Back in the Saddle Again
Peter Fonda revisits his directorial debut, 'The Hired Hand'
It's Peter Fonda's birthday, and he's alone in his cabin in Montana, stuck under 4 feet of snow and suffering a slight case of cabin fever. His wife is in Florida, his kids away on various projects. It's just Peter, his two dogs, a fire burning in the fireplace, and me on the other end of the phone, talking with Captain America.
As an actor, Fonda usually speaks less dialogue in his signature roles than Chaplin did in his entire film canon. But today he's in a loquacious mood. Still lean, lanky, and laid-back at 63, Fonda is looking forward to coming to Austin for SXSW to present a restored version of his seldom-seen directorial debut, 1971's elegiac Western, The Hired Hand.
Filmed on the heels of the box office success of Easy Rider, The Hired Hand shares certain themes with its predecessor. It's also a road movie and a "buddy movie" of sorts, but set in the American West of 1881 with the protagonists astride horses instead of Harleys. But Fonda's film is a much more mature and delicate work -- at once lush, lyrical, and authentic.
Longtime saddle pals Harry (Fonda) and Archie (Warren Oates) are tired of the trail, and Harry decides it's time to return to the wife he deserted years ago, Hannah (Verna Bloom). When the two show up on her porch, complications ensue. Harry finds himself torn between loyalties of friendship and love, especially when an old enemy (Severn Darden) captures Archie, taunting Harry to come and rescue his friend.
"It was a story that touched all the nerves on my emotional skin," states Fonda. "It's all about relationships between men and men, and men and women. Westerns never bothered to take a person into that area, because it was more about gunplay and machoism and forward into the West and the unknown and all that. But it's the unknown in these people's lives that is more interesting to me."
Few people saw the film during its initial release. Universal Studios refused to back it, and it languished at the bottom of double bills in scattered strip-mall cinemas before disappearing, an ignominious fate for a first-time-out-of-the-box directorial masterpiece. For years it was considered a lost film. But The Hired Hand is now back on the ranch, and its creator couldn't be more gratified.
The Austin Chronicle: One of the great aspects of The Hired Hand is its realistic portrayal of what life was like for a woman in the 1880s, and casting Verna Bloom was serendipitous.
Peter Fonda: I was in Cuzco, Peru, shooting the wrap party for [Dennis] Hopper's The Last Movie ... and the wrap party was just getting out of hand. People were just overindulging in everything. I went out and sat in Hopper's truck, just to get away from it. And out came Sylvia Miles. She asked what I was doing, and I said I was just thinking about this movie that I was going to direct. She says, "Who are you casting?" I said, "Warren Oates, but I haven't found the woman -- and it's actually the most important role in the film." Sylvia said, "A Western about a woman?" Jane had told me I should cast Lee Grant. Lee's a great actress, but I thought she was too pretty. ... I don't know if she could dress down to play a woman in 1881. And Sylvia said, "You're just not barking up the right tree. Haven't you heard of Verna Bloom?" I said no. She said, "You oughta go see Medium Cool." So I watched the film, and I was blown away by her.
AC: Her performance as Hannah is really one of the gems of the film.
PF: She could just carry so much power, so much emotion, without tremendous movement in the face. The most subtle things create the power in her performance. Like the scene where she takes a sip of brandy ... and as she does that, she looks at me and says, "I hope I'll be all right for you, Harry." What a bearing of the soul! Totally vulnerable, but with real strength to take this step in a relationship she's so wary of.
AC: As long as we're talking about performances, one of the great delights in the film is watching Warren Oates.
PF: Oh, my god. Nobody ever thought about him as a leading man, but I thought, "This guy has such charisma." I just figured nobody'd really used him yet.
AC: As a director, how much influence did you bring to the table with regards to his performance?
PF: I hardly had to do anything but set the camera properly or set the scene properly. Oates was so perfect for the part. Universal was like, "But he's a sidekick player." And I said, "He's a lot more than that, and he's the one I want for the film." And you know, people continually remark about that performance. And Oates knew it, too.
AC: You don't see much of the town in the film, but what you see is very Fordlike.
PF: A little homage, yeah. [John] Ford had a town in My Darling Clementine that had very little rhyme or reason, and it worked brilliantly. And you saw very little of it. What you saw was the barbershop, the hotel, the interior of the hotel, the big bar, and the smaller bar, and there's another bar that has a stage on it with a Shakespearean troupe performing! Wait a minute, gimme a break here! Jesus Christ, he's got this fucking town in the middle of Monument Valley that's never seen a cow, ever! It was an innuendo of a town. Just the barbershop, the bars, the church, and the front of the hotel, where my dad was doing that thing with his leg.
AC: What did your dad think of The Hired Hand?
PF: I had to drag him to it. He was not well; he was dying. But afterward he said, "Now that's my kind of Western."
AC: The cinematography [by Vilmos Zsigmond, whose credits include Deliverance and Close Encounters of the Third Kind] is just gorgeous.
PF: One day we were shooting, and I wanted to communicate my intentions. I said, "Vilmos, the scene we're shooting tomorrow, it's really a metaphor. ..." "Oh, Jesus Christ, Peter. I don't need to know what the film means. Just tell me where to put the camera." And I said, "If I tell you what the allegory is ..." And he says, "No, no Peter. I don't need to know any allegory." And I'm getting a little frustrated here. I ask him, "Vilmos, what have you done with the other directors you've worked with?" He says, "What other directors?" I said, "You mean ..." "Yes! This is my first film, Peter. I shoot Coca-Cola bottles!"
Fonda goes on into the evening, spinning tales about Easy Rider (yes, that missing footage still exists -- sort of, kind of), his eerie resemblance to his father in Ulee's Gold ("It was the glasses -- the ones he wore in On Golden Pond"), memories of John Ford ("that crazy, drunken old Irishman"). I mention how great it is that he hasn't lost his youthful enthusiasm for creating movies.
"Why should I? Give me a good reason, and I'll think about it. It's not that I refuse to grow up, I just don't see the necessity. ... If I can do it as an 8-year-old, just let me go."
The Hired Hand screens Sat., March 8, 9:30pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown and Tues., March 11, 5pm, at the Westgate. Peter Fonda will attend the Saturday screening.