October 16, 2014

Henry Fonda, The Grapes of Wrath

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It is said that James Stewart claimed to have voted for Henry Fonda for Best Actor in 1940, and there seems to be a general consensus that Fonda was robbed a victory that year for his work in The Grapes of Wrath. These allegations of an Oscar misfire intrigued me, considering the fact that I don't ever really recall being all that interested in the character of Tom Joad while struggling to get through the novel back in sophomore high school English. In truth, I wasn't really all that interested in The Grapes of Wrath period, so I was quite tickled to find that director John Ford had managed to take a drab chore of a novel and turn it into a compelling and poignant picture. Fonda, in all his brooding, stoic glory, does a good job, but I was left more taken by the film than by him.

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Firstly, I'm not sure if Tom Joad is a perfect fit with Fonda. In the few films I've seen of his, he has always struck me as a very elegant, intelligent, and graceful kind of actor, and thus it was a little tough to believe him as a poor, uneducated, and somewhat deviant Okie of the Great Depression. His speaking voice is much too sweet, gentle, almost fanciful here, made all the more clear by the fact that he doesn't attempt to do a southern drawl like many of the secondary cast members. So for the most part I wasn't really buying what he was trying to sellnot quite rough enough around the edges and not as hardened or intimidating as the Tom I remember in the novel, Fonda doesn't really have much of a dark side to offerhe's sort of like a very polished man in an impoverished man's clothing, if you will. That I didn't take to Tom while reading the book is likely due to the fact that he is more of an internalized character, a quiet drifter type who serves as the viewer's window to the world around him, and thus much of Fonda's performance is reacting to all the poverty and all the unjustness that occurs in Jon Steinbeck's California. This does prove to be a bit of an anticlimactic viewing experience, but Fonda's shining moments are when he doesn't have much to say at all. While Fonda doesn't really showcase a tough guy externally, you can tell at times that internally a storm is brewing from within him. As in the scene in which he is at his old family home talking to Muley, you can read so much anger from within him with a single glance of his silent gaze. And in his final speech, wonderfully done if not a smidgen underwhelming, was more fascinating to me due to the punch he packs with his internalized stares rather than the actual words that comes out of his mouth. So all in all, it's by-the-books leading actor materialdistant and masculine and madwith a dash of genteel vulnerability expressed by Fonda facially. Fonda's work is good, though there wasn't much there to really floor me...I'm clearly tepid with my praise, much like how he's sort of tepid in the picture. A solid effort, but I wouldn't jump at the proclamation that his loss is one of the major travesties in Oscar history.


  1. Wow, that one surprised me, I was expecting a 5 for him. :)

    1. haha, funny how that is because i certainly wasn't expecting Fonda to be a 5 at all :P

  2. I'm also surprised. I usually don't like him very much, but I felt something different for him in this film.

    Now Chaplin has his chance to win.

    1. I definitely need to watch more films with him as the star. Interesting that you liked him in this one the most from what you've seen of him...i don't know, it just didn't do much for me.

      And we'll just have to see about Chaplin :D