February 23rd, 2012

LEGENDS OF THE SILVER SCREEN: PETER FONDA

If you ever want to know what makes Peter Fonda a Legend of the Silver Screen, you need only to look at Easy Rider. Man, that’s one of the all-time great iconic performances in cinema history. Unfortunately, we won’t be reviewing that flick today. We do have one legitimate underappreciated Fonda classic as well as two of his misguided directorial efforts though…

Our first flick is…

WANDA NEVADA (1979) **

Peter Fonda stars as a full-time cheat who wins a young girl named Wanda Nevada (Brooke Shields) in a card game. When they learn an old prospector has struck it rich in the Grand Canyon, they head on out there to mine for gold. Little do they know the prospector’s killers are hot on their trail.

Wanda Nevada is kind of like two movies mashed into one. The early scenes in which Fonda and Shields form their unlikely partnership are terrific. It’s filled with quirky characters and colorful dialogue. What I liked most about it was that it often felt like an old timey western (there’s a scene where an old dude empties out a pouch full of gold at a bar and buys everyone a drink) with a few modern conveniences thrown in (everyone drives classic cars).

Once the action shifts to the Grand Canyon, things rapidly deteriorate. Not only is the second half pretty dull, it’s also sorely lacking the charm and wit of the first. And whereas the first half of the film feels like an offbeat character piece, the second half feels like a goddamn Hallmark Hall of Fame movie or something. The eleventh hour idiotic spiritual Indian subplot is a bit much, and the ending just does not work at all.

Fonda delivers a great sleepy eyed performance. He and Shields make a great team and it’s a shame that the script lets them down in the end. Fonda’s Easy Rider co-star Luke Askew is also very good as the villain of the piece and it was nice seeing Pete’s pops Henry Fonda turning up in a cameo too.

Wanda Nevada was the third and last of the films Fonda directed. None of them (Idaho Transfer and The Hired Hand are the other two) are very good, but at least this one held the most promise. I think the solid first half showed Fonda had some potential had he continued behind the director’s chair.

Next up is…

FIGHTING MAD (1976) *** ½

Peter Fonda returned to the Roger Corman stable after nearly a decade with this handsomely mounted and solidly entertaining revenge film directed by Jonathan Demme. He stars as a simple city boy who comes back to his country hometown to find a crooked company trying to buy up all his family’s property. When they refuse to sell, the company has Fonda’s brother (and his pregnant wife) killed. Since the law is tucked tightly in the company’s pocket, there’s only one thing left for Peter to do: Grab his trusty bow and arrow and go Charles Bronson on a bunch of people in expensive suits.

Fonda is excellent as the man of few words who is more than willing to push back when push comes to shove. This is easily one of his best performances. Exploitation movie favorite Lynn (The Crazies) Lowry is also on hand as Fonda’s love interest. She also gets a couple of exquisite nude scenes that’ll keep your interest up whenever the flick gets a tad slow (which isn’t often).

Fighting Mad is a nice little turn on the usual Death Wish formula. By making the villains white collar Big Businessmen and our hero a blue collar salt of the earth type, it adds a little extra oomph to the proceedings. This class struggle gives the film a bit more of an edge than just your ordinary run-of-the-mill revenge pic.

Demme’s naturalistic style complements the film beautifully. He may have been hired to make an exploitation picture by Corman, but I’ll be damned if he wasn’t able to put his own unique stamp on the material. Demme gives the scenes of the land being raped by bulldozers and heavy machinery an almost documentary feel, which helps to hammer home Fonda’s family’s plight. Heck, Demme was even able to slip a message in there as well, something you normally don’t’ see in a Corman production. And the Main Street vs. Wall Street mentality of the film makes Fighting Mad just as relevant today as it was when it was first released.

Our final Fonda flick is…

THE HIRED HAND (1971) * ½

Peter Fonda made his directorial debut with this ridiculously artsy fartsy western. Fonda plays this cowboy who leaves his wife (Verna Bloom) to go out poontanging on the prairie. He returns home seven years later, hat in his hand asking for forgiveness and she grudgingly takes him on as the titular helper. Slowly (with a major emphasis on slowly here, people) she starts to fall back in love with him. But when his buddy (Warren Oates) gets kidnapped by some unsavory characters, Pete has to ride out on the trail once more.

When you give a movie star a camera and tell him to go make a western, you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes you get a Dances with Wolves. Most times, the results are closer to The Hired Hand.

This is one of those movie star vanity projects that the studios foolishly allow them to do once they’ve achieved superstardom with the mistaken belief that they know what they’re doing. Since Peter Fonda was coasting on the success of Easy Rider, everyone basically left him alone. Someone really should’ve stepped in and reeled Pete in a bit here and told him that it might not have been a good idea to use so much slow motion and dissolves. I mean just because you’ve got these tools at your disposal doesn’t mean you HAVE to use ‘em!

Yeah, practically the first half hour of this movie is nothing but people walking around in slow motion while painfully long double exposed dissolves transition things from scene to scene. There are also a lot of drawn out dialogue-less stretches accompanied by annoying music on the soundtrack that will make you want to pull your hair out. Seriously, it’s a fucking mess.

Once Fonda stops with all the cinematic showboating, the dramatic meat of the story isn’t half bad. There’s a good dinner table scene where Fonda confronts his wife about the rumors he heard in town that she’s a slut that’s surprisingly strong. Bloom is really good in this scene too and is able to express more of a feminist viewpoint than you ever heard from any pioneer woman, which I suppose was kind of daring at the time.

But in the final act, Fonda tries to make up for the slow first hour by giving us a big gunfight showdown. Since it doesn’t really jibe with what’s come before it, the whole finale winds up feeling phony and forced. Not even the presence of the great Warren Oates could save this one.

For all of The Hired Hand’s faults, you have to admit that it’s a lot better than Fonda’s next film as director; Idaho Transfer.

Next week’s Legend: Jeff Speakman.