Film: Daddy dearest
Saturday 04 April 1998
This month sees Fonda losing his flowing locks to take the lead in Ulee's Gold. A simple allegorical saga, Victor Nunez's film describes how a bee- keeper is forced to emerge from a stern, self-protective shell to unite his dysfunctional family, and make peace with his jailbird son. Tall, lean and exuding a natural, weatherworn grace, Fonda's Ulee (above) is the spit of his father Henry, so it's little surprise to find that Peter modelled his taciturn hero on his own stern paterfamilias.
Indeed, Fonda's best role since Easy Rider doesn't simply mark a miraculous career comeback for the Oscar-nominated actor, but the laying to rest of old, Oedipal ghosts. Always eclipsed by his sister Jane, Peter's B-movie career has, in recent years, been bettered by his daughter, Bridget. But while the female members of his family may have outstripped him professionally, it is Henry that has always cast the darkest shadow over Fonda's life, as his forthcoming autobiography makes plain.
Published this June under the telling title Don't Tell Dad, it's a fluent mixture of fairly universal childhood memories and (to use Fonda's favourite lingo) "far out" anecdotes. Here is the boy Peter fishing with Jimmy Stewart, the teenage Peter meeting Jean Cocteau; and later a welter of escapades: making Easy Rider with Dennis Hopper, taking LSD with The Beatles. You name it, Peter's been there, done it, and been questioned by the FBI about it.
Throughout Fonda's unusually entertaining account of a Hollywood life, however, runs a streak of frank anger at the way his father raised him. "During the summer of 1950," he remembers, "Dad announced that we'd take a long drive together, just the two of us. This was a first, though in 1947 Jane and I had joined Dad, John Wayne, and Ward Bond for a day drive in the Duke's cream-coloured Cadillac convertible, riding with the top down on red leather seats. We'd gone to the set of Fort Apache, director John Ford's version of Custer's Last Stand, which was being shot in Bishop, California. Dad played the part of Colonel Thursday, an unsmiling, bitter, strict hard-ass. When people ask me what it was like growing up as Henry Fonda's son, I ask them if they have seen Fort Apache."
Brought up in a family atmosphere of "deafening privacy", starved of affection by Henry (below right) and badly bullied at boarding school, Fonda was not told the truth about his mother's suicide, but was informed that she had died of a heart attack. While disappointment at his only son (which Fonda puts down to his scrawny frame and sensitive temperament) meant his father focused much of his cold disapproval on Peter, Jane was not immune.
"Dad usually had strange reactions to colds, cuts and minor ailments," the author recalls, "and often acted as if we had these maladies because we were not doing things properly, as if they were caused by some sort of sin in our soul. It must have been due to the whisperings of the Christian Scientist influences of his youth." When, on a fishing trip, Jane returned from swimming complaining of a sore back, says Fonda, "Dad treated her with his standard contempt, pointed out that she shouldn't have been diving in the lake, shook his head, and hauled me off on another long, silent drive." Jane had broken her back.
It's a long road from Fonda's triumph as Captain America in cult sixties movie Easy Rider to his success as a solitary beekeeper in Ulee's Gold, and there are few cinematic landmarks along the way. After making the rather pretentious western The Hired Hand, Fonda popped up in one or two undistinguished chase movies before directing another dire horse opera: Wanda Nevada in 1979, the only film in which Henry and Peter starred together. Perhaps as an act of revenge, perhaps simply to satisfy his wicked sense of humour, Peter cast his ageing father in a negligible bit-part as a mad, old gold prospector.
Happily, Fonda was reconciled with his father long before his death, so it's Ulee's Gold, not Wanda Nevada, that completes their father-son relationship on screen. If Henry was the all-American patriarch of early classics such as How the West Was Won and The Young Mr Lincoln, then Peter's Harley-riding rebel in Easy Rider became an icon for a new generation. Dignified and patrician, in Ulee's Gold, Peter Fonda unites those disparate images of responsibility and freedom in a very nineties story of self- discovery and reconciliation.
`Ulee's Gold' is on general release. `Don't Tell Dad' is published on 1 June by Simon and Schuster, price pounds 17.99
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