Henry Fonda (May 16, 1905 August 12, 1982) was a phenomenal actor who appeared in more than 100 films in his lifetime. Fonda was “best known for his roles as a plain-speaking idealist.”1 His acting style is very important and has had much impact on what it portrayed about American Culture. The three films I will refer to mainly are: The Grapes of Wrath, My Name is Nobody, and On Golden Pond. These movies, taken form the beginning of his career to the end, show a good example of how Fonda always portrayed the “underdog hero” and stood up for the lower classes of society that needed a strong voice.

The 1930’s and 1940’s were the beginning of Fonda’s film career. The USA was going through a depression at that time which ended with going into a second world war. The time period, especially during the depression of the 30’s, was a period filled with uncertainty for people, as well as a period of great lifestyle changes. Many people during that time lost much of what they had owned, and this hurt the lower and middle classes the most. The Grapes of Wrath, based on the John Steinbeck novel of the same name, depicts the story of an Oklahoma family that was forced off its farm when the government confiscates it. They, like many other families had to move from their homeland to find work to survive. This landed them in California to work under slavish conditions. The movie shows the injustice towards poor families and makes the viewer very angry in watching what takes place. Fonda, playing the idealistic, unsung hero Tom Joad, is the underdog that everyone roots for. He is the idealistic voice of justice. Henry Fonda plays the character perfectly, even putting a sarcastic, yet funny tone on some of the dialog, for example, when the Joad family is at camp with extremely poor conditions and the operations are slave-like, three foremen ask Tom what the family name is at different times, and Tom, getting frustrated, says the third time “still Joad.” The way Fonda says it in a sarcastic tone was actually quite funny, yet you can completely feel his frustration that he is trying to harness.

Throughout the movie Tom Joad (Fonda) represents justice and hope in the face of adversity and oppression. The problem is that he is only one man, facing a large opponent (the government, wealthy business owners) who become keen to him and try to shut him down at all cost. Ma Joad tries to calm Tom down but the injustice is too much for him to take and he wants to fight back. This conflict is what is painful. It is justified for him to fight back, yet he becomes an outcast and a fugitive when he does. His only way out is to run and always be a fugitive, yet his soliloquy at the end proves that his fight is everybody’s fight, and he will “always be there” when there is an injustice to be made right. This is the hope that Fonda, as Joad, represents. It is more his “spirit” than the person himself. One person can’t make all the changes, but several people inflicted with that spirit can. This idealistic spirit of justice is the core of what Henry Fonda represented to America as an actor.

This spirit of justice continues through most of Fonda’s career and come to a culmination in the film My Name is Nobody (1974). Fonda, now nearing 70 years old, plays an old law-enforcing gunslinger Jack Boughregard who was known as being the fastest gun in the old west. He is waiting to get a deposit for a ship heading to England as he wants to get away from the homeland for good. His reputation has made him a target among those who want to make a name for themselves to kill the great man. He can’t even get a shave and cut without somebody trying to kill him. You can see he is tired of having to watch his back everywhere he goes. However, there is one man who doesn’t want him to go just yet. This man has admired Boughregard since he was a young child and wants to see Jack do something spectacular to make him a legend in the history books. This man goes by the name of “Nobody.” Nobody is witty young man who seems to act foolish yet is extremely smart. He is also extremely fast with a gun.

The film’s setting is back in the old west, probably late 1800’s, however, the motif of change, and handing on to a new generation fits well with the American Culture of the time period in the early 1970’s. The film came out after the sweeping changes and counter-culture of the 1960’s, and in a sense you can feel that sense of change and new beginnings in the movie. Boughregard (Fonda) is the aging hero, looking for a way out; Nobody is the young hero, who will take over where Boughregard left off, yet do so in a new and unorthodox way. Nobody’s way is also quite funny, where as Boughregard is much more serious in his ways. This is also a good reflection on Fonda himself, since he didn’t play in too many comedies, and wasn’t really known for his comedy, yet his realistic/naturalistic acting gave him a unique comedic value at times, especially in this movie. The contrast of Nobody (played by Terrence Hill) of being witty, optimistic, and idealistic, with Boughregard being serious, cynical (“there were never any good ol’ days” quote from movie, in the perfect Henry Fonda sarcastic voice), and realistic. Comparing Grapes of Wrath with Nobody, you can visualize an entire life of a hero; in Grapes, Fonda played a character who is idealistic and thirsting for justice; in Nobody, he plays a man who brought about justice all his life, and is now worn down and wary, becoming a realist and even turning on old values and beliefs (in “Nobody,” Boughregard hears that his brother was murdered, but instead of avenging his life, he takes his brother’s share of the gold that was being made illegally; he admits that his brother was a no-good coward who shot people in the back, and owed Jack money; he tells Nobody the belief that blood is thicker than water is a thing of the past, a fallacy). Basically, there is still a hero, but a transformation in the hero from idealist to realists. Jack (Fonda) at the end of the movie writes to Nobody and declares that “looking back, we were all a bunch of romantic fools… believing that a quick gun and a showdown can solve everything…”) We can also see how the movie portrays a culture change as well. Jack talks about “these new times of yours” when writing to Nobody. Jack gives Nobody some advice from his wisdom over the years, but declares that these are “new times” and that Nobody will be able to conquer them in his own unique and silly way. The light-hearted and funny way Nobody tackles these “new times” is a metaphor to hope, the same kind of hope that Fonda’s movie’s give at their conclusion.
My Name is Nobody is a great movie with filled with much wisdom, even within its brand of humor. Fonda is once again a hero for the people, defeating the enemy against great odds when he prevents 150 members of the Wild Bunch from robbing a train (at the coaxing of Nobody who make the confrontation inevitable)

The last Henry Fonda movie to touch on is On Golden Pond. This was Henry Fonda’s last movie, and it was fitting since the movie deals with getting older, finding purpose, and reconciling the past. The movie is not so much about heroics, but about reconciliation and dealing with age. In this sense, Fonda takes on a new sense of heroism. It is through a young boy that Norman (Fonda) finds himself again and what was missing in is life. This movie is more about overcoming personal demons, not the typical outside enemies that threaten justice. In this sense, it concludes Fonda’s career very well.
1     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Fonda