When you know this, it’s sometimes all you can see in Fonda’s sorrowful eyes. Ford saw it and insisted on the up-and-coming star over Don Ameche and Tyrone Power. Fonda had to be his prairie prophet.
Ford’s film is an appropriately dusty affair. During an age of soundstage-bound films, “The Grapes of Wrath” had a rough, tactile authenticity. Ford justifiably won the Best Director Oscar, while Jane Darwell more than earned her Best Supporting Actress win as Ma Joad. But it is Fonda’s film from front to back, and there’s no greater endorsement of his performance than Steinbeck’s assessment when he revisited the movie years after its release.
According to Tony Thomas’ “Complete Films of Henry Fonda,” Steinbeck was stirred anew during this rewatch. After bracing for the worst, the author said:
“Then a lean, stringy, dark-faced piece of electricity walks out on the screen and he had me. I believed in my own story again. It was fresh and happening and good. Hank can do that. He carries with him that excitement which cannot be learned — as many an actor has found to his sorrow — but he backs up his gift with grueling, conscientious work and agony of self-doubt.”
Fonda was a haunted man, and he struggled mightily as a husband and father. But in front of the camera, we saw everything that was good and godawful about America because he saw it, and he couldn’t in good conscience keep it to himself.