Bright Lights Film Journal

A nose for all seasons

Watching the Criterion YOUNG MR. LINCOLN the other night I was amazed at Fonda’s chamelon-like presence in the title role. From scene to scene–even moment to moment–he resembles a wealth of different actors, this as a result of a truly astonishing false nose.

The last time a false nose really wowed critics was Nicole Kidman’s Oscar winning nose in THE HOURS. But this 1939 nose on Fonda is really something, because of the wealth of other actors it makes him look like. Fonda looks distinctly “human” with this elongated nose; he looks young, modern, familiar. A fine actor though he is, Fonda’s mythic humility and grace is always with him– but here he’s able to disappear into the Lincoln persona, becoming much more animated and complex than the “simple guy with a noble heart” roles he usually plays. With a mischievous twinkle in his eye and the expressionistic, Caligari-esque way in which he looms over scenes, he’s a Frankenstein Monster by way of James Dean.

My thesis here is that by attaching such an expert false nose, Fonda unmoors his archetypal presence; becomes “un-Fonda-ed” and so assumes a free-floating identity, neither one person nor all, but a different one from scene to scene. Just as Dylan was played by different actors in the recent I’M NOT THERE, so too does Fonda’s Lincoln recall different actors. While watching I actually took notes of all the different actors I saw–as if cameo mirages–in this augmented Fonda visage:

1. Bruce Campbell
2. Michael Douglas
3. Robert Downey Jr.
4. Farley Granger
5. George Hamilton
6. Young Jack Nicholson
7. Roddy McDowell

How many can YOU spot?