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Great men, great nations

The Austrian Film Museum in Vienna just commenced a Henry Fonda retrospective, which will run through mid-October. Among the 25 Fonda films in the series are all of his best ones, plus a few TV shows – including the 1976 episode of Maude in which Bea Arthur nominates Hank for President.

The program notes catch our man’s charisma and contradictions pretty keenly, with a few references to yours truly along the way. The notes also subtly suggest why a Fonda retrospective might be particularly tonic and meaningful at this historical pass.

I began The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda a few years after 9/11, when America was deep into the second term of George W. Bush, and it was he who inspired the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that appears at the beginning of the book: “Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it.”

Aaaaaaand . . . look who we’ve got up there now.

As long as boasters and buffoons continue to hold our civic and political lives in thrall, Henry Fonda will continue to matter, as artist, example, challenge. That is to say, it’s inconceivable – at least to me, at least in 2017 – that we’ll see a time when Henry Fonda will cease to matter.

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