Devin McKinney

I wonder …

I consider an indecent proposal

Stage Struck (1958), Sidney Lumet’s second film, is a remake of the 1932 Katharine Hepburn vehicle Morning Glory, chronicle of a young actress’s rise from aspirant to ingenue.  The picture poises itself on an impossible conceit—that the dim child at its center is an actress not just of ambition and push but also of profundity, whose impromptu cocktail-party turn as Shakespeare’s Juliet has the power to wring tears from an audience of wealthy mummies.  And from this impossible poise it falls, at more or less the instant starlet Susan Strasberg registers the camera’s attention.

The picture is corny and old-fashioned on purpose, a throwback.  We can throw it back easily enough.  But not until we’ve taken all it can give, and all it can give is Henry Fonda.  He portrays a powerful Broadway producer with both romantic and entrepreneurial interests in the young actress—implausible, given her wan skills and post-fetal expressiveness.  As Fonda caresses Strasberg and she melts beneath his ministrations, the gap in ages is a silent howler, the gap in talents a wince factor.

But Fonda, though he appears in just a few scenes, is the movie’s sole source of glamour and pulse.  He arrives, and the movie jumps; he leaves, and it goes dead.  More than in some of his starring roles, he is engaged by his scenes, wired to the film’s action.  You notice his varieties of attentiveness—one kind of focus for the contract in his hand or the exit door he aims himself at, another for nuzzling an over-the-hill actress down to a five percent profit share in a shaky play.  The character is diabolically commanding, seductive, sexy, and seems always to be trailing others’ desires behind him.

The movie is a weird little snarl in the Fonda chronology.  Shot in early 1957, it was not released until late the following year.  In the summer of 1958, after shooting but before releasing, Susan Strasberg’s family—including parents Lee and Paula, first couple of the Actors Studio—were neighbors of the Fondas’ on the Malibu shore.  At that time, Jane and Susan became close friends.  Later in 1958, Lee Strasberg began giving Jane private lessons in the acting Method, thus becoming her second acting guru and nominal Svengali—supplanting Henry, guru number one, who would in the following years express complete disdain for the Actors Studio’s Method and methods. (1)

That is background to the sole, lonely vein of interest running through Stage Struck.  Bumping time and again into its own ickiness, the film compulsively raises the specter of incest.  The overlaps of father and daughter, figurehead and lover are not just a matter of biography; they are stitched into the subtext of the film.  At a certain point, the displacement of incestuous desire seems to take over the story—to become the story.  “It’s not just loving,” the actress says of her feelings for her producer-mentor.  “It’s loving a man you admire and respect, a man who’s been a legend to you.”  And elsewhere: “I’ll make him very proud of me.”  Shades of the daughter’s adoration and fear of the father; shades of Jane’s awed and terrified regard of the legendary Henry.

Richard Yates, 1960

At least one person in Hollywood may have had, and expressed, similar ideas about Henry and Jane.  In 1962, the novelist Richard Yates—critically acclaimed for Revolutionary Road, his debut of the year before—was retained by United Artists to adapt Lie Down in Darkness, the William Styron novel, for the screen.  Both Yates and John Frankenheimer, the prospective director, agreed that the novel’s strong incest theme—a Southern girl’s passionate, physical love for her domineering grandee of a father—should be emphasized to the limit of the studio’s tolerance.  They nearly got away with it:  Yates’s screenplay was received as brilliant by not only Frankenheimer and Styron, but also United Artists. (2)

John Frankenheimer, early 1960s

As recorded in Blake Bailey’s biography of Yates, the studio fixed an early 1963 production start, with Natalie Wood cast as the daughter, and Henry Fonda as the father.  But then, Yates recalled two years later, “Miss Wood’s agent decided that it might Tarnish Her Image with the Teenagers if she appeared as a girl who loved her Daddy a little too much—and Blooey.  She pulled out, then Fonda pulled out, then United Artists pulled out, then John Frankenheimer (the Dedicated Young Director) pulled out—and the whole God damned deal fell through.” (3)

That is that, as Bailey tells it.  But there may be more to the story.

In 1984, writer Martin Naparsteck interviewed Richard Yates on his Hollywood experience.  The novelist’s claim at that time was that, faced with the defection of his leading lady, Dedicated Young Frankenheimer had suggested a novel replacement:  “Why couldn’t Jane Fonda play the role?”

But the incest—?!  Yes, the incest!!

But no.  The notion was gross; no decent mind would entertain it.  “When Henry Fonda was informed of Frankenheimer’s idea,” we are told, “[he] was outraged and withdrew from the project.”

Word of the suggestion spread.  “Hollywood is a small town,” Yates told Naparsteck, more than twenty years on.

No name actors [Naparsteck writes] wanted to work on this particular project with crazy Frankenheimer; the people who were going to put up the money changed their minds.  Frankenheimer’s plan to have Henry passionately kiss Jane on screen ruined Yates’s Hollywood career; at least, that’s what Yates told me, with a shrug and a sad smile.  And with a lot of liquor inside of him.

