Friday, December 28, 2012

American Actor: Interview with Devin McKinney (The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda)

Critical biographies today either get caught up in tabloid prurience, create academic labyrinths rather than clear thinking, or trade in simple details and facts rather than drama and insight. Against that tide comes Devin McKinney's highly readable and imaginative biography of actor Henry Fonda, The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (St. Martins Press, 2012). McKinney already wrote the best book on The Beatles (Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and Memory, Harvard University Press, 2003) and this new work shares with that one a lyrical strength that allows his probing perceptions to take flight. McKinney has a gift for creating his own magic circles with the kind of prose that illuminates Fonda's work. He does that by taking us, with poetic precision, inside the varied characters Fonda played while simultaneously examining how he became part of the larger American imagination. Each chapter delicately weaves the dark shadows of his personal life into the iconic parts Fonda created. "Fonda becomes the body and voice of a satisfied man's paranoia, the good man's bad urge, the hero's despairing shade, and the patriot's doubting conscience," McKinney writes. "In him and through him, the hidden becomes visible, specters are raised, and shadows begin to move on their own."

Those shadows that move on their own include memorable roles in unforgettable pictures like You Only Live Once (1937), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), The Wrong Man (1956) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), where Fonda revealed a man whose conflicts "made him a vital artist and emotional mystery...[who] pulled off the amazing feat of being not only what he appeared to be but also what he didn't appear to be." For McKinney, Fonda's sense of solitude, the darker, haunted and isolated American behind the mask of eternal optimism, was "deep and his style glamorous enough to constitute one ideal of the American character." Audiences could embrace that ideal because "it was strong, appealing, and reducible to its most favorable qualities."

Devin McKinney. (Photo: Joe Mabel.)

McKinney's writing on Fonda's acting is also assured and sharp, a quality missing in most film criticism now where the importance of acting in a picture takes second place to the enshrining of the film director, as in the tidy elegance of his description of Fonda's marvellous work in Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve. Fonda plays Charles "Hopsie" Pike, a student of snakes but a neophyte in the study of sex, who gets undone and turned on by the sexiest card sharp played by Barbara Stanwyck. "From his first appearance in white dinner jacket, we sense we're watching not a new Fonda, but a Fonda detailed and sharpened, made comedically exact and brought newly alive," McKinney writes. "He is beautiful as he sits and reads his book, with humor in his beauty, precision in the lines of his body... His face is magnificently solemn, impervious to the flutterings 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."

Devin McKinney and I spoke recently from his home in Pennsylvania.

KC: Your first book, Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, took into account how The Beatles became an enduring part of the public imagination. The Man Who Saw a Ghost takes similar matters into consideration when you write about the career of actor Henry Fonda. What drew you to Fonda?

DM: You want anything you write to be a process of discovery, and Fonda’s life and work presented endless possibilities for that. He was not a pop group, first of all, so I wouldn’t be repeating myself. He was from the American Midwest, like me, and I felt I understood something of that influence. So many of the major events, movements, trends, and cultural forms of the twentieth century flowed through him in some way – not just Hollywood, Broadway, and television, but also the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the New Frontier. The psychic tangles of his life as a husband, father, and private person were numerous, and wove in and out of his work in very persistent ways. To top it off, he was a great actor who starred in a half-dozen of the best movies ever made, and a score of others of unusual interest. He tantalized me as a critic, as a historian of American politics and culture, and as a writer who likes telling a good story.

His first film: The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935).
KC: You describe Fonda as someone whose greatest acting comes “when the hidden and visible are forced into contact and the cracks and stresses in the controlled façade come close to breaking the man.” How do these strong conflicts in his personality contribute to his abilities to be a great actor?

DM: When an actor fascinates us, it’s only partly what we can see. The rest is what we only feel. Fonda hid his emotions more than most actors, but what he showed was so suggestive it implied he also had more emotion to hide. If you look at his life, you can see that the conflict between public and private – the man who wants to be, say, the paterfamilias and activist versus the man who would love to tell the world, including his own family, to go to hell – was a basic aspect of his nature. It was not something he worked up for the camera. What he had to work up was the technique to make that conflict work moment to moment on the screen. He learned how to calibrate his effects precisely, what to show and what to hide. And just imagine how difficult that must be – to command each facial flicker so that that dead, glassy camera eye will pick it up, so that it will be projected onto movie screens in a thousand towns you’ve never heard of, to masses of people you’ll never meet, at twenty times the size of life yet with the delicacy and specificity of a dream image. Fonda was a master, perhaps the master, of that conjuration, and that meant he was in touch enough with his conflicts to make them work for him.

With ex-wife Margaret Sullavan in The Moon's Our Home (1936).

KC: What do you think are the key movie roles that characterize those conflicts the best?

DM: Usually they are the movies that center on crisis, crisis being the essence of drama. I think of You Only Live Once, The Grapes of Wrath, The Ox-Bow Incident, My Darling Clementine (particularly when Victor Mature recites Hamlet, and Fonda is doing nothing but watching and listening), The Wrong Man, and Fail-Safe (1964). But I also think of The Moon’s Our Home (1936) and The Lady Eve, two of the best screwball comedies ever to come from Hollywood. The crisis he faces in those pictures is a woman – respectively, Margaret Sullavan, also his first wife, and Barbara Stanwyck – and the woman challenges him in the same way that nuclear holocaust challenges him in Fail-Safe. His sense of order is destroyed, his self-control is undermined, and what makes drama in another situation makes hilarity in a screwball context. There are certain other performances that are as great or greater, like Young Mr. Lincoln and Once Upon a Time in the West, that do not come from this same realm of conflict; they’re almost in another dimension of expression.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).
KC: You begin the book with his remarkable role in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and you write quite evocatively about the symbolic power in Fonda’s scene at Ann Rutledge's grave. How significant do you feel the obligations of the dead were in Fonda’s life, especially given the suicide of his wife, Frances?

