Easy Rider Grows Up

After 35 years and 47 movies, most audiences have a pretty solid impression of Peter Fonda. He emerged as the clean-cut, all-American son of a screen legend, but began battling that image back in the 60s."Before Easy Rider, there was Wild Angels -and then The Trip, just to make sure they got the idea," Fonda chuckles. "Motorcycles, sex and drugs and rock 'n roll. Easy Rider was just the coda to the whole idea and the proof of the pudding. Then I quickly tried to break that mold by doing The Hired Hand, but I didn't realize how hard it was to break the mold. Now I know. I also know that those who would like to pigeon-hole me or categorize me-which is what Hollywood thrives on-can now have a different pigeon hole to put me in. And I don't mind that at all."With constant, youthful, unassuming eyes the color of his faded, slightly fraying denim jeans and jacket, only his gently-lined face reveals that this easy-going rider (he's still an avid "cycle") has covered a lot of road. And his current role as Ulee Jackson in Victor Nunez's Ulee's Gold, is sure to be more than just another mile-marker."It smacks of auteurism," Fonda says of the film, as Nunez looks on grinning. "And most of the time, the way I feel about that word 'auteur' is 'uh-oh, here comes a lot of ego.' I'm happy to say this is not the case with Mr. Nunez... he keeps it fluid..." Fluid is perhaps the best way to describe his style. The consummate independent filmmaker, Nunez continues to receive endless critical acclaim for his delicate approach to his films. And now, it seems only fitting that he would team up with the very mellow Fonda to harvest this particular story with a pace and poetry that are as sweet as the Tupelo honey they honor. You can almost hear Van Morrison singing.Ulee, short for Ulysses, is a placidly stubborn beekeeper in the Florida Panhandle. His wife, Penelope, died several years ago, his son Jimmy (Tom Wood) is in jail for robbery, his daughter-in-law Helen (Christine Dunford) has left town-and he's left to raise his two young granddaughters, tend to his bees and torment himself over whether or not his wife was ever truly happy.When he gets a desperate call from his son, urging him to fetch his strung-out wife and settle a potentially ugly dispute with some grimy thugs, he can either struggle to maintain the pack-mule existence he has so carefully constructed or allow himself to need others as much as they need him.Already, there's a lot of Oscar buzz (pardon the pun) surrounding Fonda's portrayal of Ulee. His sensitive performance is astounding and he is so in-tune with the character, it's often difficult to discern whether "I" means Peter Fonda or Ulee Jackson.In response to obvious parallels drawn between Nunez's and Homer's Ulysses, Fonda says, "I've been looking for this kind of home, I was trained on the stage as a more serious actor than Hollywood would believe... this is an odyssey for me. I have to learn that that's my job. I have to string the bow and to fire the arrow and I haven't wanted to do that. I've remained away from my responsibilities. The very thing I say to Helen, 'Well, at least I know enough not to run away from my responsibilities'-and the moment the words were out of my mouth, as the character, I was looking at her thinking, 'and yet, that's what I've been doing...'"Though many of Nunez's films, including Ruby In Paradise, A Flash Of Green and Gal Young 'Un have been honored by the Cannes, New York and Sundance Film Festivals, much of America is unfamiliar with his work. And while he is admired for remaining true to his craft, he is often asked if he will ever do a big release."An actor friend said years ago, 'Your problem, Victor, is you haven't decided to sleep with the devil.' My answer has always been, 'If I could find the devil, I'd jump in bed with him.'"By making Orion Pictures his bedfellow, Nunez seems to have struck a bargain without selling his soul-or compromising his integrity."We had the best of both worlds," he boasts. "I mean, we can't honestly say we're independent, because the money came from the studio, but it came in such a way that it really just put fuel in the engine. It didn't try to tweak the carburetor."The result is a good, old-fashioned, character-driven (for lack of an un-coined phrase) movie that not only tells a story but celebrates a region and an age-old craft, which, incidentally, was a hobby of Henry Fonda's. Ironically, the younger Fonda's performance has been compared to that of his late father."In thinking about the comparison to my father, it's not really to my father, but it's to a way of acting and, if you'll recall a scene [in The Grapes of Wrath ] where [Henry Fonda as] Tom Joad said to Ma, 'Wherever there's a cop beating on a man, I'll be there.' John Ford shot it in an extreme closeup of my father's face and my father did not move and the expression on his face-he didn't blink, he was like a prize fighter. He just read the lines and the words and the cadence with these sincere midwestern eyes that didn't blink. And that was the case I saw in Ulee-to be able make this pond in front of me go so suddenly smooth that you don't see that there's a pond-but you can see how deep it is."

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