Fondas have acted out nation's grace, and fall from it

May 02, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

There's a moment in the soon-to-arrive youth anthem "Bodies, Rest & Motion" when Nick, footloose and fancy-dead, stops at a gas station late at night after a fruitless search for his past (and possibly, therefore, his future) and notices an easy rider on a motorcycle refueling, heavy with purpose.

It's a majestic movie moment, because it says so much about generations heading in opposite directions without making much contact. It's made all the more poignant by the fact that one of the things Nick is fleeing is his girlfriend, Beth, who is played by Bridget Fonda, the avatar of "Generation X," that group of disaffected twentysomethings attracting so much media attention of late. And the motorcycle rider is played by her father, Peter, who was the avatar of his generation, back in 1969 when he made "Easy Rider."

One generation passeth away and another generation cometh; but the movies abideth forever. In fact, as a family dynasty, the Fondas offer an amazing blueprint of generational iconography, for the passing and coming of progeny and progeny's progeny. You could study them as a shortcut to understanding the American psyche for nearly 60 years, from 1935 when Grandpa Henry made "The Farmer Takes a Wife" until Friday, when "Bodies, Rest & Motion" opens.

Moreover, considered as a whole, the Fonda clan may suggest (( something about the nature of American stardom: that stars frequently come to stand for values that go beyond their own individual lives. As talents, they have ranged from the dynamic to the barely adequate, but however interesting each of them has or has not been as a performer, that's the least provocative thing about them. What's more interesting is what they came to stand for and how that has changed over the years.

The patriarch, Henry, was a long, tall string bean of a man, handsome without a trace of effeteness or prettiness, who spoke with the flat nasal tones of the middle prairie. Nebraska-bred (he was born there in 1905), he dropped out of the University of Minnesota and only accidentally became an actor, through amateur dramatics which evolved into summer stock which eventually led to Broadway and then to Hollywood. Though his path took him eastward, he never acquired a patina of Eastern sophistication; he could play Steinbeck, but never Fitzgerald. That was his abiding strength and best career move.

Under-appreciated generation

He was a member of one of the most under-appreciated generation of American actors, with his peers James Stewart, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum. These men had certain things in common, primarily their easy masculinity and their lack of "theatrical" affectation, though two of them -- Fonda and Stewart -- were comfortable on stage. In their era, far too many critics considered them stars as opposed to true "actors," preferring the glibber English style and later the more tortured "method" school of a subsequent generation. But Fonda -- like the others -- was a brilliant performer.

More importantly, he embodied our most closely held illusions about ourself: His pure middle-Americanism made him a natural to play characters of rocky integrity, command and steely grit. His was the spirit that won World War II and then squared off against communism for three decades of unblinking Cold War. He was never a swell, a gigolo or a dapper Dan. He was a lawman, a lawyer, a jurist, and, at least four times, a president. He could and did play Wyatt Earp, Frank James, Abraham Lincoln, Mr. Roberts, the earnest liberal jury member in "Twelve Angry Men." He stood for and exemplified with unfailing grace and decency a now outmoded species: the white European male, honor-bound and courageous, capable of but not proud of violence, whose courage was more normally moral than physical and who represented the very best of that mesh of repressions, pressures and values now universally derided with contempt as "the system."

What a gap between him and his son, and how exactly it parallels the gap between the fathers who fought and won World War II and the sons who did not fight and lost Vietnam. Though Henry Fonda was always a liberal (he never stood for the kind of mindless patriotism of the right, as did John Wayne), he was never a radical. His liberalism always took the form of Establishment liberalism, expressing itself through a practical creed that might be called humanity within the system.

Along comes Peter Fonda (and Jane, but we're pursuing the father-son-granddaughter line here). His film career stands for utter rejection of The Establishment. These views may not represent the man himself (who knew?), but they certainly were what gave edge and meaning to Peter's two memorable films, in a career that, to say the least, was otherwise lackluster. In fact, his cameo in "Bodies, Rest & Motion" may be the first time he's worked in nearly a decade.

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