A delicious anecdote, with all the rich flavor of fiction.  Yates, who died in 1992, was alcoholic and bipolar.  He was also a novelist:  He made things up for a living.  He was disappointed in Hollywood, in New York, in himself.  Frankenheimer, who Bailey says “Yates had come to consider something of a friend,” drifted away after the Styron project died—drifted, as people do.  It may have been Yates’s embittered payback to place the suggestion of Fonda incest in the mind and mouth of the director and erstwhile supporter to whom Yates could ascribe his own “ruin” as a screenwriter. (4)

But apparently it was not just one embittered writer who ever imagined Henry and Jane in a clinch.  On May 23, 1979, father and daughter were interviewed by Tom Brokaw for a piece to be run in two parts a week later on the NBC Today Show.  At one point, Brokaw asked Henry if he “could have married and lived happily with a woman like Jane Fonda.”

The Today Show, 1979

What an odd question to ask; what a lot of implications lie behind it.  But Henry, unshaken, seemed to take the question on its face.  “I think so, yes,” he said.  “You mean an activist?  I think so.”

“I don’t know about living happily,” Jane added, with a devilish glance at her father.  “We could have had a good affair.” (5)

Was it a trick of the imagination, or the play of LA sunlight on tanned skin, that made Jane look so much like Shirlee, Henry’s wife?


1.  See Lillian Ross and Helen Ross, The Player:  A Profile of an Art (New York:  Limelight, 1984), p. 99; and Amos Coggins, “Actor by Accident,” The American Weekly (February 19, 1961), p. 7.  Completing a Fonda trifecta of sorts, Susan Strasberg would go on to have psychedelic sex with Henry’s son Peter in The Trip (1967).

2.  The screenplay was published by Plougshares Books in 1985.

3.  Blake Bailey, A Tragic Honesty:  The Life and Work of Richard Yates (New York:  Macmillan, 2003), pp. 279-281, 288-289.

4.  Martin Naparsteck, “Dick Yates Goes to the Movies,” Authors Guild Bulletin (Winter 2009), p. 9.

5.  See here.

I ask what might have been

While writing The Man Who Saw a Ghost, I compiled this list of Henry Fonda projects that at one time or another were rumored, considered, perhaps fought for, even formally announced as done deals—but that never came together in any form, in a form quite different from the one we know, or in a form more or less similar but without Fonda’s involvement.  Quotes are culled from contemporary reports.

1934

The President Vanishes. Fonda has signed with independent producer Walter Wanger to play one of the leads in this adaptation from Rex Stout.  It is produced, without Fonda, and released the following year.

1935

The Young Lincoln. More than three years before Young Mr. Lincoln coalesces under Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century-Fox, Fonda “will be starred in The Young Lincoln, the story of the martyred president between the ages of 23 and 30.”

Heaven’s My Destination. Fonda is eager to star in a stage production of Thornton Wilder’s novel:  “There’s only one thing that I would drop everything to do—if Heaven’s My Destination is ever made into a play,” he says.

1936

His Majesty Bunker Bean. Walter Wanger will loan Fonda to producer Sam Briskin to play the lead in the third film version of Lee Wilson Dodd’s 1916 play (which was adapted in turn from Harry Leon Wilson’s 1913 novel Bunker Bean).  Edward Killy and William Hamilton are listed as directors.

Way for a Lady. Upon release of The Moon’s Our Home, their co-starring vehicle, Fonda and ex-wife Margaret Sullavan will have their second teaming in this romantic comedy.

Desert Intrigue. John Ford, under hire of Wanger, will direct and Fonda will star in this version of Alfred Hatson’s novel African Intrigue.

1937

Carelessly We Love. Fonda is said to be currently at work on this Wanger production, due for completion before he heads east for summer stock, a Broadway play, and the birth of his first child.  (We’d theorize this as an early title for That Certain Woman, which Fonda was actually filming at the time—except that was not a Wanger film.)

1938

Lawyer of the West. Darryl Zanuck desires but has yet to sign Fonda for this “melodrama which deals with an exciting murder case tried by Lincoln when he was a young lawyer in Springfield.”

1940

The Eagle Flies Again. Fonda and Don Ameche will co-star in this story of young Americans flying for Canada’s Royal Air Force, with Henry King as director.  (King did direct A Yank in the RAF, released in 1941, starring Tyrone Power.)

1941

The Girl I Love. Fonda is said to have Zanuck interested in remaking this old Charles Gray picture.

Swamp Water. Fonda is forced to pass on this Dudley Nichols drama set in the South because he has already signed on for You Belong to Me and The Male Animal.

1945

The Perfect Marriage. Reported as an upcoming vehicle.

1946

The White Tower. Reported as an upcoming vehicle.

Ethan Frome. Fonda is supposed to co-star with Bette Davis in this adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel.

The Great Divide. William Vaughn Moody’s 1906 play—previously filmed in 1915, 1925, and 1930—is being readied for remaking by James Edward Grant, who seeks Fonda to star.

1947

Spoon Handle. An upcoming Dorothy McGuire vehicle, for which Fox desires Fonda.

Rain Before Seven. Fonda is interested in a rewritten version of a screenplay he’d previously declined; Lizbeth Scott to costar.

Appointment in Samarra. Fonda presents a script of the John O’Hara novel to his old friend, stage director Joshua Logan, who has just co-written the stage play Mister Roberts with Thomas Heggen.  Roberts goes to Broadway; the movie is never made.

1948

Mister Roberts. Soon after Roberts’s debut, talk begins of the film version, also to star Fonda, with William Wyler “highly probable” to direct.

