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Fondas have acted out nation's grace, and fall from it


There's a moment in the soon-to-arrive youth anthem "Bodies, Rest & Motion" when Nick, footloose and fancy-dead, stops at a gas station late at night after a fruitless search for his past (and possibly, therefore, his future) and notices an easy rider on a motorcycle refueling, heavy with purpose.

It's a majestic movie moment, because it says so much about generations heading in opposite directions without making much contact. It's made all the more poignant by the fact that one of the things Nick is fleeing is his girlfriend, Beth, who is played by Bridget Fonda, the avatar of "Generation X," that group of disaffected twentysomethings attracting so much media attention of late. And the motorcycle rider is played by her father, Peter, who was the avatar of his generation, back in 1969 when he made "Easy Rider."

One generation passeth away and another generation cometh; but the movies abideth forever. In fact, as a family dynasty, the Fondas offer an amazing blueprint of generational iconography, for the passing and coming of progeny and progeny's progeny. You could study them as a shortcut to understanding the American psyche for nearly 60 years, from 1935 when Grandpa Henry made "The Farmer Takes a Wife" until Friday, when "Bodies, Rest & Motion" opens.

Moreover, considered as a whole, the Fonda clan may suggest (( something about the nature of American stardom: that stars frequently come to stand for values that go beyond their own individual lives. As talents, they have ranged from the dynamic to the barely adequate, but however interesting each of them has or has not been as a performer, that's the least provocative thing about them. What's more interesting is what they came to stand for and how that has changed over the years.

The patriarch, Henry, was a long, tall string bean of a man, handsome without a trace of effeteness or prettiness, who spoke with the flat nasal tones of the middle prairie. Nebraska-bred (he was born there in 1905), he dropped out of the University of Minnesota and only accidentally became an actor, through amateur dramatics which evolved into summer stock which eventually led to Broadway and then to Hollywood. Though his path took him eastward, he never acquired a patina of Eastern sophistication; he could play Steinbeck, but never Fitzgerald. That was his abiding strength and best career move.

Under-appreciated generation

He was a member of one of the most under-appreciated generation of American actors, with his peers James Stewart, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum. These men had certain things in common, primarily their easy masculinity and their lack of "theatrical" affectation, though two of them -- Fonda and Stewart -- were comfortable on stage. In their era, far too many critics considered them stars as opposed to true "actors," preferring the glibber English style and later the more tortured "method" school of a subsequent generation. But Fonda -- like the others -- was a brilliant performer.

More importantly, he embodied our most closely held illusions about ourself: His pure middle-Americanism made him a natural to play characters of rocky integrity, command and steely grit. His was the spirit that won World War II and then squared off against communism for three decades of unblinking Cold War. He was never a swell, a gigolo or a dapper Dan. He was a lawman, a lawyer, a jurist, and, at least four times, a president. He could and did play Wyatt Earp, Frank James, Abraham Lincoln, Mr. Roberts, the earnest liberal jury member in "Twelve Angry Men." He stood for and exemplified with unfailing grace and decency a now outmoded species: the white European male, honor-bound and courageous, capable of but not proud of violence, whose courage was more normally moral than physical and who represented the very best of that mesh of repressions, pressures and values now universally derided with contempt as "the system."

What a gap between him and his son, and how exactly it parallels the gap between the fathers who fought and won World War II and the sons who did not fight and lost Vietnam. Though Henry Fonda was always a liberal (he never stood for the kind of mindless patriotism of the right, as did John Wayne), he was never a radical. His liberalism always took the form of Establishment liberalism, expressing itself through a practical creed that might be called humanity within the system.

Along comes Peter Fonda (and Jane, but we're pursuing the father-son-granddaughter line here). His film career stands for utter rejection of The Establishment. These views may not represent the man himself (who knew?), but they certainly were what gave edge and meaning to Peter's two memorable films, in a career that, to say the least, was otherwise lackluster. In fact, his cameo in "Bodies, Rest & Motion" may be the first time he's worked in nearly a decade.

It's not merely that Peter Fonda wasn't the actor his father was, or that he somehow lacked the physical features that made him effortlessly interesting on screen, though both were certainly true enough. He never projected anything like his father's

authority and natural ease before the camera, and his features, like the sons of many famous fathers, seem somehow like a vacuous and not terribly well-drawn parody of the famous face they so poignantly resemble. It was something in his eyes. They were vapid and undynamic, and thus it's no surprise that in his two greatest roles, he wore sunglasses, to shield those dead orbs from scrutiny or comparison.

Dubious reputation

The two movies on which his entire, somewhat dubious reputation rests are "The Wild Angels," of 1966, and "Easy Rider," of 1969. The first can be swiftly enough dismissed: It was pure iconography, a sleazy Roger Corman job that played on the sudden attention that the outlaw motorcycle gang Hell's Angels was getting. A lousy movie, it offered the stiff Fonda as an Angel hero, but what was going on was clearly extra-cinematic. It was the charge offered by seeing the son of an icon in the role of one of society's most despised outcasts.

That, too, was the theme of the problematic "Easy Rider," a key '60s film that, among its other notorieties, first introduced Jack Nicholson to the public. The movie was directed by another '60s bad boy, Dennis Hopper, produced by Fonda, then in his brief pendulum swing of industry power, and co-written by Hopper, Fonda and literary bad boy Terry Southern. It was the complete bad-boy-o-rama of the '60s.

