I consider an indecent proposal

by Devin

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.