1949

Agony Green. Purchased by Harold Schuster—once editor of The Farmer Takes a Wife, Fonda’s first film, and now a director—this is rumored to be Henry’s next stage vehicle.

Bicycle Thieves. According to Bert Cardullo, author of Vittorio de Sica: Director, Actor, Screenwriter (2002), producer David O Selznick promises to make a Hollywood version of de Sica’s neorealist Bicycle Thieves “on the condition that Gary Grant be cast in the lead”; but Fonda is de Sica’s first choice.  The Hollywood version is not made.

1952

The Affair. Henry, tired of waiting for Mister Roberts to go before the cameras, is considering this Melvin Panama-Norman Frank script, hawked as “a very sophisticated and adult love story.”

Rear Window. A year after the Hitchcock movie appears, Joshua Logan reveals he had first ownership of the Cornell Woolrich story. A 13-page treatment was written, with details differing vastly from the eventual Hitchcock version. Logan had planned to direct Fonda on New York locations during the run of Roberts, but was distracted by his concurrent stage projects.

Untitled Frank Grandstaff Project. Career criminal Frank Grandstaff, acclaimed three years earlier for composing a cantata in his prison cell—and subsequently pardoned as a result—is again in police custody for theft (though he has “denied any knowledge” of the crime with which he is charged). He asks Municipal Judge Herbert J. Steffes not to imprison him, because “a movie company planned to make a film on the story of his life [and] Hollywood actor Henry Fonda was to have the leading role.”  Grandstaff wants to stay out of jail so that he may give the filmmakers “technical advice.”  The judge declines to reduce Grandstaff’s sentence of one to three years.

Untitled John Steinbeck Musical. Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, planning a musical of John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row, desire Fonda to star.

1953

Oh, Men! Oh, Women! Cannery Row. Two plays considered by Fonda—the first an Edward Chodorov comedy about a psychoanalyst, the second the aforementioned Steinbeck musical.

The Immoralist. Theatrical impresario Billy Rose sends Fonda the script for this stage version of Andre Gide’s 1926 novel, “figuring he would be an excellent choice to play the emotionally twisted husband opposite Geraldine Page.”  Fonda responds that the part is interesting, but he is already committed to another. Louis Jordan plays the husband, opposite Page and a neophyte James Dean.

A Star is Born. Fonda turns down the part of Norman Maine in George Cukor’s remake because of his commitment to The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.  Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart also pass.  The role goes to James Mason.

1954

Pipe Dream. Fonda decides not to appear in the Cannery Row musical (actually an adaptation of Sweet Thursday, the sequel to that novel), despite taking voice and singing lessons while acting in Point of No Return.  The show goes on in late 1955 under a new title, with William Johnson in the Fonda role, and ranks among Rodgers and Hammerstein’s minor successes, running for “only” 246 performances.

Clown. Reports say Fonda, having bought the film rights to Emmett Kelly’s autobiography, intends to produce it as a theatrical film.  The television version is only a dry run:  “I want to do the picture and that’s the only reason why I’m doing the TV show.”  As late as summer 1957, the film version is said to be imminent, but it is never realized.

1955

Point of No Return. Fonda will repeat his stage role in a Leland Hayward-produced film version.

Gertrude Lawrence as Mrs. A. Producers Melville Shavelson and Jack Ross pursue Fonda in Rome, where he is making War and Peace, to get him to play Richard Aldrich, husband of stage star Gertrude Lawrence, in the filming of Aldrich’s recent biography.  Katharine Hepburn is said to be under consideration for the Lawrence part if Fonda signs.

Untitled Joseph Bell Project. Fonda is interested in playing Dr. Joseph Bell, “the real-life inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes,” in a film produced and directed by William Dieterle.

1957

Say, Darling. Fonda may star as the Midwestern playwright in this “play about a musical” by Abe Burrows and Marian and Richard Bissell. The play is produced in 1958, starring David Wayne, and is a big hit.

1958

Three Against Time. Fonda and Ingrid Bergman have expressed interest in Pearl Buck’s new play.

Anatomy of a Murder. Fonda is named as most likely to star in the upcoming Otto Preminger film version of this New York Times bestseller. The part goes to Fonda’s close friend Jimmy Stewart.

Jefferson Selleck. Henry’s next project will be this adaptation of a 1952 Carl Smith novel, being brought to the stage by Joseph Mankiewicz.  Henry wants to do it “because it’s about actual people his family knew” in Omaha.

1959

La Dolce Vita. Anita Ekberg, recently Henry’s costar in War and Peace, says her next film will be The Sweet Life, again with Fonda.  This, of course, turns out to be La Dolce Vita, without Fonda.

He is offered the part of Steiner, a writer who kills himself after shooting his two children.  The character is based on the Italian novelist Cesare Pavese, dead by his own hand in 1950, and is ultimately played by Alain Cuny.  Many years later, Fonda explains:  “Fellini asked me to play the part of a man with a family who commits suicide in La Dolce Vita, and I just couldn’t accept the part.  I couldn’t understand the character.  I thought the act was unpremeditated, unprovoked, unreasonable.  I couldn’t believe the suicide.”  Still, he says he has seen the film “more than any other,” and considers it his all-time favorite.

1961

The Chapman Report. Bunny Lake is Missing. Among the offers with which Fonda has lately been deluged.  The first is to star daughter Jane, but Henry has been too busy to read the script; the second is on Otto Preminger’s back burner.

