A new biography portrays Henry Fonda as a haunted, stoic icon
The Man Who Saw a Ghost:
The Life and Work of Henry Fonda
by Devin McKinney
St. Martin's Press
$29.99 List Price
So much of what we know about actor Henry Fonda derives from the authority of his body on-screen: a long, taut, calibrated instrument, most expressive when restrained—as it nearly always was. A lean six feet one, he had the height and physique of a movie aristocrat, but could play a proletarian or a president. Most of all, he always conveyed that, at heart, he was a homegrown American, Nebraska born, in touch with social proprieties but also with the urge to light out for the territory. He perfected an understated style that might be called precisionist, his performances akin to the sharp lines and edges of a Charles Sheeler painting. In 1962, Andrew Sarris wrote that Fonda was “our most truthful actor,” and surely this impression owes something to Fonda’s honest physicality, the way his body commands the screen without appearing hypervirile. His bearing suggested something like morality, a sort of ethics of posture and gait: upright and humane, empathic if also stoic and withdrawn.
On film, he repeatedly bears the values, and burdens, of civilization. He stands up to the lynch mob in the most memorable scene of Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and in a lesser encounter in The Return of Frank James (1940); he brings order to lawless Tombstone in My Darling Clementine (1946), and stares down bigotry and bloodlust in the sweaty jurors’ room of 12 Angry Men (1957). Elsewhere he is society’s victim, as when buffeted by the effects of merciless capitalism in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), or fed through the modern judiciary machine when falsely branded a criminal in Hitchcock’s The Wrong