In John Ford’s 1960 film The Grapes of Wrath, ex-convict Tom Joad and his family cross the country looking for work during the Depression, only to find themselves undergoing increasingly bad situations. Henry Fonda’s performance of Joad is a powerful, intense performance that blends into the background and stands out at the same time. In this essay, some of the acting techniques used by Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath are examined, including representational acting, motivation, given circumstances, physical character work, concentration and focus, and soliloquies.
Henry Fonda equips Tom Joad with a very naturalistic, down-to-earth swagger, a very strong example of representational acting. Instead of going for broad melodrama (something which could be said of John Carradine’s character, Casy, in some scenes), Fonda reins in his emotions, playing everything very subtly. He walks with a slight swagger, slowly and intently; he holds himself as a worn-down, bitter young man who has been beaten down by the system he was just released from.
Fonda still finds moments of vulnerability in his performance, as evidenced in a scene early in the film when he visits his old childhood home at night. Picking up a tattered old hat, Joad says “this used to be my grandpa’s. He gave it to me before he left….You think he’s dead?”, after looking at Casy with a very open, desperate look. When bulldozers come to tear down Muley’s house, however, Fonda allows Joad to show the first glimpses of real anger and frustration in the film. “No one ever told me I’d be hiding out in my own house,” says Joad, staring intently offscreen. The intensity and fire in Joad’s eyes is evident, but it is not over-the-top; the line is growled, not shouted. This is a perfect example of representational acting – stressing the real over the hyperreal.
Tom Joad’s primary motivation is to care for himself and for his family, finding everyone work as they make their cross-country trip. Imbuing motivation too far into a character can be dangerous – “A logical reason or motivation for [performing an action] can load the action” (Hagen and Frankel, 1973). Luckily, Fonda avoids this pitfall by allowing Joad to lack clear motivation, but in an organic way. Having just come out of jail, he is still attempting to find his way throughout the film, which he does by merely sticking to his family and reacting to what happens around him.
The given circumstances of Tom Joad are very dark, as he has just returned from prison for killing a man in a fight. As Fonda reveals this story to Casy at the beginning of the novel, he recounts it in a sad but reflective way. Through his delivery, and the wistful way in which he looks out into the middle distance, the audience is shown that it still bothers him; but given the sadness with which he delivers his lines, Fonda tells the audience that he is used to the story by now, and has somewhat settled on the memory’s role in his life. The fact that he was in prison likely informs his even-tempered characterization; since he has seen the inside of a jail cell, he probably these other situations as a cakewalk, at least at first. He merely wants to take care of his family, as that is all he has left.
The physicality of Tom Joad is just as important an acting tool as anything else in the film, and Fonda uses it to help show Joad’s restrained, mild yet bothered attitude. For most of the film, Joad presents himself with slumped shoulders, hands in pockets, in a very unassuming manner. He is never arrogant in his speech or movement, and has no illusions about remaining calm and collected. His eyes are perpetually focused, intense, always searching for the next thing to focus on and sizing it up, almost as a protective measure to guard himself from further harm. The confusion and fear Joad feels when he sees a woman shot by a corrupt police officer in the Hooverville his family finds refuge in is subtle, but effective; his eyes cannot take themselves off the situation at hand, while attempting to have a conversation with Casy.
Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad demonstrates his intensity from the focus by which he attends everything around him. While he is a shy peacemaker (at least at the beginning), he is always wary, always paying attention. The direct and deliberate way Fonda looks at characters and talks to them shows a strong sense of concentration and situational awareness; at the same time, Joad has a few moments to wander, look offscreen, and think quietly as other characters speak. Fonda uses this level of concentration to put complete honesty into the character of Joad, a frankness that does not hide any villainous motive – just pure, reactive study of a situation, which he does from a distance.
Joad’s final soliloquy is a clear definition of his new motivation and the direction that the events of the film have led him toward. “I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.” (Tom Joad, Grapes of Wrath). At this point, Joad’s even-tempered attitude peels away, giving way to an righteous, passionate man who will no longer react to the increasingly bad situations that he and his family get in; this time, he will act.
In conclusion, Henry Fonda’s Oscar-winning work in The Grapes of Wrath is a celebrated example of film acting. His portrayal of Tom Joad is representational and restrained, providing a slow-burning intensity that builds over the course of the film, showing a man, who cares about nothing in the beginning of the film, turning into an activist by the end. Fonda gives a fine performance, full of subtle motivation and physical work, increasing the drama and intensity by the end of the film, during his big soliloquy at the end.
Clurman, Harold. The fervent years; the story of the Group Theatre and the thirties.. New York: Hill and Wang, 1957. Print.
Hagen, Uta, and Haskel Frankel. Respect for acting . New York: Macmillan, 1973. Print.
The Grapes of Wrath (The Ford at Fox Collection). Dir. John Ford. Perf. Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine. 20th Century Fox, 2007. DVD.