Recently on a Saturday night, I watched Jane Fonda receive the AFI Life Achievement on TNT. She’d been off the grid for a few years, but recently in the past seven or eight years, she’s slowly been making a comeback in not only film but theater as well ( I had the chance to see her in 33 Variations on Broadway a few years back). Not bad for a woman who will celebrate her 77th birthday this coming December. I had forgotten how much I've enjoyed her performances over the years. There is a direct link between the tough but tender women portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford to Jane Fonda. Gloria In They Shoot Horses Don’t They, Bree Daniels in Klute, Lillian Hellman in Julia. There would be no Angelina Jolie if Jane Fonda hadn't paved the way. What other actress could go from Barbarella to winning an Academy Award in just a few short years? It was heartwarming to hear actress such as Sally Field and Meryl Streep acknowledge the debt that they owe her.
Watching the clips of her movies and hearing her story once again, it brought home to me just how many times she has reinvented herself over the years. There was ingénue Jane, Barbarella Jane, serious actress Jane, the infamous Hanoi Jane, workout Jane, and trophy wife Jane. Now she’s in her third or maybe fifth act? A born again Christian, an activist for women and children, and once again a serious actress. She’s shed personas the way a snake sheds skins, all the while searching for the real Jane Fonda. There are more than three faces of Jane Fonda.
I haven’t read Fonda’s biography but I did recently finish reading Patricia Bosworth’s excellent biography. Friends since their Actor’s Studio days, Bosworth seems to have been the ideal person to write Fonda’s biography. What I mean by that is that she has no ax to grind, no agenda, other than telling Fonda’s story as honestly as possible. It’s kind of refreshing no? Back in my acting days, I used to devour biographies and autobiographies of actors, as if they had some secret that I could divine between their pages. So Jane Fonda’s story was somewhat familiar to me before I started reading the biography.
So many people focus on her political activism during the 1970’s, in particular her infamous trip to North Vietnam. Recently, I think it was Michelle Obama, said that they admired Jane Fonda and the vitriol that was spewed on Facebook was unbelievable. People still haven’t forgiven her for visiting ‘the enemy’ and taking a photo sitting on stop of a gun. No many how many times, she’s apologized and blamed her actions of being politically naïve, there are people who still believe that she’s some kind of communist plant. They believe that she betrayed the POW’s that she met, despite the fact that those men claimed it never happened. For me that was the most fascinating aspect of her story. We’re so used to actors being political nowadays, that it’s hard to remember a time when it was still a new thing for actors to express a political opinion. It was one thing to march for civil rights, but the opposition to the Vietnam War is a whole other animal.
And it wasn't just her anti-war stance; she was also a big supporter of the Black Panther party, and fought for Native American rights, not very popular causes in the 1970’s. She faced endless harassment by the FBI for over a decade, was accused of smuggling drugs when in reality she was just carrying bottles of vitamins, and arrested repeatedly. Not many actors were so committed to their causes that they spent all their money bankrolling them!
I used to be really hard on Fonda for being willing to change herself so completely for the men in her life. Her decisions took an incredible toll on her kids. At one point in the book, Fonda asks her daughter Vanessa for help putting together a video of her life for her 60th birthday. Her daughter told her ‘why don’t you just get a chameleon and let him crawl across the screen.” Harsh but true. I now have more sympathy for Fonda. It can’t have been easy not only growing up as the daughter of a screen legend, but Jane also had to deal with a mother who was mentally ill.
