On the theory that everybody must be somebody's type, a marginal case could probably be made for Peter Fonda as a leading man. He continues to be cast as a leading man in lamely contrived rabble-rousers like "Outlaw Blues," now at area theaters, which perpetuates his image of hung-over countercultural rebellion and aggravates his prevailing limpness of soul by requiring us to believe a double whopper - that he combines singing ability with sex appeal.
Fonda is probably the least forceful and romantically stirring actor now accorded a more or less prominent place on the American screen. One big picture can confer immortality on its participants, and the impact of "Easy Rider" may have obscured the fact that Fonda's looks and temperament suit him for fundamentally sappy roles, such as hopelessly boyish - and ever girlish - men and nice guys who invariably lose the heroine to the real romantic star.
There's something peculiarly infuriating about this passivity. Unlike the shyness of a James Stewart or the watchful diffidence that Cary Grant developed into a specialty, the image of sexually unaggressive masculinity projected by Fonda is also sexually enervating. Weakness is his only some-on. When Fonda propositions Susan Saint James in "Outlaw Blues," we're supposed to believe that his character is about to explode from pent-up sexual hunger after several years in the slammer. He comes closer to suggesting a kid trying to wheedle his mother out of a quarter for the Good Humor Man.
What Fonda's doing - or to be precise, not doing - is less offensive than the oafish crudity of Nick Nolte in "The Deep," which intensifies the offense by expecting us to root for him against a black actor, Lou Gossett, cast as the villain, who is obviously the more attractive male and accomplished actor. Nevertheless, Fonda must provoke the same sort of impatience in men that women feel when watching simpering actresses. Who are such limp personalities intended for?
"Outlaw Blues" begins with a situation that might have become the pretext for a good romantic comedy. Fonda is cast as a Texas convict nearing parole who gets to audition for a Counry & Western star who appears at the prison for a concert recording date. Soon afterwards the convict discovers that the original song he auditioned with is climbing in the charts, having been pirated by the unscrupulous celebrity. Upon release the victimized hero heads for Austin to seek some satisfaction from his exploiter.
The script goes haywire in the process of determining what should happen next. The undersirable solution chosen in "Outlaw Blues" is that the hero becomes a fugitive after coming to blows with the star, who is accidentally shot in the leg after pulling a gun during the scuffle. Although the shooting is depicted as a accident and a TV camera crew happens to record it form start to finish and all subsequent popular sentiment favors the Fonda character, the filmmakers insist on pretending that he must remain a fugitive. The movie degenerates into a peculiarly pointless runaround because of this refusal to admit that there's no legitimate reason for the hero to stay in hiding.
The Fonda character escapes from the scene of the accidents by hiding in the truck of a car owned by Susan Saint James, playing a young women employed as a back-up singer for the star. She decides to help him and in fact becomes his business manager, engineering a recording contract and promotional appearances while they playfully avoid the police, depicted as an army of hapless jerks whose only assignment is chasing the supposedly adorable lovers around town.
The most plausible idea in the film is that Fonda would need someone as resourceful and ambitious as Saint James to run his career. Judging from his faint, flat singing voice, he would also need her to record his songs. What one fails to understand is why she doesn't simply get him a lawyer too and launch his career out in the open. Given the circumstances of the shooting, ambitious defense attorney's would be clamoring to handle Fonda's case.
After saddling themselves with a self-contradictory plot, the filmmakers attempt to brazen it out in contradictory ways. Running from the law can't be justified as a practical or professional necessity, so it degenerates into laborious fun-and-games. Lest the mercenary behaviour of the lovers begin to alienate the audience, the villainous star and his ally, the chief of police (James Callahan and John Crawford are pretty good in these roles, incidentally), are pictured as relentlessly vindictive and indifferent to public opinion.
The clownish viciousness of the bad guys proves as indigestible a concoction as the cute deviousness of the good guys. Some storytellers know where the suspension of disbelief can credibly begin and end; others just make wild guesses. It's one thing for a movie like "Smokey and the Bandit" to follow through on an absurd pretext; the execution is consistent with the original comic come-on. "Outlaw Blues" begins with a straight-forward, realistic pretext and then tries to camouflage a disastrous plot turn by playing the fool, haphazardly.