LIZ SMITH: Jane Fonda as Living Legend
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara
Jane Fonda — A Look Back at the Many Lives and Career of the “Grace and Frankie” Emmy Nominee.
JANE FONDA (along with her divine co-star Lily Tomlin) have been nominated for Emmys — best actress in a comedy. She and Tomlin, along with Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, have enlivened Netflix over the past three seasons with “Grace and Frankie.” This is a show about very middle-aged people who live rich, full, complicated, funny lives. I love it.
Jane’s nomination got me to thinking about Miss Fonda and her various selves, her tumultuous progress.
Jane Fonda with Sam Waterston, Lily Tomlin, and Martin Sheen in “Grace and Frankie.”
So here is a piece from 2013, which appeared originally in Q magazine, celebrating Jane as a Living Legend. (Oh, and tomorrow we’ll dish a bit about those Emmy nominations in general.)
“KNOW THYSELF” said Socrates or Solon of Athens or Pythagoras — one of those old Greeks.
This ancient bit of wisdom might be the raison d’etre of Jane Fonda’s life. For seventysomething years, Jane Fonda has conducted a strenuous public search for herself, the meaning of her life and existence. She is one of the most talented, deeply complex and infuriating actresses ever to achieve great fame.
Back in 2005, when I read her superb autobiography, “My Life So Far,” I was struck by how raw and honest it was. There was something achingly tentative about it. It seemed to me a memoir of a woman still feeling her way through life, still trying to figure herself out. And yet, when I interviewed her only weeks after reading the book, she said I was reacting to her “edgy energy. I have never been more at peace.”
Perhaps. But being at war with herself is the quality that infused the best of Jane Fonda’s work — to use her own words — with “edgy energy.” There was no mystery to Fonda onscreen. She was right there, in your face, real and right-on.
(Don’t tell her that, however. She’ll only chuckle a bit wistfully and say something like, “I wish I agreed.”)
Jane in 2005.
Today, Jane says, “Acting was only part of what I did, and do.” And given the great detours and chances she took with her career, and a 15-year hiatus from the screen during her marriage to media mogul Ted Turner, that seems to be true. But when she was young, being famous was an all-consuming obsession. Some who knew her in her early years even compared Jane to that most driven of superstars, Barbra Streisand! (Jane, however, liked to be recognized, enjoyed giving autographs. At least she did during her Roger Vadim period, when she was known as “la BB Americaine.”)
Jane Fonda and Roger Vadim at home, 1967.
Maybe this drive to be famous was nothing more than trying to impress her famous and famously distant father, Henry Fonda. After the suicide of Jane’s mother, Frances, Jane and her brother Peter, saw their father marry a young socialite — only nine years Jane’s senior. (Jane was 12 at the time of her mother’s death.) Hank Fonda would marry again — several times.
Jane idolized and mythologized her father. She could not disconnect his warm screen image from what she perceived as his chilly reality. She spent her own life seeking his approval — and even when he approved of her, it was never enough.
Jane with father, Navy Lieutenant Henry Fonda in 1943.
And so this powerful woman, who represents feminism and strength and standing up for what you believe, devoted a great deal of her life seeking “approval” from all her men, making herself into what they wanted her to be. (When all she really wanted to be was “daddy’s girl.”)
Years later, with her father the legendary actor.
For Vadim, she became a sex-symbol. For Tom Hayden, a political helpmate. For Ted Turner, a glamorous corporate wife. Then, as soon as she’d utterly transformed herself, she would rebel, finding out, sadly, that her men seemed less than appreciative. (Or faithful.) Her personal life has been a gruelingly committed search for identity.
Fonda and Turner on the red carpet at the 1992 Emmy Awards.
Jane Fonda’s career, however, has been a less tortured role to fulfillment. She modeled, initially, and then segued to the stage, showing enough promise to be snapped for “Tall Story” opposite Anthony Perkins. (Jane had done the stage version.) She played a cheerleader. It was not — for her — a promising start. She was informed that her bust was too small and her jaw was too big. She was discouraged, though she retained her “small” (perfect) bosom and would not submit to having her jaw broken. She was also determined not to accept herself as “cheerleader type.”
Opposite Anthony Perkins in “Tall Story.”
She had roles with more depth in “Period of Adjustment” as an insecure Southern bride. And there was a complete change of pace in “Walk on the Wild Side” as Kitty Twist, a wise-cracking gum-chewing, garter-snapping hooker, occupying a brothel run by a distinctly mannish Barbara Stanwyck. The film wasn’t much of a success, but with a cast that included the languid Capucine and a hilariously miscast Laurence Harvey, it has become a cult favorite. The film also showcased Jane’s aggressive sex-appeal, previously untapped.
As Kitty Twist in “Walk on the Wild Side.”
Jane was then cast in a series of films that established her as comedienne with an intriguingly earnest, stubborn streak — the emerging new All-American girl, of the increasingly strident 1960’s. “Sunday in New York,” “Barefoot in the Park” and especially “Cat Ballou” (schoolteacher-turned-outlaw) put her in the upper echelon, box-office wise.
As Catherine Ballou.
Her acting was still in question, and would be questioned even more when she appeared in a series of films for Roger Vadim, that seemed to be steering toward a career focused on her sexuality and her beautiful body (a body that Fonda herself disliked and abused with bulimia.) This trend culminated with the sci-fi romp “Barbarella.” The elevation of Jane as an object was finished, and so too, shortly was her marriage to Vadim, though it did produce their daughter, Vanessa.
