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Henry Fonda for President

Lengthy, in-depth character of the iconic Hollywood actor reveals a subversive, intelligent, and surprisingly self-loathing human being - from the Forum section of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival


What does it mean to be American? Few actors have performed so many iconic characters representing the deep American soul as Henry Fonda. Behind the baby blue eyes and stoic profile, hid a very contradictory and surprisingly self-loathing man, someone who never fully fit in. Fonda was a nonconformist that could easily pass as a conservative. His children “Hanoi” Jane and “Easy Rider” Peter, were much closer to their dad than anyone could ever imagine, including themselves. The theory that Henry was a quiet revolutionary is one of the central pillars of this lengthy essay documentary directed by Austrian journalist, curator and filmmaker Alexander Horwath, shot and edited by Michael Palm.

Horwath narrates the film himself, extensively studying Fonda’s major films including his productive collaboration with John Ford, Sydney Lumet, and later in life, with Italian maestro Sergio Leone. Horwath also uses revealing soundbites from Fonda’s last in-depth interview, conducted by journalist Lawrence Grobel in Paris in 1981, one year before his passing. When asked if he felt like the true full reliable American man he so often portrayed on screen, Fonda candidly replied that he never could identify with his characters. This film intends to reveal the secrets of this imaginary place called “The United States of Fonda”.

Henry Fonda for President starts with a painting by Henry’s forebear Hester Janse Fonda, from 1651 in the Netherlands. That was the year the Fondas migrated to Fort Orange, the first Dutch settlement of New Netherland, now Albany, the capital of New York state. Hester Janse Fonda became a fierce fighter for civil rights, and arguably started the revolutionary bloodstream that would run in the family for many years to come. Horwarth travels to the small town of Fonda, New York, and tells the story of Douw Jellis Fonda, the founder of this village, in the 18th century. The village is located the Mohawk River, about 30 miles from Albany. Douw allegedly scalped some Mohawk Indians. The director makes clever use of Henry’s films in order to tell his family story: the images show scenes from Drums Along The Mohawk (John Ford, 1939), where Henry played a version of his ancestor. The director makes a clever connection, between the Mohawks and the hairstyle adopted by Robert de Niro at the end of Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). In a later scene, Henry declares his admiration for De Niro’s craft.

Among the most iconic characters that Henry played were president Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946), both directed by John Ford. These movies studies about the genesis of United States. Henry did not identify with those controversial yet heroic men. In his audio interview, he says at one point that he liked doing comedy, which he did only a few, and that he dreamt of dancing like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Henry was a reluctant film star. His greatest passion was the stage. He would spend the summer shooting in Hollywood and then fly to New York in the winter, where he would star in successful Broadway plays, at the 46th Street Theater. One of such plays was The Farmer Takes A Wife, which was adapted into the eponymous Victor Fleming movie in the year of 1935 (Henry’s Hollywood debut). One of his most telling roles in the 1950s was in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956) about mistaken identity, felony and political injustice.

The topic of religion is briefly addressed. Grobel asks Henry if he believes in God. he answers: “I am an agnostic, I don’t know all the answers”. He goes on: “I was raised as a Christian, my parents were Christian and went to church. Since then, I’ve never been inside a church”.

One of the most revealing aspects of the documentary is his relation to his two most famous children: Jane and Peter. Jane repeatedly declared that she had a tumultuous relationship with her father. In 1984, she decided to produce and star in Mark Rydell’s autofictional On Golden Pond (Mark Rydell). Both actors play versions of themselves, trying to pick up the pieces of their relationship. Horwarth demonstrates that both Jane (during her anti-war campaigning years) and Peter (a symbol of counterculture culture thanks to his role in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, from 1969) had actually inherited the anti-system gene from their dad. A true family of non-conformists.

Henry was also a fierce opponent of the Republican Party. “Reagan is a disaster”, he declares at one point. The title of this film comes from the TV sitcom Maude. In one episode, Maude, played by Bea Arthur, decides that Henry Fonda should be the next president of the USA, based purely on his fictional characters. Henry himself shows up at the episode, only to disappoint Maude. He declares that he has zero interest in becoming involved in that and he is nothing like those characters.

When asked how he felt about spreading the uplifting message of The Grapes of Wrath (Ford, 1940), he says: “but the message is not mine, it’s John Steinbeck’s. I just delivered it”. Steinbeck wrote about Henry: “a man reaching but unreachable. Gentle, but capable of sudden and unexpected violence. Critical of others but equally critical about himself. His face is a picture of opposites in conflict”. The final segment of the film is surprisingly melancholic. When asked if he liked himself, Henry says: “No, I don’t like myself. I wish I could be someone better and smarter. I don’t think I have good answers for anything”. The irony speaks for itself: Henry always had the perfect answer at his fingertips.

Henry Fonda for President just premiered at the Forum section of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival.

By Duda Leite - 19-02-2024

Duda leite a journalist, curator, distributor and filmmaker based in São Paulo, Brazil. He has covered the most important film festivals in the world, including Cannes, Venice, Berlin, San Sebastian,...

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