“There’s all kinds of weakness in the world, not all of it is evil. I forget that from time to time.”
After massive success early with Easy Rider, Peter Fonda never really lived up to that hype. He made a lot of exploitation crap over the years. And while he hasn’t exactly had a huge late career surge as an elder statesman, he did score one of those dream roles older actors hope for when they reach a certain age, he even got an Oscar nomination for it. That Oscar nomination was for his titular role in Ulee’s Gold.
Ulee Jackson (Fonda) is a professional beekeeper in somewhere that seems to be Florida or Florida adjacent. He’s also a grandfather who takes care of his two grand daughters, Casey (Jessica Biel) and Penny (Vanessa Zima). They’re his responsibility because his son / their father (Tom Wood as Jimmy) is in prison on a robbery wrap. And their mother (Christine Dunford as Helen) is strung out on roofies in Orlando. He lives a purposely quiet life, shunning contact with everyone in town, including his oldest friends. His self imposed isolation seems to be partly related to his son’s imprisonment, but more to do with his wife’s death six years earlier.
His son’s crimes come back to haunt him when two accomplices figure out Jimmy may have made out with more in their last score than he ever let on. Eddie (Steven Flynn) and Ferris (Dewey Weber) evaded prosecution when Jimmy refused to rat them out, but his loyalty has only bought so much goodwill, and that does not include keeping the extra booty. After threats against his daughters, Jimmy organises a reluctant Ulee to get the cash to Eddie and Ferris.
And if all of that wasn’t enough, his junkie daughter in law ends up detoxing in his house, under the care of neighbour and nurse, Connie (Patricia Richardson, AKA the mum from Home Improvement). Oh, and he has a big honey harvest coming in with his bees that will make or break his financial future. So yeah, things aren’t going well for Ulee Jackson, and he might just have to let his emotional guard down and rely on help from outsiders if there’s any chance he’ll make it through.
Ulee’s Gold is the kind of low budget, indie mood piece you see a lot now, but I have to imagine it was pretty unique and rule breaking in 1997. The gritty, hand held look. The once Hollywood A-lister going for credibility. The TV sitcom star going for legitimacy. The spectacle small, but emotionally huge story. Standard stuff these days, but jarring (in a good way) in 1997, I assume.
Fonda scored an Oscar nomination, and that makes sense. There’s no Ulee’s Gold without an Ulee, and his performance is Oscar baiting stuff in a way that never bothered me. He keeps things minimal, small and efficient. There isn’t a single superfluous word of dialogue, gesture or even facial expression. He keeps things lean, he keeps things tight and he makes you think that for every action not happening on the surface, the sharp mind of Ulee Jackson is processing every possible outcome at every possible second.
I remember Ulee’s Gold making a decent splash when it came out. Peter Fonda came to Australia on the promotional tour and did the talk show rounds. He got his Oscar nomination and the movie got a lot of critical buzz. But it didn’t really last. And while movies like Boogie Nights and Good Will Hunting have gone on to keep their 1997 cache, I think Ulee’s Gold more than deserves to be on that list too.