Tender is the Night. David O Selznick, producing the film version of the Fitzgerald novel, writes in a memo that Fonda would be a good choice to play Dick Diver.  The role goes to Jason Robards.

The Cardinals [sic]. “It’s almost a certainty,” says Hedda Hopper, that Henry will do this screenplay with Otto Preminger in the spring of 1962.  The Cardinal is released in 1963, with John Huston instead.

1962

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee has Fonda in mind for the character of George, and sends the play to his agents—who reject the “no-balls character” without even showing it to their client.

Lie Down in Darkness. United Artists announces an adaptation of the William Styron novel about a volatile Southern girl’s life and death, to be directed by John Frankenheimer from a script by novelist Richard Yates. Jane Fonda would play the girl, with Henry as her father.

I’ll devote a separate upcoming entry to this movie-that-never-was: There’s too much fascinating back-story, and fore-story, to get into here.

1963

Seven Days in May. Fonda declines the role of the President because he’s about to play the same part in Fail-Safe.

The Confessor. Fonda’s next film, to be directed by John Frankenheimer. Never made.

Catch-22. Fonda reads the Joseph Heller novel, a chapter of which focuses on Major Major’s sickening resemblance to himself, and is “a little shocked when I came across my name in the book.”  He talks with prospective adaptor Richard Brooks, and appears interested in playing the part.

1964

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Bette Davis is desperate to star in the movie (imitating her younger self: “What a dump”!), with Fonda as her co-star.  When Elizabeth Taylor is signed, she too would like to play opposite Henry. Richard Burton is attracted to the role, but it’s felt he may be “too strong” for the character.

1967

The Bootles of Butternut Hill. This play by Sidney Michaels, author of Dylan and others, is supposed to be Fonda’s next stage property.

Barbarella. Henry declines to do a cameo as the President of the Earth.  (“Would I have to take my clothes off?” he asks Jane.)

1968

Catch-22. Among the cast members lined up for the Mike Nichols production are Alan Arkin, Richard Benjamin, Paula Prentiss, Tony Perkins, Alan Alda, Robert Redford, and Henry Fonda—as Major Major.  But when the film is released two years later,  Bob Newhart plays the role.

Ethan Frome. During the start-up of the Plumstead Playhouse, Henry reports that Joanne Woodward has agreed to co-star with him in a stage production of the Wharton novel.

Planet of the Apes. Fonda is the first choice of producer Arthur P. Jacobs to play the President of the United States, but his casting his opposed by co-producer Don Taylor, who prefers William Windom.

1971

The Homecoming. Henry is suggested for the father in the Christmas 1971 TV movie, which will lead to the series The Waltons.  But CBS executives decide the show must focus on the kids, not the parents, so go with non-stars.

1972

Seascape. Edward Albee reportedly would like Henry and Angela Lansbury to star in his upcoming play.

1973

The Streets of Laredo. Peter Bogdanovich wants to direct a western starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Jimmy Stewart, based on an idea he has developed with novelist Larry McMurtry. Fonda and Stewart are onboard, but Wayne declines. The screenplay later evolves into McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove (1985)—whose sequel is entitled The Streets of Laredo. (Both are filmed as TV miniseries.)

O. W. Street. ABC has supposedly signed Fonda for the title role of this Movie of the Week intended as the pilot for a prospective series. The plot:  “Fonda will be seen as a sheriff from the Texas Panhandle who teaches criminology at a local university.  One of his students, now a district attorney in a large California city, seeks his help in solving the murder of that city’s captain of detectives and hires him as the man’s replacement.”

1974

Seascape. Fonda accepts the starring role in the Albee play, then withdraws in favor of Clarence Darrow.

Clarence Darrow. Henry says he plans to film a pilot for a possible series based on the one-man show.

Untitled Revolutionary War Project. Henry will begin filming a movie with Jane and Peter the following September.  “It’s a story about the Revolution that you won’t read in any textbook,” he promises.

1975

Untitled Revolutionary War Project. Fonda says, “We’re all going to make a movie together—the three of us.  It was Jane’s idea and it’s going to be about a father and his son and daughter during the American Revolution.  I spearheaded the whole thing and a couple of weeks ago got the okay from Columbia Pictures.  It all takes place in Boston in 1774.  Actually, in a way, it was Peter’s idea.  He had an option on a Howard Fast book about Valley Forge.  [This would be the 1939 Conceived in Liberty: A Novel of Valley Forge.]  We all talked it over and came up with the idea of one family’s involvement in the revolution.  We’ll probably start in the fall.  I’m not sure we’ll be able to get it out in time for the bicentennial but that would sure be nice.”

Later in the year, Henry elaborates:  “Columbia Pictures wants to produce it.  The money’s there and now it’s a matter of a finished script. . . .  The studio put up the money for a script which is being written now.  The 125-page treatment was history, not drama.  But, of course, that will be straightened out.”

1976

A House Divided. The Revolutionary War film finally has a title.  Jane says, “We’ve been wanting to work in the same picture for a long time. …  Peter had this property but couldn’t get it going, so I took it over.  I think it’s a good story, about a common family during the years preceding and after the Revolution.  There are no battles.  Rather, it shows the underbelly of our country at the time it was getting started.”

