Peter Fonda died today. Most accolades will mention his starring role in 1969’s Easy Rider. I won’t. Instead, I’ll talk about his performance in Ulee’s Gold. That movie gave Fonda his only Oscar nomination (he lost to his friend Jack Nicholson, in As Good as it Gets).
In addition to being a powerful drama about the sort of situations too many families fall into, Ulee’s Gold portrays the beekeeping lifestyle with clarity, accuracy, and compassion. From a beekeeper’s perspective, movies just don’t get any better. If you want to peek inside a beekeeper’s life a little, or introduce the beekeeping world to friends or relatives who don’t seem to quite understand it, this movie is the perfect vehicle to make that connection happen. Peter Fonda, in the role of Ulysses Jackson, acts as if he had kept bees for thirty years. This strong, inward-looking character is so completely believable that the Florida Beekeeper’s Association gave Peter Fonda their highest recognition – he was named Beekeeper of the Year when the movie came out.
The plot is entirely plausible, at times a bit measured, but the slow pace is necessary to build the drama and to keep the tale believable. A wayward son, an addicted daughter-in-law, a wild teen-aged granddaughter, an introverted younger granddaughter, a divorced (twice) neighbour, and more bee work than he can manage, make up Ulee’s immediate world. His internal world is haunted by friends he lost in Viet Nam and a wife who died six years earlier. The story becomes rough, with some crude language, as Ulee faces his son’s accomplices in crime. Parents may feel the language and some of the scenes – especially of the drug withdrawal – are too graphic for younger audiences. Despite these minor caveats (by today’s standards, the movie is tame and there are no gratuitous scenes of violence or sex) it is an excellent, powerful drama.
Ulee’s Gold opened among the top ten films in North America on its release week, with gross weekend ticket sales of almost one million dollars. The movie was not heavily advertised, so we might assume that many of the audience attended because of the absolutely stellar praise the media lavished on this work. IN Jersey called the movie “Pure Gold”. Variety described this movie as “A gem of rare emotional depth and integrity… graced by a completely unexpected performance from Peter Fonda that is by far the best of his career.” The New York Times Review called Fonda’s performance the best in his entire career. Entertainment Weekly agreed, saying, “Peter Fonda gives the performance of his life… playing with almost biblical rectitude…with a hint of tenderness that can wrench your heart out.” Among Entertainment Weekly’s praises were a nod to Van Morrison’s closing credits tune Tupelo Honey, which the reviewer describes as “a gift to the audience”.
As a beekeeper (who kept bees in Florida), I was especially enamoured by the dialog:
When describing his work to his neighbour lady-friend, Ulee says, “What with moving bees, pulling honey. chasing bears… it’s pretty hard work. Most young folks wouldn’t be bothered. But don’t get me going talking about bees…”
In a scene where you would expect Ulee to crack someone’s skull, Ulee’s nemesis, Eddie Flowers, says, “I always thought it was a stupid business, messin’ with bees.” Well, Eddie, you’re not far off the mark.
When his imprisoned son asks how the bees are doing, Ulee says, “Mites are choking them, pesticides are killing them, the drought’s starving them… they’re fine.”
The movie was written and directed by Victor Nunez, who says that he got the idea from a chance glance at a newspaper with a photo of a beekeeping family on the front page. Ulee’s Gold was featured as the Centerpiece Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival when it came out in 1997. Peter Fonda won a Golden Globe Award for his performance.
I’ll close this post with a gift to my audience: Here’s Van Morrison with the movie’s theme song:
PS: A second gift: I recommend that you see this movie. My family will be watching it again tonight.