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Each year since 1973, the American Film Institute have given their Lifetime Achievement Award to a prominent film star or director. The choice of whom to honour has been motivated by various factors ... such as whose name will sell the most tickets. The guest of honour must be alive, and must be willing to attend in person and give an acceptance speech. The first four annual awards were given to male recipients: in 1977, the AFI decided it was time to honour a woman, but their committee's first choice (Katharine Hepburn) refused to accept the award in person, so they gave it to Bette Davis (who apparently didn't mind being second choice for an award based on gender). Cary Grant had a standing offer to receive the AFI award, but he was never willing to make an acceptance speech and so he was never chosen.
The year after Bette Davis accepted her tribute, the AFI chose to honour one of her co-stars, Henry Fonda. An ongoing flaw of the annual AFI tributes is that they tend to load the dais with big film names who don't really have anything to do with the guest of honour (but who will bring in a few TV viewers) rather than people who actually worked with the guest of honour. This Fonda tribute avoids that problem. There is a large and impressive roster of speakers here: first-rank stars who actually worked with Fonda. There is an especially heartfelt tribute from James Stewart, who knew Fonda before either was famous: they were classmates at Princeton, and then roomed together as struggling actors in New York. (Fonda won their friendly rivalry by getting a Broadway role before Stewart.) Ron Howard, not yet a big-shot director and major Hollywood player when this tribute was produced (but a TV star on 'Happy Days') offers some memories of co-starring with Fonda in an obscure TV series, 'The Smith Family'.
As usual for the AFI tributes, there is a generous helping of film clips from the guest of honour's career. Some of the inclusions are obvious choices, such as Fonda's brilliant 'I'll be all around in the dark' set-piece from 'The Grapes of Wrath'. Also as usual, the choice of clips is partly determined by which people are on hand to give tributes. Lucille Ball is one of the speakers here, so we get a clip of one of her films co-starring with Fonda. Fair enough, but the choice is a strange one. I've never liked Lucille Ball, but I was deeply impressed by her dramatic performance opposite Fonda in 'The Big Street', in which she played a vain selfish nightclub performer who exploits a waiter (Fonda) after she becomes paraplegic. Instead of a clip from this film -- in which Fonda and Ball both gave excellent performances -- we get an unfunny clip from the bland (but hugely successful at the box office) comedy 'Yours, Mine and Ours'. Even the producer of that pabulum -- Robert Blumofe (who?) -- gets to speak a few words here.
From the star-filled crowd on offer here, it looks as though everybody in Hollywood knew Hank Fonda. Well, everybody but one. Fonda and Katharine Hepburn both spent decades in Hollywood, but they met for the FIRST time when they co-starred in 'On Golden Pond', two years after this AFI tribute. Another person who's not on hand here is William Wyler, who directed Fonda and Bette Davis in 'Jezebel'. Fonda and Wyler had both been married to actress Margaret Sullavan (Fonda had her first), and there was no love lost between the two men.
The AFI tribute always ends with a speech by the recipient. Fonda introduces his own family (trophy wife, film-star daughter Jane, cult-actor son Peter, granddaughter Bridget) and then offers some memories about his own father, a newspaper editor, who influenced young Henry. (I wish that Fonda had mentioned the interesting trivium that his drama teacher, back in Omaha, was Marlon Brando's mother.) Next, Fonda tells a rambling yarn about his amateur debut in a high-school play. His father attended the performance, and when several people told Fonda pere how inept an actor his son was, the father replied: 'Shut up, he's perfect!' This gets a laugh from the AFI audience. With a smirk, Fonda then goes on to mention that people have criticised his daughter Jane for her political activities. He lets this thought linger for a moment, and then he adds 'Shut up, she's perfect!' ... to great applause from the left-wing Hollywood crowd attending this event.
Sorry, Hank, but your daughter gave aid and comfort to the enemy when America was at war, and she has never offered any real apology to the servicemen whom she dishonoured, even while her workout videos reap profits from the capitalist system she criticised. I've long considered Henry Fonda a great actor but a political idiot, and this tribute is diminished by the agenda of his acceptance speech. But the stardust quotient is so high, I'll rate this tribute 8 out of 10.
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