Network. It’s rumored that Sidney Lumet seeks Fonda to star, presumably in what would become either the Peter Finch or William Holden role.

1977

Com-TAC 303. Henry will be among the stars of this Pinnacle Productions presentation, about a unit of black fighter pilots during World War II.  He will play an Air Corps officer; costars are Billy Dee Williams, Greg Morris, and Chad Everett.  Filming begins around Hollywood and in the Mojave Desert, but Columbia Pictures cuts off funds, and despite the producers’ efforts the picture dies.

1978

The Journey of Simon McKeever. Fonda will soon shoot a film about an arthritis-stricken man who hitchhikes California highways seeking a cure.  It’s based on a 1949 Albert Maltz novel that was bought by Hollywood on publication, set to star Walter Huston, and then shelved when Maltz was blacklisted.  Nearly twenty years later, Spencer Tracy was going to star, but he died.  (In Radical Innocence:  A Critical Study of the Hollywood Ten, Bernard F. Dick says it was Walter Brennan, not Walter Huston, who was originally to star when Fox bought the novel on publication, with Jules Dassin directing.)

Maltz could not be employed as a screenwriter under the Waldorf Statement, by which the major studios agreed not to retain “questionable” individuals.  Yet Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck, a signer of the statement, must have approved the purchase of the property for $35,000, and assumed there would be no problem with filming a blacklistee’s novel.  Still, Zanuck withdrew the movie due to “heavy clamor from the public,” mainly the conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.  Maltz filed a complaint, but the Screen Writers Guild did not back him up.

1979

The Journey of Simon McKeever. Scheduled to begin shooting in the summer, on the novel’s locations—the roads between Sacramento and Glendale.

1980

The 31st of June. Among Fonda’s upcoming projects is this TV movie.  It’s possibly an early title for Summer Solstice, the drama (co-starring Myrna Loy) that was Fonda’s last film.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Jim Thebaut of Evergreen Foundation Films claims that Henry, Jane, and Peter will finally appear together, in a movie of the Dee Brown book.  Peter has recently been out raising funds for the project.

First Monday in October. Playing Fonda’s stage role in the film, Walter Matthau says, “Hank would have done the movie except that he was committed to another project [On Golden Pond] …  I went to Hank’s house to talk to him about it, and he said, ‘I asked them who was doing it and when they said it was you, I said okay.’”

1982

Untitled Harry Hopkins Project. Untitled Walt Whitman Project. These are claimed to be the last projects Fonda considered—the first, a play about FDR’s top political advisor, the second, a one-man presentation based on the poet’s writings.  Due to Fonda’s poor health, neither makes it past the talking stage.

I thank Gore Vidal

He had long been ill.  We’ve known for some time that he would die soon. I never thought that “soon” would be so soon. Or that it would necessarily be ever. Imagined somehow that his remaining days would be spent quietly and invisibly in his Ravello villa, and that one day, years on, we’d hear of his passing in the night. Instead he cashed out now, declining to suffer any longer the physical pain and existential misery that were obviously his boon companions in old age. The last hills he saw were those of Hollywood, not Italy. There’s an appropriateness to the geography of his exit, since he spent many fruitful years as a screenwriter in Tinseltown and wrote about the place and the people as well as any memoirist ever has. But his death itself was inappropriate, as death is always inappropriate when it visits those who will not be replaced.

I was lucky enough to see him hold forth at the Barnes & Noble at 82nd and Broadway back around 1995, when his memoir Palimpsest was published. He fielded questions about public policy and private lives with equal aplomb, casually dropping the bomb that Bobby Kennedy may, may, you understand, have had a fling with Rudolf Nuryev. He was in fine fettle and pink health. But the last time I saw him, on Bill Maher’s show on April 10, 2009, he was clearly not just ill but ill at ease, crankier even than the Gore of old, mounting a perverse—surprise!—and not very interesting—surprise—defense of Bernie Madoff. Idea being, I think, that Gore liked Bernie because Bernie had made visible all the hidden motors and motives of the American empire instinct. He had shown us our secret selves, and was now being made the scapegoat for every capitalist’s unadmitted wish—to screw everyone in sight, reduce other lives to smoking ruin, and get away clean with the green. I got Vidal’s idea, but was turned off by his way of expressing it.

Like many, I looked to Vidal for clarity, critique, and a fearless (albeit biased) response to American madness. I never expected to agree with him on everything, never imagined I would want to be his friend. Yet even I was not so vaguely offended by that Madoff-praising TV appearance. As an actual friend of mine put it today, in the context of admiration, Vidal normally gave the impression of being “ragingly egotistical, entitled, miserable, [and] very angry.” No doubt he was all of those things, or was giving a phenomenal impression. But as I began to realize a little while back, when Christopher Hitchens died, it was never the role of the public intellectual to confirm anyone in his or her beliefs, or let anyone feel too comfortable for too long. And feeling that the intellectual himself is unassailable, unobjectionable, a guru, or even just a wonderful person is the first step in getting too comfortable—in ceasing to think critically.

So the great writer’s final gift to me, his fan, follower, and defender for many years, was to piss me off. Thanks, Gore, for never letting me feel too comfortable with you.

