Henry Fonda received his first Oscar nomination for portraying Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.
The film opens with Tom Joad coming home after being in prison for a few years for manslaughter. Fonda as soon as he is on screen refuses to give a sympathetic performance as Tom Joad, instead he instantly shows Tom Joad as an angry man who refuses to be pushed around and also does not have any regrets over what he has done in his past either.
As Tom Joad, Fonda does not always stick out among the family, and nor should he. In many of the scenes he shows himself to simply be part of the family, and not the main point of the film, but rather an aspect of it. Fonda has the right believability in the family and creates a particularly effective relationship with Jane Darwell as Ma Joad. The have the right attitude and feeling with one another that honestly suggests the loving relationship between the two people.
Much of the film Fonda's performance is quite reactionary as he deals with the problems he and his family face as migrant workers. Fonda is quietly effective as Tom Joad though always being completely honest in displaying the struggle, and pain his character goes through in his story. Fonda performance has the right restrained passion of sorts in the film. He shows Joad quite interestingly because he never makes him a hero, or even a man who understand what is against him, but just a normal man who wants a decent life for decent people.
The actions Tom takes during his travels are well portrayed by Fonda, because he never does make Joad look like a hero, but just an honest man who is trying to do what is right, even when it results in even greater troubles for him. Fonda carefully only shows a subtle growth, and understanding Joad gains for himself, and for the plight of his people, which finally is revealed in his powerful and effective "I'll be there" speech.
Overall Fonda's performance is a strong subtle performance which never goes to easy route of what could have been an overly sympathetic or heroic portrayal, but rather is a far more memorable portrayal of a honest troubled man in a troubled situation. It is not always a performance that is constantly visible or at all actory but it is most certianly an effective portrait of this angry troubled man.