Saturday, May 16, 2015

Birthday Take: Henry Fonda in "12 Angry Men" (1957)

Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Henry Fonda
Born: May 16, 1905
Died: August 12, 1982 (77 years old)
Nomination: Best Picture - 12 Angry Men (nominated)

The Take

When it comes to courtroom dramas, there are few as iconic as 12 Angry Men. While it doesn't actually take place at a trial, its choice to focus on the 12 jurors who have been called upon to put one man's fate into their hands is so deftly handled that it doesn't matter that it's only 12 people talking. The whole film is essentially a bottled film in which conversation shifts opinions. As the story goes, the room stands largely on the side of guilt, but there is one juror who chooses to stand up for the man. That juror was Henry Fonda, who becomes the hero of the film by default and does so with an impressive array of capabilities. He is persuasive as well as charismatic. The underrated direction by Sidney Lumet also helps the film to have implicitly more complicated emotions than you'd expect.

The one fact is that Fonda embodied patriotism. Much like John Wayne or James Stewart, he was a figure whose performances were about Americans standing up for justice. This is most notable in works like Young Abraham Lincoln and The Grapes of Wrath that call upon him to be strong in the face of fear. While 12 Angry Men by comparison is simple, there's something respectable about his inability to just follow the law of the room and instead starts off one of the most interesting films about the art of persuasion. By the end, the twist is that he gets everyone on his side. This isn't really a spoiler so much as the goal of the film. Everything that comes in between is more impressive.

The question really is how do you create 12 original characters that are different enough in personality to pull this off. For that, you will have to watch the film. However, the characters are a rather impressive mixture of what can be summed up as the American male at the time. There's the sports man, the business man and Fonda plays the honest man. He sticks to his guns and seeks to make a difference. It isn't something that seems immediately clear, but by his choice to not fall into cynicism, he begins an admirable quest to convince everyone to look at the bigger picture. The film is an exercise in getting audiences to look at all of the facts, and best of all, imagine a case that they have never actually seen a minute of. That is what makes 12 Angry Men so impressive, especially as altering viewpoints are brought to the picture.

There has been countless dissections on the film in the decades since its release. Even more, there has been almost too many courtroom dramas that have surfaced in the time since. To varying degrees, they haven't been nearly as successful in capturing the feeling of conversation as 12 Angry Men. It could just be good writing. It could be that the premise was so simple that anyone who tries to do a similar story will look like a plagiarizer. However, it's because it challenges the notion of perspective and chooses to exist in a world with a bold idea: it's important to second guess yourself. It is something that Fonda did frequently, even in The Ox Bow Incident. Part of being a man was knowing when you were wrong. In 12 Angry Men, it is a lengthy look at that idea.

Fonda had an impressive career ending with his only Oscar win for On Golden Pond, which was received posthumously. However, he left behind a body of work that features a lot of impressive characters that were strong willed and sought to make differences in their respective stories, whether they be cowboys, presidents or even plain citizens. In 12 Angry Men, he embodied the idea at its deepest core. While he didn't get a deserved nomination for his role, he did get a nomination for producing the film, which just shows how invested in the story he actually was. Even then, it's hard to find much fault in his judgment because his work continues to stand the test of time and help us to redefine cinema as well as just morality and logic.

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