Charles McGrath in the New York Times writes the best summa I’ve seen on Vidal as writer and raconteur, intellect and irritant, performer and public figure.  From the personal side, I add:

Read everything you can by him. Maybe start with his non-historical novels, for the fictional-dramatic is usually the easiest route into a writer’s private mechanism. Williwaw, The City and the Pillar (the first mainstream novel to take homosexuality as theme and subject), Dark Green, Bright Red (about a US fruit company—not the United Fruit Company, no!—working its mischief in Latin America), Messiah (which explored the fascist potential of TV years before A Face in the Crowd, let alone Network), Julian (scandalously readable epic of the Roman emperor who tried to banish Christianity), Myra Breckinridge (scandalously readable comedy of sex change and sex confusion and sex and sex and sex and sex).

The Narratives of Empire, seven in number, that amount to a biography of the United States: Burr, Lincoln, 1876, etc. This, for me, is the undiscovered country of Vidal’s work. I look forward to exploring it.

Vidal’s essays, though, are where you find the mind and matter of the man in most unmitigated form. He was one of the best-ever practitioners of that genre: caustic, deeply and broadly learned, hilarious. Self-deprecating, even, when the moment was right. Literature, politics, travel, war, the popular and the elitist, he traveled every terrain and made the obvious seem a little less so; he was on the inside of everything and he told on everyone. He took the broadest latitude to be the critic of America that our vaunted freedoms guarantee each of us the right to be. He filled your head with notions and, if you were a writer, inspired you to write the fastest, sharpest, most challenging sentences you could conjure. Rocking the Boat, Reflections on a Sinking Ship, Homage to Daniel Shays, Matters of Fact and of Fiction, The Last Empire. And especially United States, the collected cream of our country’s greatest essayist over the span of fifty years.

I’m driven to commemorate Vidal here partly because he is a strong phantom presence in The Man Who Saw a Ghost. His words kept surfacing and seeming essential as I made my way through Henry Fonda’s way through the American past and present, and so I quoted him many times in his capacity as a) a most acute, skeptical, and articulate observer of our history; b) an on-site participant in the Kennedy regime, in which Fonda also played a more than marginal role; and c) a colleague of Fonda’s, who starred in the film version of Vidal’s play The Best Man.

Speaking of which—I of course had no idea I was posting a blog entry about Vidal and The Best Man the day before he would die. Let it be my little fantasy that mine was the last piece of writing to appear on him while he was still here, that a tiny vibration of admiration went out and found him, that it joined all the others he had inspired and provoked in his life, and that he died smiling like the cat who had swallowed the canary—or, more impressively, the American writer who had left his mark on our time.

I thank Frank Capra

From the winsome silent comedies of Harry Langdon through ‘30s farce and fantasy to the life- and flag-affirming comedy-dramas for which he is most famous (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life), Frank Capra was one of Hollywood’s most successful directors. He made several vaunted films, guided actors through career-defining performances, and shot a vision of small-town American life so consistent that “Capraesque” long ago joined “Hitchcockian” as shorthand for a uniquely identifiable set of values and aesthetics.

“People don’t want to think,” Capra told an interviewer in 1934, the year he directed the multi-Oscar-winner It Happened One Night.

ImageFrank Capra

Exactly thirty years later, Capra was engaged to direct The Best Man, the film version of Gore Vidal’s hit Broadway play. Vidal evidently brought Henry Fonda onboard early to play Senator Harold Russell, the presidential candidate based on Adlai Stevenson. I’m not certain how Capra’s name became attached to any script originating from Vidal’s acid pen: True, Capra had attended the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960, as had Vidal and Fonda; and he’d directed political films before—or films set partly in government buildings, anyway. But his attitude of right-leaning Americanism would seem almost diametrically opposed to that of the empire-critiquing Vidal. Yet Capra in his autobiography claims to have had an initially favorable impression of the writer as “possessor of an eloquent bitchiness that I found entertaining.”

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Gore Vidal

According to Vidal, Capra and his co-scenarist, Myles Connolly, rewrote the stage play for the screen, conjuring a “grotesquely sentimentalized” script which made the hero “the guileless young mixed race governor of Hawaii,” a nonentity who ascends to the nomination when the frontrunners force each other out. “He was deeply reactionary in his politics,” Vidal wrote of Capra. “Communism was triumphing everywhere and only Nixon could have stemmed the Red tide, but since he had lost, ‘our’ best man—the movie’s best man, that is—must offer the nation hope under God.

Though Capra’s script was already written, he excitedly narrated his new climax for Vidal as if it were a gift of the inspired instant:

“I got it.  Listen.  The good guy—maybe Fonda—he dresses up as Abraham Lincoln and he comes down on the floor just when the vote is going against him and he talks to the delegates and turns them around.  Yes. …  Yes!

For a moment, I thought that one of us had gone mad.

The embarrassing spectacle of Henry Fonda, of all actors, done up as a Halloween-pageant Lincoln could so easily have sprung from Capra’s simple mind. I think of James Gregory’s costume Lincoln in The Manchurian Candidate; but there the intent, I’m confident, was ironic.

Capra remembered the Best Man meeting slightly differently. He voiced his concern that the two candidates at the center of the scenario were clearly (to him) atheist. Whereupon Vidal, wicked fellow, bluntly avowed his desire to convert the world to atheism. Capra did not take to the joke, if joke it was. “This gay blade,” he concluded, “wants to use my next film as a brochure for his anti-religious vanities.” The eloquent bitch had slipped its leash, and Capra didn’t like its bite. “So I bowed out.”

