Peter Fonda may have been the least accomplished of the Fonda film power trio (no shame in that, the bar was high), but his impact on cinema was still significant beyond measure.
Fonda appeared in a number of Roger Corman productions in the 60s before striking out on his own at the end of that decade with his seminal 1969 counter-culture touchstone, Easy Rider. Written by Fonda, along with Terry Southern and Director/co-star Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider was a rambling tale of two motorcycle guys who’d gone to look for America – as the Simon and Garfunkel song goes.
While some found the film dramatically inert and there’s a question about how well it’s aged, Easy Rider was an elegiac thunderbolt that changed filmmaking. Made for almost nothing, the film scored an Oscar for its screenplay, and for Jack Nicholson’s star-making turn as George Hanson, a liberal lawyer they meet on their travels. It also made a ton of money stunning corner-office Hollywood with its budget to profit ratio. It’s significance to DIY independent cinema cannot be overstated.
The ending is a real kicker too. Infused with sadness and tragedy. In its way, it was like the Stones at Altamont. It wasn’t about the beginning of something, it was about the death of it. That thing was innocence.
Two years later, Fonda tried his hand at directing with the criminally underseen western, Hired Hand. It’s all but forgotten by anyone who’s not a dedicated cinephile. It is ripe for rediscovery.
Things got dark for Fonda after that. He went nearly a quarter of a century stuck in B movies and underperforming schlock. He had a nice turn in Michael Almereyda’s vampire film, Nadja, in 1994, but it wouldn’t be until 1997’s Ulee’s Gold that Fonda would make a true comeback.
All but channeling his father’s taciturn, flinty nature, Fonda was perfect as a Florida beekeeper trying with quiet rectitude to hold his family together. The slice of life’s noirish turn at the end is very effective. Fonda earned his only best actor nomination for his work.
I would argue he was even better two years later as the villain dripping with California sleaze in Steven Soderbergh’s minimalist masterpiece of film noir, The Limey. Casual and droll, Fonda had never been better than he was here as the target of Terence Stamp’s vengeance.
The one-two punch of Ulee’s Gold and The Limey would more or less be Fonda’s last grabs at greatness. The remainder of his career was made up of small parts in things you may have seen (3:10 to Yuma) and many that you probably haven’t.
Fonda exploded on the scene 50 years ago. Hibernated for nearly a quarter of a century. He then fulfilled his potential with master strokes in back to back classics. I suppose one could argue his resume is somewhat thin considering how long he was in his field. But oh, how choice those few nuggets are.
Peter Fonda died yesterday. He was 79 years old.