Friday, January 27, 2012

Henry Fonda: an appreciation

Having just watched the excellent though somewhat diagrammatic Tin Star (1957) for the first time, and in light of being pretty bowled over by Jezebel (1937) last year, I'm starting to think that I might have under-rated Henry Fonda's career. I've definitely been one of those people who's big-upped Cary Grant for stretching his career at the top from the '30s to the '60s, but Fonda did the same thing.

Like Grant he has a bunch of golden age classics (The Lady Eve, Grapes of Wrath, Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr Lincoln, Jezebel, My Darling Clementine, The Fugitive, The Ox-bow Incident) and he also has a bunch of late '50s/'60s triumphs and show-stoppers thanks to veteran directors (The Longest Day, Advise and Consent, The Wrong Man, Tin Star, War and Peace) and young turks such as Lumet and Leone alike (Once Upon a Time in the West, Fail-safe, 12 Angry Men, The Best Man). Fonda has other achievements of course including hits like Mister Roberts and the late career show-case On Golden Pond, but it's the two large clusters of excellent films that are Fonda's claim to greatness. I count 8 near-masterpieces in the Golden Age cluster and 5 in the Late-'50s/'60s cluster. That's a career to stack up against anyone's.

For whatever reason, Fonda isn't as iconic as Grant or Bogart or Wayne or Astaire, but he's got as many great films to his credit as those guys, and he had as astonishingly long a career at the absolute top as Grant and Wayne did. Quite a guy in other words, and I for one will be careful to include him henceforth on the shortest of short lists of true Hollywood superstars that begins with names like Davis, Grant, Wayne...

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