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Cliff Robertson and Henry Fonda, The Best Man

Looking at The Best Man as it reached the screen, recalling what a fine, funny, fleet-footed, far-seeing, and generally damned entertaining movie Vidal and Franklin Schaffner made of it, we can only say “Thank you, Frank Capra.”  Leaving aside the broad political disparities between himself and Vidal’s conception, Capra had long since lost whatever touch, whatever populist elan or snake-oil facility had once greased his homiletic hits.

And Capra directing Henry Fonda really wouldn’t have worked. Apparently, he had a longstanding distrust of what Fonda represented—or didn’t represent. Asked late in his career why he had never worked with the consummate populist hero of the Hollywood screen, Capra said, “I didn’t think he was America. He represented to me some kind of stylized, eclectic—is that the word I want?—elite intellectual.”

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It is certainly true that Fonda lacked much talent for playing the starry-eyed sap who was Capra’s customary protagonist. (The proof is 1942’s The Magnificent Dope, directed by Walter Lang but in all respects a Capra film, with Fonda as the rube whom fortune’s favor allows to triumph over Don Ameche’s adman.) But Capra didn’t mean that. What he meant is what he said, and what he said is that the conservative distrusts eclecticism because to him it looks like elitism—for both encompass such sticky wickets as diversity, ambiguity, contradiction, the sense that one thing can be many things. “We hate this both shit,” as David Foster Wallace once wrote about the American popular audience. E unum pluribus is another way of putting it. For many, that reversal of the national motto goes against the American grain of assimilation, conformity, finding and staying in one’s place.

Those are the values evinced in Capra. That, I believe, is why he never wanted to work with Henry Fonda, and that is why he didn’t, or couldn’t, believe that Fonda “was America.” Frank Capra’s America is not eclectic, diverse, or contradictory, but assimilationist, conformist, and segmented.

That same fear of the eclectic led Capra to favor actors like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby, Glenn Ford, and Jimmy Stewart—actors who, granting their particular charms and strengths, cannot be described as poets of ambivalence, let alone bringers of darkness. Stewart’s portrayal of suicidal depression (followed by affirmative euphoria) in It’s a Wonderful Life is so badly judged, so squawking and flailing and hissy-fit hysterical, that it drains the film of what ought to be its subtext. To say this is Capra’s darkest film, the one that touches the farthest extremities of emotion, isn’t saying so much: George Bailey’s despair as embodied by Stewart is just as shallow and evanescent as Capra wants and believes American despair to be.

I correct a misnomer

The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda, due October 2 from St. Martin’s Press, is my second book. But all writers, and probably many readers, know that’s a misnomer: Chances are you’ve actually written several books, or at least book-length manuscripts, by the time you get one published. What goes in the record as your “first book” is, simply and more accurately, your first book that was good enough to convince someone to publish it.

In my case, something like seven and a half  books, or book-length manuscripts—let’s call them BLMs—preceded my first published one, Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003). I offer descriptions of each, and a précis of what each taught me as a writer:

BLM 1: A biography of the Beatles, written circa 1979. (It was definitely before John Lennon’s murder.) It was not plagiarized by any means, but it was patterned exceedingly closely on a recently issued Marvel Comics version of the Beatles’ story. (A comic I lost years ago, then delightedly found again at the New Jersey Beatlefest of 2003.) I typed it up myself and pasted the sheets into a big book of blank pages purchased from a gift shoppe. I even ripped pictures from books and made a photo insert. Crafty little devil! My mother surely still has this somewhere, next to my grade-school clay ashtrays.

What it taught me: Stamina is important, and renewing one’s faith in a project can be difficult. I was more than keen on writing this at the start, and the first two or three chapters were thick with the febrile descriptions and fabricated facts (Liverpool had, I reckoned, a population of about 1,100 people) that poured from my little head. But I ran out of steam toward the end, and my ass dragged over the finish line: The last chapter, detailing the Beatles’ denouement, was little more than a page long. The whole didn’t even make it to 50 pages. But it was, I assert, a book—a long piece of prose with a beginning, middle, and end. It wound down in a funk, but I finished the damned thing.

BLM 2. A critical-historical study of rock and roll music in the 1960s, titled When Soft Voices Die (artsy). The first draft, finished in 1984, was not plagiarized by any means, but it was patterned exceedingly closely on Nik Cohn’s Rock from the Beginning. The second draft, done the next year, was much expanded and much more the product of my own tastes and perceptions as opposed to Mr. Cohn’s, but unfortunately just as useless to the world at large. A professor I knew read it, and encouraged me, unaccountably in retrospect, to send the manuscript to his agent in New York (a well-known agent, to whom, as I recall, James Ellroy’s American Tabloid is dedicated). The agent had an associate write a kindly note back, saying that the writing was good but that the book added no new insight or fact to the present picture. Which was undeniable.

What it taught me: Write your own damn book—don’t rewrite someone else’s.

BLM 3. A critical study of ten films, called Modes of Perception: The Director’s Art (heavy), written in 1985 as a senior project in high school. Let’s see if I can recall the films: Psycho, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Once Upon a Time in the West, Midnight Cowboy, The Twelve Chairs, Carnal Knowledge, American Graffiti, and I guess I can’t remember the other. Very auteurist, very Hollywood in orientation; highly influenced by the first edition of Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films, the only serious work of analytical film criticism I’d read at that point. The project was pass/fail; I passed and graduated. Whew.

