The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012) -
St. Martin’s Press
Hardcover, 428 pages
Devin McKinney’s The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda is neither a straight-up biography of the actor nor a critical examination of his body of work. Yet in some ways it is both. Readers seeking to find meaning will do best to keep the title in mind at all times.
Fonda had many ghosts to deal with throughout his life, one of which - an event he witnessed as a youth in Nebraska - haunted and quite possibly shaped the man he would become. Others ghosts emerged as he grew older. McKinney masterfully weaves this theme of haunting throughout the actor’s life and career. Understand that I’m not speaking here of actual ghosts or hauntings or anything having to do with what we would normally classify as "the supernatural." But the effect on Fonda - which is not fully realized by the reader until the stunningly potent epilogue of the book - is all-pervasive.
All of Fonda’s major (and much of his minor) work - stage, screen, TV, ads, etc. - is touched on here, as well as much of the work of his children Jane and Peter. Does McKinney spend too much time on Jane and Peter? I don’t think so. It’s clear that they belong to a different generation, but much of that may be due to the fact that the ghosts in their own lives are steering them towards (or possibly away from?) different directions from those of their father.
We may think we know Fonda from his roles in films like The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Ox-Bow Incident, My Darling Clementine, 12 Angry Men and many others, and maybe we do. But regardless of what you think you know about Fonda from watching his performances in these films, reading McKinney’s book will give you a greater understanding, if not a greater appreciation, of the man.
The Man Who Saw a Ghost is marred only by McKinney’s often too-opinionated look at the works and many of the other players involved. This is unfortunate and not easily overlooked, but the benefits of the book taken as a whole far outweigh this problem. McKinney’s book is a must-read for fans of film, film history and American cinema.