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The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda Hardcover – October 2, 2012

3.2 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookforum

The Man Who Saw a Ghost is both a biography and an often-brilliant feat of criticism. McKinney paints Fonda as a performing artist who continues to matter because of his lifelong reckoning with the darkest recesses of American history. ––James Gibbons

Review

"An extraordinary movie-star bio ...  McKinney has a penetrating critical eye and a style at once concentrated and free-flowing. Performances one remembers fondly but dimly, now--dozens of them--are restored to brilliant life and specificity, and the troubled, often chilly character of the man is lent warmth by the author's depth of appreciation." -- Sullivan County Democrat

"Deeply wrought biography of the dark, conflicted, amazingly talented actor, whose personal life was messy, and whose professional life resulted in some of the truly great films--and film performances--in Hollywood history." -- Philadelphia Inquirer

"Those interested in the intimate lives of the stars will appreciate the attention to detail and richness of research. Highly recommended." -- Library Journal (starred review)

"[An] excellent work of biography. In rich, lyrical prose, McKinney deftly honors both the man and the mystery." -- Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"As unusual and intriguing a Hollywood biography as its title suggests ... a unique portrait of an actor who hid so much emotionally but trusted his audience to see what he couldn't show them." -- Associated Press


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 428 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press (October 2, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1250008417
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250008411
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,380,902 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I must respectfully disagree with the review titled "Yuck". Devin McKinney has written a more thorough biography than the usual one on an actor or actress. Sure Mr. Fonda had challanges to overcome in pursuing a public career but the point, as I see it, is that he overcame these challenges to become one of the most iconic and most respected actors of his generation. The prose is excellent and the choice of pictures used in this book are well-chosen as well. I came away more intrigued by Mr. Fonda and have subsequentlyh revisited any number of his films in an attempt to "marry" his performances to the Henry Fonda revealed in this book. I hope Mr. McKinney finds another iconic actor or actress to write about - I will definitely be among the first readers of such a book.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I enjoyed the first section of the book with its appreciation of the artistry of Young Mr. Lincoln.
But I just became tired with the derogatory references to the old drunken has-been (John Ford) and just
taking a role for a pay check (Fonda's roles later in life.) The thin reference to the suicides around Mr Fonda
was not sufficient to review a life in such a manner. Mr. Fonda stayed in a very competitive field and
worked. I think that is close to a miracle. Sometimes he produced great works of western art with beautiful
performances. But I suspect that he would have told you that sometimes it was just a job. He was not trying
to carry the world on every performance. I understand and appreciate that sentiment. This book does not.
Instead of cheering for a long career studded with great performances like Norman Thayer and Tom Joad,
the book leaves you disgusted. That is too bad.
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Format: Hardcover
Personally, I didn't care for this book. I realize that because Fonda played his cards close to his vest, he wouldn't be an easy person to write about, but this book is mostly based on conjecture and pop psychology. The author would have you believe that practically every important role Fonda decided to play was because of his wife's suicide and then at the end of the book, we find out that the roles that weren't linked to his wife were taken because of a lynching he witnessed as a boy. You would think the book was written by Fonda's therapist. The author's suppositions may be true, but there is no way of knowing one way or the other. Certainly these two tragic events must have left indelible scars on him, but perhaps, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Even though Fonda is a tough nut to crack, surely there is a way to cobble together a more complete image of the man through past and present interviews with him and those of his circle, historical archives, studio lore, etc. This book contains very little concrete information about Fonda, his films, about how he dealt with others, or about how others felt about him. However, it does have numerous long winded psychological discourses filled to the brim with speculation about how tragic events and politics shaped his performances and his life.

I am a Fonda fan and an old movie buff. I have dozens of books about actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood, including Fonda's autobiography which I have yet to read. Because of my avid interest in old Hollywood, I rarely feel that any book about this era is a waste of time or money if even one nugget of information can be gleaned from it. Therefore, if you are a great fan like me, then this book isn't a waste, but if you have only a casual interest in Fonda or the Fonda family or in classic films in general, I recommend you spend your time and money on something else.
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Format: Hardcover
I appreciated the attempt to write a literary biography. But like David Dalton's biography of James Dean (the Mutant King) which has not aged well, it just doesn't work. It mixes excellent writing with pretentiousness and questionable film criticism, not a great formula for a successful biography. Perhaps Henry Fonda is unknowable. If his kids didn't really know him, how can we? In which case, McKinney's spin is as valid as anyone's. I enjoyed the facts and the occasional insights, but the amateur psychiatrist bits made me want to stop right there. It's not an unpleasant read, just a frustrating one.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is written in the present tense ,which is very much in vogue for some reason as a beginning learning strategy in high school English classes.
I can only imagine that McKinney was trying to create a breezy , contemporary , fast paced literary novelization. What develops from this incessant mixture of present tense and third person is a headache, both figurative and personally literal.
As to content, an author who eschews at least pop-level analysis of his biographical subject should publish reviews and reported comments as a scrapbook, not a biography.
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Format: Hardcover
This book considers Henry Fonda's legacy in interrelated contexts including his personal life, contributions to theater/film, and how his audience perceived him over a career spanning many historical events of the 20th century. McKinney accomplishes and ties together this ambitious set of aims largely by drawing upon his very close viewing and analysis of Fonda's work as an actor. An extensive range of Fonda's performances are described in the book: While telling about each dramatic work, these descriptions also tell something about Fonda as a man, a professional, and an embodiment of symbols that resonated with his audience at the time (even if only some still do today). Unlike a lot of other scholarly books, the writing style of this one is primarily direct and quick-paced, and it easily maintained my curiosity/suspense as a good story would to the very end. The descriptions of Fonda's performances are incredibly vivid and completely drew me in; some powerfully evocative metaphors in the book were also another of my favorite things about it. All in all, I really loved reading this book, and think several of its insights and images will last in my memory a long time.
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