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Six definitive films: A beginner's guide to Henry Fonda

One of the greatest talents of American cinema, Henry Fonda played a crucial part in shaping the cinematic image of American integrity. Over the course of an illustrious career that lasted more than 50 years, Fonda appeared in more than 90 productions. Described as “Hollywood’s Statue of Liberty,” Fonda is an indispensable part of the country’s cinematic history.

Born in Nebraska in 1905, Fonda studied journalism at the University of Minnesota and discovered his passion for acting at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Although he was not confident in his acting abilities, he felt that the experience was magical. With time, Fonda managed to make it as a Broadway actor and eventually landed his film debut in 1935. The rest is history.

When he was asked about method acting and his approach, Fonda said: “I can’t articulate about the Method because I never studied it. I don’t mean to suggest that I have any feelings one way or the other about it…I don’t know what the Method is and I don’t care what the Method is. Everybody’s got a method. Everybody can’t articulate about their method, and I can’t, if I have a method—and Jane sometimes says that I use the Method, that is, the capital letter Method, without being aware of it. Maybe I do; it doesn’t matter.”

As a tribute to his invaluable contributions to the world of cinema, we take a look at the celebrated oeuvre of American legend Henry Fonda.

Henry Fonda’s 6 definitive films:

The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford – 1940)

Based on John Steinbeck‘s seminal novel, John Ford’s celebrated 1940 drama might just contain the greatest performance of Fonda’s career for which he received a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards. He plays the role of Tom Joad, the son who gets out of prison only to find that his family is being displaced from their land during the Great Depression.

In a tribute to the actor, Steinbeck wrote: “I suppose one human never really knows much about another. My impressions of Hank are of a man reaching but unreachable, gentle but capable of sudden wild and dangerous violence, sharply critical of others but equally self-critical, caged and fighting the bars but timid of the light, viciously opposed to external restraint, imposing an iron slavery on himself. His face is a picture of opposites in conflict.”

The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges – 1941)

Inspired by Monckton Hoffe’s story, Preston Sturges’ classic 1941 screwball comedy stars Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in a hilarious story about a wealthy man who falls for a con artist on an ocean liner. It was named by The New York Times as the best film of the year and earned an Oscar bid for Best Original Story.

“What my dad used to do once the film was shot and out and in theatres is he would sit in the lobby and count the laughs, and he would know his film by the laughs,” the filmmaker’s son said of the film. “And it’s a very, very funny film. My dad didn’t write any jokes. He hated jokes, didn’t tell jokes. The whole concept of it he hated, so everybody is speaking the truth. And it’s the truth that’s so funny.”

The Ox-Bow Incident (William A. Wellman – 1942)

William A. Wellman’s enduring 1942 classic tells the story of a couple of drifters who join a posse that has been formed by local villagers. They set out to find the criminals responsible for the death of a resident farmer as well as the theft of his cattle.

An adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s eponymous novel, The Ox-Bow Incident is regarded as one of the essential cinematic experiences from that period. It received a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards but understandably lost out to another classic – Casablanca.

My Darling Clementine (John Ford – 1946)

Starring Fonda as the gambler/lawman Wyatt Earp in what many consider to be one of the greatest westerns of all time, My Darling Clementine is John Ford at his best. It revolves around the gunfight at the O.K. Corral which is one of the most recognisable shootouts in American history.

My Darling Clementine is now recognised as the definitive rendition of the historic event and inspired other filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah who referred to Ford’s masterpiece in his own works. It was one of the first films selected for future preservation in the country’s National Film Registry.

12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet – 1957)

Probably the most famous production of Fonda’s career, Sidney Lumet’s 1957 masterpiece is a brilliant investigation of morality and ethics told through the story of 12 jurors who debate the details of a case involving a teenaged defendant. The AFI named it as the second-best courtroom drama of all time after To Kill a Mockingbird.

“What is so fascinating to me about Fonda as a talent,” Sidney Lumet said, “is I don’t think if you took a stick and beat him he could do anything false, he’s incapable. As a performer, as a man, he’s pure. He’s like a barometer of truth on the set. Fonda has the inner resources to make the lines deeply true. Great actor. I don’t use that term often.”

Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone – 1968)

Sergio Leone’s iconic spaghetti western has a special place in Fonda’s filmography because it features him as a sinister antagonist instead of his usual stints as a hero. Once Upon a Time in the West has been hailed by masters like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino as one of the most influential works of all time.

Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli recalled: “The one problem about working with him was that he would never leave the set until he had completely finished what he was doing. We worked sometimes for 14 to 15 hours a day. Each day was filled to the brim! In America, those extra hours would have been well paid, but not with us. There were sometimes discussions about the long working hours. They consisted of Sergio saying, ‘Bugger off — we’ll continue till am ready.’”

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