The Other Actor President: Henry Fonda Was the Movies' Favorite Liberal Icon. Then He Got Dropped from America's Collective Memory. Should We Care?

Article excerpt

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When early trailers were posted online for Lincoln, the new biopic from Steven Spielberg, the consensus was that star Daniel Day-Lewis, known for the research he pours into perfectionist transformations, was finding his way into character through the voice. Day-Lewis as Lincoln sounded nasal, deliberate, a bit pleading, and surprisingly high-pitched. In instant homage, Jimmy Fallon took a clip from the trailer--the president, urging a group of black-clad 19th-century men sitting around a table to make a change "now, now, NOW!"--and redubbed it as Pee-wee Herman.

Compare Day-Lewis's alien timbre to the ease of Henry Fonda, finding one of his first great film roles in director John Ford's research-free Young Mi: Lincoln (1939). Fonda played the future president during a fictionalized period in his youth, when he grew from a bumpkin into a knowing Illinois lawyer on his way to being a visionary. Fonda's natural voice was low and slow, a somber yet boyish drawl, with a plausible pinch of gravitas, a useful and unforced "golly gee" quality, and a likable Nebraska twang (being Midwestern then didn't mean you sounded accent-neutral, like a newscaster).

In Young Mr. Lincoln's most memorable scene, Abe stands before a vigilante mob and talks it down from killing a man. This isn't easy. Abe has to try every kind of rhetoric he can think of. It's not clear he'll succeed or even that the mob will spare him. The crowd finally steps back, and Abe, having stopped a murder, can go on to seek justice through the law. It's a civic triumph--though the audience, aware and grieving because of what lies ahead, mostly wishes it could protect him, too.

Fonda mesmerizes in this scene, but he's not just a star casting a glow. His face is a window onto the weighing of imperfect options followed by the working up, and the keeping up, of courage. Devin McKinney's new biography, The Man Who Saw a Ghost, takes Fonda's Lincoln as a touchstone for the actor's next four decades of stardom. The themes of his movies--and later, the almost presidential-family-level scrutiny that attended the going son of his iconically rebellious kids, Jane and Peter--would track closely with the youth (late 1930s), sturdy middle age (1950s), and jittery doubts (1960s) leading to the grouch), disheveled decline (late 1970s) of America's liberal consensus. This should be a history we know all too well, in other words. Maybe. But if the wide appeal of Mad Men's reductive paradigm is a sign (before the 1960s: elite-dictated taste plus thrifty mass dreariness and the invisibility of all but starched white men; after the 1960s: liberated taste, social inclusion, and pop and color), our sense of cultural history may be leaving a few things out.

From the MadMen point of view, Fonda starred in long-ago dramas set in the political world, in courtrooms, during wars, and on the frontier, movies that, with their focus on men (always men) debating or fighting it out in the West or even sometimes trying to find a sense of quaint-sounding rectitude, can seem to hail from an impossible time before. Onscreen, though, Fonda was helping to update America's code of honor, adding important new entries under tolerance and the rule of law. While he could occasionally veer into sanctimony, what's most amazing--as they used to say of Ginger Rogers dancing backward in high heels--is that persuading was usually secondary, and he did it while staying an artist first, complicated and exciting to watch. Far from being prehistoric, that's work we should be so lucky to have today.

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A BIG THEME IN McKinney's book has to do with remembering the past, the way Fonda's store of remarkable inherited experience, and his family's stoic, repressed, duty-minded temperament, made all the things that had happened to him--and some of the harsh things that had happened along the way to America--stay close at hand, shadowing him. …