrete abutment, and he affects a clothes hanger stance, no motion in either arm.

A good director must chop Fonda out from his competition: John Ford isolates Fonda for a great night scene in Young Mister Lincoln; communing with himself on a Jew's harp; there is another one in Oxbow Incident where Fonda explodes into a geometrical violence that ends in a beautiful vertical stomping. Left on his own, Fonda gets taller and taller, as he freezes into a stoical Pilgrim, sullenly and prudishly withdrawing while he watches another actor (Lee Tracy in The Best Man) have a ball.

Fonda's man-against-himself act was noticable in his first films during the 30s when his 20-year-old Tom Joad-Slim-Lincoln were aged into wizened, almost gnome-like old folks byan actor who keeps his own grace and talent light as possible in the role. During the 40s, in Daybreak and Ox-Bow, Fonda starts bearing down on the saintly stereotype with which writers strangled him. In a typical perversity, he edges into the bass-playing hero of Wrong Man with unlikable traits: nervousness that is like a fever, self-pity, a crushing guilt that makes him more untrustworthy than the movie's criminal population. Almost any trait can be read into his later work. From Mr. Roberts onwards, the heroic body is made to seem repellently beefy, thickened, and the saintliness of his role as an intelligent naval officer-candidate-president shakes apart at the edges with hauteur, lechery, selfishness.

The peculiar feature of this later Fonda performance, however, is that he defeats himself again by diminishing the hostility and meanness -- so that they fail to make us forget the country boy style in which they are framed.

In his best scenes, Fonda brings together positive and negative, a flickering precision and calculated athleticism mixed in with the mulish withdrawing. Telephoning the Russian premier, desperate over the possibility of an atom war (Fail Safe), Fonda does a kind of needle-threading with nothing. He makes himself felt against an indirectly conveyed wall of pressure, seeping into the scene in stiff delayed archness and jointed phrasing -- a great concrete construction slowly cracking, becoming dislodged. It is one of the weirdest tension builders in film, and most of it is done with a constricted, inside-throat articulation and a robot movement so precise and dignified it is like watching a l7-foot polevaulter get over the bar without wasting a motion or even using a pole.

Before it reaches its two strippers at midway point, The Rounders shows Fonda in urbane-bouyant stride, but even a second-team bit player, Edgar Buchanan, out-fences him during a funny exchange in which Fonda explains the name Howdy. Eugene Pallette (Lady Eve), a buoyant jelly bowl moving skywards as he goes downstairs, is a magical actor and nothing in Fonda's divested vocabulary is equipped to produce that kind of spring water bubbling and freshness.

--Manny Farber (October 14, 1965 / Cavalier)

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