Consider, in light of what happened to our society, the plot: Two heroic dope dealers score a huge deal and take their profits and invest in fabulously customized cycles. They roam through the American landscape finding counterculture tribes, with whom they share bread, women and drugs, and redneck scum who try to kill them. Nothing develops dramatically; they just roam. Finally, on an obscure back road in Louisiana, they run into two rednecks in a pickup truck who blow them away. The last scene is Peter Fonda's beautiful chopper, with the American flag embossed on its fuel tank, flying off into midair and exploding. It's the tragic end to a beautiful bike and the wonderful end to a dreary movie.

But those are by the standards of the woeful '90s. In the radical '60s, when a generation was seething with discontent over an unwinnable and apparently atrocity-rich war, "Easy Rider" was adopted as a legitimate social critique, made all the more ironic by its heroes' names (Wyatt and Billy), which evoked classic Western heroes. Wyatt and Billy were counterculture saints, surfing the wave of victimization. Although they're dope dealers, ipso facto they're victims, because they live in a repressive society that is waging an imperialist war; thus their activities are easily justified as meaningless against the larger scale of the social crime.

In its way, "Easy Rider" was also more iconography than drama, and thus the passive and generally inert Fonda made a perfect centerpiece for it. Its true spirit was more visual and emotive than logical and dramatic. It was the endless scenes of Fonda, on that low-slung, stretched-out, sleek and glorious chopper, his eyes sealed off behind shades, the wind rattling through his hair, his Fondaesque profile burning in the sun, simply raging down the highway, a Quixote without a windmill, a Parsifal without a Grail (or, rather, with too much windmill and Grail, the windmill and Grail being all America.) He was like a wind-spirit for a new generation, oblivious to the forces that were conspiring to destroy him, which the movie represented as the bigoted genetic mutants of unenlightened small-town life, poor boys with comic accents and uncomic 12-gauge pump-guns.

If younger readers cannot get what I am saying, I cannot tell them more: It was one of those potent, almost mythic, generation-unifying symbols that defies rational explanation, but even in the memory it's enough to set a '60s survivor's pulse trembling.

Of course because he lacked acting skills and luck (he spent the next three years on Dennis Hopper's insane folly, "The Last Movie"), and because the anger that his two films embodied dissipated, Peter Fonda did not last as long as either Richard Nixon or his own father.

And now . . . the granddaughter.

Bridget Fonda reiterates the classical American bone structure of her grandfather, his fine-boned purity of profile and his high standards of physical beauty without appearing inauthentic or glamorous in a Hollywood way. She certainly doesn't have her father's squirrelly small eyes, and the talent that skipped a generation has returned to propel her to a position as one of her generation's leading performers at a very early age, though having a famous last name and a slew of associations cannot have hurt her career as it cannot have hurt her father's, at least in the early going.

Extra-cinematic meaning

And, quickly, she's found her niche, her extra-cinematic meaning to the wider culture. After a few ingenue parts ("Shag," a minor role as Mandy Rice-Davies in "Scandal") she's settled in to play upscale professional women set upon by unfair forces they don't understand: She was her demented roommate's victim in "Single White Female," for example. But at least three of her films are classic Generation X roles: "Singles" (a professional woman beset by romantic indecision), "Point of No Return" (a used-up druggie turned into a government assassin) and "Bodies, Rest & Motion" (a waitress absorbed in her "relationships").

It's the last, however, that's the most archetypal. "Bodies, Rest & Motion" is derived from a play by Roger Hedden, opened up into a movie by setting it in a parched and bleak Sunbelt city. Directed by Michael Steinberg, it's a work almost more of demographics than of drama, with Hedden hitting all the high points: It's a portrait of people in their 20s who are overqualified and underemployed and who fundamentally lack an entrance into a larger culture. They have nothing but their relationships, subsisting in a scruffy service economy that utterly bores them and for which they have nothing but contempt. But the kind of "meaningful careers" that are the central issues of faith for their older brothers (in their 30s) or even their parents (now in their 40s) are completely closed off for them. Their hobbies are drinking hard liquor, smoking, blowing grass, sleeping with each other somewhat desultorily (there's not a lot of erotic energy in the movie). They appear to have no mythology, no system of belief; their lives are rootless; they're willing to bail out at any moment and blow across the landscape to another city.

In fact, such a decision is the precipitating factor in "Bodies, Rest & Motion," when Nick, Fonda's lover, decides to up and leave "Enfield, Ariz.," for Butte, Mont., which he calls "the city of the future." What future? Nick (played by the acerbic British actor Tim Roth) is articulate, cynical, forceful and dynamic, but he's an appliance salesman. Is there a better future for appliance salesman in Butte, Mont.?

Basically the movie is like one of those little museum-shop gizmos in which a series of balls is suspended in a frame. When one of the balls is pulled up and launched, it falls to strike the others, and the kinetic force travels through the row until the last ball is jerked into counter motion, causing, for a bit, the two balls to exchange decelerating pendulum strokes. Nick's initial move releases a lot of kinetic energy through a small group of people, traveling through one end to the other; and in the end it's Fonda -- like the ball at the end of the frame -- who is in motion, while Nick, with a new partner, has stayed put.

Of the ensemble of players who represent Generation X attitudes (Roth is acerbic, Phoebe Cates somewhat more self-aware, Eric Stoltz is more earnest and working-class), somehow, appropriately, Fonda is the most touching. Her wants are so pure and decent, the possibility of them being fulfilled so remote. She alone seems touched by tragedy.

But then she alone is the granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln. It is indeed a dispiriting progress the Fondas trace: from heroic authority to drab survival in the face of economic oppression. One can see in it almost the tragedy of our culture: from sublime confidence to grim befuddlement. One hopes it's an illusion, or that 20-odd years down the line, the next Fonda will stand for something more positive -- if not heroism, then dignity, or at least grace.

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