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A Reel Life feature

September 1997

Peter Fonda, American Son. Festivale feature written by Ali Kayn
by Ali Kayn (c) 1997

Peter Fonda flashes a smile in the foyer of Melbourne's Cinema Nova. He's jet lagged-to-hell, but for a moment he's forgotten the gruelling round of theatres and meeting rooms.

Nicholson and Fonda, side by side, in dark glasses and smiling teeth would fill an entire room.

Fonda is a good public actor. He smiles, deals with cameras and autographs, and flirts with the journalist's tape recorders. He works a room nicely, leaving the audience feeling that they have met and interacted with him.

He fields questions about his famous show business family (dad Henry, sister Jane, and daughter Bridget) with good humour, but he must answer those questions a thousand times a tour.

At Cinema Nova, presenting Ulee's Gold, he says, "Normally I don't like to get up in front of a screen before the film has started; because I don't want to present an image which you are going to have to break to catch up with the image on the film".

Can the audience avoid bringing their own preconceptions to the experience, with his iconic Captain America (Easy Rider) and his family's renown?

In the opening moments of Ulee's Gold, it is his father's jaw we see under the beekeeper's netted helmet, but Ulee, not Fonda pere or Fonda fils quickly takes our attention. The beekeeper grows from inside Fonda, and compels us to accept that Ulee is real, and slow and methodical, and proud, and as Connie (Patricia Richardson) says, Would be a good man if he didn't "try so hard".

Fonda's willingness to surrender to his character's identity on-screen is mirrored in his real life willingness to be part of Victor Nunez's company, rather than the star, when promoting Ulee's Gold. He is full of praise for the work of the auteur, and his appreciation of being given the 'really well-written and multidimensional character' which Nunez wrote. Peter Fonda, in Ulee's Gold

"Most of the time I'm asked to ride a motorcycle, smoke pot, you know, have some sex -- these are all terrible things to have to do".

"No, seriously, as I actor trained on stage and one wants to know that one has places to go and moments to fill. And I think you notice that in Ulee's Gold we have a lot of that. Victor has the ability to make silence have resonance and presence."

Acting in the Fonda family is serious business, father Henry was there in spirit on the set of Ulee's Gold, reminding his son, "Don't get too cocky".

Inheriting the family name, look, even the talent, is not enough, says Fonda. "The door may be open because of the name, but there are things you must possess to get the job."

"First thing is you have to have presence. Regardless of how you look, presence is paramount. Then you have to have talent. And you can be very talented, and have a lot of presence and sink like the titanic."

"You have to learn how to work at the talent… This takes study. You have to learn to go into yourself. I was fortunate enough to have some private time with Lee Strasberg."

"It's that which you must have. And then if you have talent, and know how to work it, you get the chance to read for the job or get the job. And then you have work your butt off. You have to work like mad, every day."

On Ulee, Fonda worked every day, "In fact, one day I worked 33 hours -- I wasn't even aware of it until I got back to my hotel room."

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