DM: It would be glib to say that Fonda showed more engagement with his second wife after she was dead than while she was alive. But it’s obvious that after Frances’s suicide, he chose to wrestle and empathize with everything about her that had stymied or repelled him during their marriage – her depression, her erratic behavior, her inability to be as stoic and controlled as himself. His work in the decade after her death deals with all the sadness, waste, and chaos that he couldn’t really handle as a husband yet needed to confront as an artist. I tie this back, at least implicitly, to the lynching of a black man that Fonda saw in Omaha as a boy, and my sense that that event had instilled him with a sense of obligation to the dead – which might address why that obligation is a theme running through his movies, and also why Fonda persisted in getting close to people, like Frances, who were themselves so close to death.

As Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).
KC: I think it's rare to find an American actor who could be effectively heroic, as Fonda was in The Grapes of Wrath, and yet still be a recessive character, someone who is as hidden to us as he is known. How do you think Henry Fonda managed to create such a lasting impression when he also held back a part of himself?

DM: I don’t know of an actor who better illustrates Hemingway’s iceberg theory, which is that you should only show the tip of a thing, but that that tip should imply everything beneath the surface. The Grapes of Wrath is a perfect example. His eyes are always squinting against the sun and the dust, the squint expressing everything about the character that is pissed off, hostile, nihilistic. But in Tom Joad’s speech at the end, Fonda has such fine command of his eyes and his mouth that you feel the terror inside this man who has been wrenched out of that nihilism, who has to join the fight because he can’t stand to not care anymore. His body doesn’t move, and his face only barely. Yet the fear and the excitement that come from him as he says goodbye to his mother are like strong, gentle hands gripping us throughout the scene. There are dozens of those moments in Fonda’s acting, where he seems to be doing so little and yet we feel so much more than we’re accustomed to feeling.

Fail-Safe (1964).

KC: How curious that Fonda’s persona also seems to shift with the political and cultural changes in American culture. You could almost use his roles to mirror the turbulence of the decades the pictures appear in.

DM: Some artists, rare ones, carry the changes and cycles of the society within them, either by consciously setting out to capture or exploit the spirit of the times or simply by working from the gut. Fonda was in the second group. He was so thoroughly of his time and place, and his intuitions for the national mood were so keen, that again and again we find him at or near the center of things when things are really happening. And as an actor, he holds two things in suspension, so that we see and feel them at once: How America has betrayed its promises, and how great our promise always was and still is. Those are abstractions, but he brings them to life by choosing to play specific characters responding to specific situations which point to broader cultural and social facts.

As Frank, the killer, in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969).

KC: His children, Jane and Peter, become iconic actors themselves in the counter-culture Sixties, just as Fonda’s persona seemed to suggest something more reactionary and conservative by comparison. Why do you think this perception of Henry Fonda took hold?

DM: “Reactionary” is the wrong word for Fonda. John Wayne was a reactionary, wanting things to go back to the way he believed they’d been before all these groups – blacks, women, Indians – started demanding their rights. Fonda was a polite progressive: He wanted things to proceed in an orderly way, but he always wanted them to proceed. “Conservative,” in the context of the 1960s, is a fair description. I make the point often that while he was socially quite liberal, personally he was quite conservative. I think the Sixties were so defined by radical gestures and forward leaps into experiment and novelty that anyone who didn’t match the culture leap for leap was bound to appear stuck in the mud. Fonda’s work was mostly fallow in between JFK’s assassination and Watergate, because he wasn’t finding, or maybe even seeking, the roles that would have kept him at the center of the national imagination. For a good decade, he was simply out of phase with American passions. That was only magnified once Jane and Peter got out into the world and began defining themselves, which, as with all children, meant defining themselves against their parentage: “Look at me—I’m the newer, better version.” Get a little older and you realize no, you’re just a different version. Both Jane and Peter figured that out eventually, having often exposed and even attacked their father along the way.

With daughter Jane in On Golden Pond (1981).
KC: Do you think there is a curious trajectory late in his career to go from the vicious gunman in Once Upon a Time in the West, to Paul Newman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion (1971), and then finally to the maudlin On Golden Pond (1981)?

DM: The curious thing about the trajectory of Fonda’s late career is that he did better than any actor I’m aware of at pursuing, and getting, challenging parts in his old age. Each of the roles you name is defined by the fact of age: The character is getting old, or is old already. That’s what those parts are about; they simply couldn’t have been played by younger men. If you produce a mosaic of Fonda’s better late parts, whether in good movies or in movies that are otherwise negligible – I’m thinking of Sometimes a Great Notion, Clarence Darrow (1974), and The Great Smokey Roadblock (1977) in the first group, Ash Wednesday (1973), Home to Stay (1978), Gideon’s Trumpet (1980), and Summer Solstice (1981) in the second – you have a depiction of the elderly man as a vital, feeling person, not cuddly or neutered, but in touch with the unique fears and freedoms of old age, the condition of being that wise and yet that withered. I’m not a fan of On Golden Pond, but Fonda is the best thing about it, and I think that’s because he will not make the man any more or less than the stunted, frightened son of a bitch that he is. Fonda was an honest actor right to the last, and in a sense braver in his last decade than he’d ever been.

KC: How would you best characterize Henry Fonda as one of the most iconic American actors?

DM: As the bad conscience and long memory of our movies.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier finished production on a radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney which is to be broadcast on December 30th. 

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