She was born Lady Jayne Seymour Fonda in 1937. Her mother Frances Seymour Brokaw always claimed that they were related to Edward Seymour and his family. While her mother could claim aristocratic roots, Fonda’s family originally came to this country from Italy. From the beginning, Jane was a daddy’s girl, she wanted to be like him, dress like him, talk like him. Her father, however, was uncomfortable with expressing emotion. He had that Midwestern stoicism that was great for characters like Tom Joad in Grapes of Wrath, not so much at home. Her mother on the hand favored Jane’s little brother Peter. She’d had a daughter from her first marriage, and was less keen on having a second. A great deal of Jane’s subsequent actions can be seen as trying to get her father’s attention. If being good didn't work, then she’d do the exact opposite to gain his attention. Still despite their tortured relationship, Jane found On Golden Pond and produced it, believing that this film would finally garner her father the Academy Award that she felt that he so richly deserved. And it did! I wept reading the parts of the book where both Jane and her brother Peter went out of their way towards the end of his life to repeatedly tell him that they loved him, even if he couldn't quite say it back.
Her mother had also been diagnosed as suffering from manic depression, what we now call bipolar disease. The preferred treatment in the 1940’s was electroshock therapy. When Jane was 11, her mother committed suicide while an in-patient at a sanatorium. She and her brother were told that her mother had actually died of a heart attack. Jane didn’t find out the truth until she saw it in a movie magazine that a friend was reading while at boarding school. She was not only devastated but there was also the worry that perhaps she had inherited her mother’s mental instability. To the outside world, Jane and her brother Peter lived a life of privilege, boarding schools (Emma Willard for Jane) and elite colleges (Jane went to Vassar for two years). The reality was far different.
Even before her mother committed suicide, her father had fallen in love with a much younger woman whom he eventually married. Two other marriages would eventually follow. Jane suffered from bulimia; she would gorge herself with food and then purge it. Instead of eating, she would take tons of vitamins to replace the nutrients she was throwing up. When she wasn’t bingeing and purging, she was exercising compulsively. Her work-out empire can be seen as a direct result of her bulimia, although by the time she opened the first Jane Fonda Work-Out studio, she had gone cold-turkey with her bulimia.
Jane has admitted that the men she fell in love with were all variations of her father, cold, remote, and dismissive. Ted Turner even shared the same illness that her mother did, and his father had committed suicide like her mother. It was nice to see that even she had reservations about dating him, although he put on the full court press. I imagine even I would find it hard to turn down a man who not only has a private jet but 27 different ranches! Out of all her husbands Ted Turner was the only one who was as famous as she was, and even he had to deal with being treated like ‘Mr. Fonda’ at times during their relationship. It’s to Fonda’s credit that she managed to have cordial relationships with all her exes (Apparently Ted Turner’s 3 mistresses call her up for her advice on how to deal with the Mouth from the South).
While reading this book I lamented the roles that Jane Fonda didn’t play, either because she turned them down or in the case of The Music Box the director thought she was too old. You guys, she didn’t make a movie for like 15 years and when she finally did, it was Monster-in-Law with Jennifer Lopez, all because freaking Ted Turner hated to be alone, and if she’d left him to make a movie, he’d have moved like 8 mistresses into his various houses. She even admitted that she did Monster-in-Law on purpose because she hoped people would see the movie because of JLo but come out of it thinking about Jane Fonda. Which I totally did by the way. That ain't no lie.
I hurt for this one woman who had such low self-esteem that she agreed to threesomes with her husband Roger Vadim just to keep him. The woman who poured bazillions of dollars into her second husband Tom Hayden’s political campaigns and projects, even though he basically treated her like dirt. The woman who decorated all of Ted Turner’s 27 ranches, treated his kids like they were her own, and drank heavily to deal with his infidelities. I have to give her credit because each time, she thought the relationship was going to last forever, and she certainly gave it the old college try. These weren't fly-by-night relationships (6 years married to Vadim, 15 to Tom Hayden and 9 to Ted Turner which is like 81 years for normal people).
I was gratified to read at the end of the book that she had finally learned to stop compromising herself for a man, that she’s made family a priority (she’s even still close to Turner’s kids), as well as her career. I loved seeing her on stage in 33 Variations. It made me realize that life doesn't stop until you are well into the ground. That it’s important to keep engaged, informed, connected to not just places but people as well. And to have a sense of humor about yourself and your past mistakes and to forgive yourself for them.