What it taught me: Anyone who selects ten movies to write about, and four of those ten are directed by Stanley Kubrick and Mike Nichols, needs to see more movies.

BLM 4. A novel, written over the summer of 1985 (was I prolific back then or what?), called The Crossing, a Chandleresque mystery set for some lost reason in rural Georgia—a region I had never seen and still haven’t. Gratuitously violent, excruciatingly hardboiled; I stretched my powers of description and empathy to portray the phenomenon of a bullet pulverizing a human jaw. There were, I think, seven characters, counting the detective. Three or four of the others wound up dead. Leaving two suspects, only one of whom was smart enough to have done it. Mystery solved.

What it taught me: Novels aren’t that hard to write. Good novels, on the other hand …

BLM 5. A collection of short stories, polished off in 1987, called On the Ledge and Other Places. The title story, written in my eighth-grade English class, was about a little boy who murders another little boy in a rowboat, by smashing his head with an oar. Luckily, the teacher didn’t report me for having homicidal fantasies, as would happen today. Older stories were collected and newer ones written to be entered into a contest I’d come across in The North American Review. I didn’t win.

What it taught me: a) Work you did last week doesn’t always integrate smoothly with work you did five years ago, especially if five years ago you weren’t shaving yet. b) The short story isn’t really my thing.

BLM 6. A novel, finished in 1988, called Blind. I thought that was a good title, though it had no particular contextual meaning; didn’t know Talking Heads would record a song called “Blind” that very year and steal my thunder. Based loosely on my father’s experiences as a loan officer and repo man in the Midwest in the early 1960s, conflated with a recent case that had gotten much attention in Iowa: In 1983, Steven Hadley, the head teller at the John Deere Community Credit Union in Waterloo—and a professional acquaintance of my dad, who managed another credit union in the area—absconded with over $1 million. Abandoning his wife and children, he escaped by air, dressed in drag. Hadley was still at large when I started the novel; around the time I finished it, the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries” was doing a segment on him. By chance, he was apprehended just days before the episode aired.

What it taught me: I can finish a longer novel. And a better novel. This was not a thin slice like the Georgia murder mystery; the stack had weight. I didn’t skimp on scenes, didn’t rush things along just to be done with them. I let rhythms develop and things play out. The story was uninteresting, the characters ambivalent to the point of despondency, the resolution thuddingly foreordained, but again, I’d finished it, and it was a lot better than my earlier attempt at the form.

BLM 7. A book of four longish stories, written in 1993 and 1994, called The Art of Imagination. This was offered as my master’s thesis in English at the City College of New York. While there, I’d had fiction workshops with three very different teachers, two of whom were lovely and encouraging, the other of whom was a bully, but all of whom taught me valuable lessons. These stories (which shared the theme of protagonists discovering hidden aspects of visible life, and following out in deliberate action the fancies of their imaginations) were better than any I’d written back in the ‘80s. That was partly because of these teachers, and partly because in the long interregnum between BLMs 6 and 7, I’d veered away from fiction and back toward criticism, mostly of movies. I’d written dozens of reviews for my college paper and then for the local metro paper, published a few essays in Film Quarterly, and crafted, purely for my own reference and enjoyment, a ton of super-brief movie critiques (not plagiarized by any means, but closely patterned on Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies).

What it taught me: Synthesis. Form and content, voice and thought, are not separate, they are the same. Synthesis.

What I needed to do to grow as a writer was to combine the critical analysis and aesthetic critique I seemed to have a knack for—the deconstruction and reassembly of artists and artworks into new imaginative shapes—with the vivid language and free metaphor that I took for granted made good fiction. Everything sprang from this. I discovered critics (D. H. Lawrence, Manny Farber, Parker Tyler) who’d made the same discovery decades before me. Where I’d never been a particular fan of Norman Mailer, I suddenly saw how great were his achievements. My writing got better, my thinking less regimented. I started getting published more regularly, and what I published began getting reprinted. I began to feel what I’d never really felt before—like I did have a voice, did have a unique mind attached to that voice.

BLM 7 ½. A novel, called—well, I won’t say, lest I go back to it someday. Written throughout 1995 and 1996, it was a) inspired by the O. J. Simpson murders, and b) about a circle of late-adolescent friends living in New York. It was overambitious and underplotted (think Big Serious Novel, early 1960s: Set This House on Fire, Another Country, An American Dream), and it stalled on me at the halfway point, which amounted to more than 300 pages.

What it taught me: In fact, it is very hard to write a good novel—a large, thematically coherent, holistic piece of involving, dramatic, shocking, moving narrative. There can be few harder tasks to set oneself in life than that.

It hurt, but I admitted the novel I’d put everything into for more than a year wasn’t working.  I drawered it, and probably wrote about one movie or another. Soon enough, having read and been disappointed by a couple of highly touted books on the Beatles, I began making notes on that long-cherished subject—the subject, in fact, of BLM 1—and a few years later I had, yes, my first published book.

But far from my first book.

Misnomer corrected, I hope?

(P.S. I persist in typing “misnomer” as “mishomer.” I haven’t seen a Simpsons episode in ages: Perhaps my subconscious is telling me I miss Homer?)

I clear my throat

So: I have a book coming out.

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