Jane returned to American filmmaking for “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” playing a bitter and desperate young woman, trying to win a dance marathon during the height of the The Depression. Fonda scored her best reviews and her first Oscar nomination.
Two years later the golden statuette would be hers, for a sensational performance as the cynical call girl Bree Daniels in “Klute.” But by then, Jane Fonda was no longer the gritty comedienne or the Vadim-created sex-bomb. Now she was a far less glamorous figure — a dark-haired assertive anti-war protester. She had upturned conservative America, especially as the daughter of the man who embodied (onscreen) so many old-fashioned “values.” But there was much worse to come.
The following year, visiting North Vietnam, she was photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft battery — used to shoot down American planes. Although she insisted she had been “manipulated” into the situation, and was horrified by its implications, the damage was done. She was instantly demonized as “Hanoi Jane.” Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans never forgave her, and it seemed her career was over.
Jane photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft battery in North Vietnam.
In fact, it was not. There were a few shaky years, but by 1977, her political activism had tempered, and she was accepted in a series of smash hits — “Fun with Dick and Jane” … ”Coming Home” (her second Oscar) … “Julia” … “The China Syndrome” … “Nine to Five” and “On Golden Pond.” This movie put her onscreen with Katharine Hepburn and, for the first time with her by-then fragile father, Henry. The film contained much between the characters that seemed to echo the troubles of the two Fondas. It was cathartic for both, and won Henry an Academy Award. He was too ill to accept. Jane did, in his place. He died soon after.
Jane Fonda, Henry Fonda, and Katharine Hepburn on the set of “On Golden Pond,” 1981
Jane nabbed another Oscar nomination in 1986 for her role as the washed-up B actress of “The Morning After.” But by 1989 she was through with second hubby Tom Hayden, whom she had supported (emotionally and financially) in his quest for political office. She was almost through with movies, too. Jane had transformed herself into a phenomenal fitness guru, through a series of videos and books. Her image, in spandex work-out gear became as iconic as her “Barbarella” pin-ups. She encouraged women to be as fit and as hard-bodied as any man. “Feel the burn!” she urged. And millions of women felt empowered to show off biceps, triceps and a stomach taut to the max.
In 1991, Jane married Ted Turner the founder of CNN. She moved to Atlanta, and did not make another movie for 15 years! (“Stanley and Iris” with Robert DeNiro looked to be her swan song.)
Fonda, though hardly “cause free” dedicated herself to Turner and his life. She was the perfect ornament on his arm, his helpmate and support. She continued as an advocate for women’s health and fitness, putting out eight more exercise videos. But, as in past relationships, just as she had become all that Ted Turner wanted, Jane realized she had compromised once again. They divorced in 2001, but remain extremely amicable. Soon after, Fonda declared she had become a Christian, though one with quite a liberal outlook.
In 2005, Fonda finally returned to the screen in the comedy “Monster-In-Law,” co-starring Jennifer Lopez. The film was a monster hit, and most of its success had to do with people wanting to see Jane Fonda — smokin’ hot at age seventy — back where she belonged.
There would always be the unforgiving critical undertow of her past actions, but Jane Fonda was a movie star who could still drag ‘em in. In 2009 she came back to Broadway in “33 Variations” and scored a Tony nomination. She has a pivotal role in HBO’s series “The Newsroom” and will soon be seen as Nancy Reagan in the Lee Daniels feature, “The Butler.”
Anne Marie Fox © 2013 The Weinstein Company
I spoke with Jane last year, prior to the release of her movie, “Peace, Love and Misunderstanding.” She laughed heartily when I said, “This should have been the title of your memoir!”
I reminded her of something she said back in 1968, when she was with Vadim: “I just live the way that makes me happy … I find it such a fight in life to be happy and to love and be loved, that to try to fit into some kind of group conscience makes everything so much more difficult. I don’t want to hurt people. I don’t want to influence or offend.” Mulling that long-ago statement, Jane said, “I still don’t want to hurt or offend, believe it or not. Influence? Yes. For the things I believe in.” (Such as her Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention. Half of her “Monster-In-Law” salary went to that.)
Jane played an aging hippie in “Peace, Love and Misunderstanding,” but she said, “I know people are going to say, ‘Oh, she’s just playing herself.’ But I didn’t know anything about that aspect of the cultural landscape. No flowers in the hair for me!” Jane spoke of finally being happy in her own skin, owning herself, her attractiveness, her being. And being glad it happened rather late in life. “It was hard to own who I am,” she said.
Who is Jane Fonda today? She said: “I am a 74-year old woman who is sending a message to women, and to men as well. You don’t have to give up. You don’t have to accept a downhill decline into decrepitude, physically or mentally. And it’s okay for women to have muscles, be fit, have relationships, platonic or physical. It’s external and internal. It’s a staircase. You’re evolving. I think I’m a messenger. I think I’m a messenger of hope.”
I think so, too. But I don’t think Jane Fonda has stopped evolving, no matter how happy she is in “her own skin.”
More than any other celebrity, I connect Jane to the words of Walt Whitman: “The untold want by life and land ne’er granted/ Now, voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”