Henry Fonda became an icon in an age of icons: Cagney, Bogart, Gable, Stewart, Cooper and Grant, to name a few. All of them created memorable characters, of which the most memorable was their own, an image that embodied some virtue to be emulated or trait to be admired. As Devin McKinney puts it in “The Man Who Saw a Ghost,” Fonda was “an American artist caught up in representing his country’s history” by creating “an image of the national man that is kaleidoscopic, frightening, and wildly improbable.”
Moreover, if McKinney is right, Fonda became iconic by playing an icon in his breakthrough film, “Young Mr. Lincoln.” In the movies, McKinney says, “We witness a fusing of faces, and of fates. Lincoln starts to speak; Fonda starts to exist. The one steps into destiny, the other into movie myth.” Elaborating on that myth is McKinney’s task, and he pursues it through a detailed and often provocative account of Fonda’s life and career. He attempts to demonstrate how Fonda’s Broadway triumph in “Mister Roberts” linked up with films like “Young Mr. Lincoln,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and “My Darling Clementine”: “Doug Roberts . . . joined Abe Lincoln, Tom Joad, and Wyatt Earp in the public mind as a classic Henry Fonda role, a patriotic paradigm, an American hero.”
But Fonda, though he served bravely and well in World War II, was not himself inclined to heroism. His children, Jane and Peter, have complained that as a father he was often cold, distant, harsh and arbitrary. He had five variously troubled marriages, one of which ended with the suicide of his wife Frances, Jane and Peter’s mother. He became, in McKinney’s words, a “parched and private man.”
And so he submerged his life into his art: “It must seem to him that his is a life of dire and depressing limits. So he escapes into a performance given for an appreciative director, a job that makes sense. His eye is out for specters — other people to be, other lives and deaths to imagine, ways to replace illness, alienation, and failure with the precisions of craft and the resolutions of drama.”
McKinney’s aim is to give us “a broad, deep, comprehensible sense of Fonda, the essence of his life and the weight of his work.” The usual tattle and speculation of film star biography is beneath him, partly because so much of the muckwork has already been done by other biographers, but also because he is genuinely interested in the movies Fonda made and what they tell us about the man. He has seen them all, from the best — not only the ones already named but also “You Only Live Once,” “The Lady Eve,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “Fort Apache,” “The Wrong Man,” “Fail-Safe” and “Once Upon a Time in the West” — to the worst, including the late-career, killer-bee stinker “The Swarm,” which McKinney refers to as “a harvest of shame.”
Sometimes, McKinney’s love of wordy stylistic flourishes betrays him. Writing about Fonda’s fourth wife, Afdera Franchetti, a woman his son, Peter, regarded as “Eurotrash,” McKinney slumps into purple prose that crosses Walter Pater’s description of Mona Lisa with Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”: Franchetti, McKinney writes, “has the face of a sophisticated cherub whose smile is animated by centuries of violence and decadence. . . . Even before Fonda arrived, Afdera had splashed in many fountains, pursued many adventures, known many nights when it must have seemed the stars shone for her alone.” At his best, however, McKinney gives us fresh insights to draw on as we watch a Fonda performance.
At the end of the book, after he has dealt with Fonda’s last years and death, McKinney adds a coda, taking us back to Fonda’s childhood in Omaha, when he and his father witnessed a lynching. It’s meant to trace Fonda’s darkness back to his roots, but it’s worth recalling that there were two other 20th-century film icons who also were born in Omaha; one was an icon of rebellion, the other of sophistication. That Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando and Fred Astaire were all Omahans reminds us that icons are made, not born.
Matthews is a writer and editor in Northern California.
The Man Who Saw A Ghost
The Life and Work of Henry Fonda
By Devin McKinney
St. Martin’s. 428 pp. $29.99.