Becoming Jane Fonda

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday November 13, 2018
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Becoming Jane Fonda

When they turn 80, most people would probably love to look like Jane Fonda, who appears more like 50. Yes, she's wealthy and has had cosmetic surgery, but like Barbara Stanwyck she's one of those women who has grown even more attractive as they've aged, both in looks and temperament. She loves lived-in faces like that of her friend Vanessa Redgrave, but admits didn't have the courage to let nature take its course. Her appearance, by her own admission, is one of the contradictions at the heart of her life and of a new HBO documentary, "Jane Fonda in Five Acts," now available on the cable channel.

The film starts with a recording of President Richard Nixon asking, "What in the world is the matter with Jane Fonda?" Answering Nixon's question indirectly structures the movie, which is concerned less with her acting career than with her personal evolution and activism. It uses the effective gimmick of framing each of the major periods of her life through the man that controlled and molded her: "Henry," for her father Henry Fonda; "Vadim," for first husband, French director Roger Vadim; "Tom," for second husband, activist/politician Tom Hayden; "Ted," for third husband, media mogul Ted Turner; and finally, "Jane." This structuring leads to the inevitable conclusion that Fonda has become her own person, not needing a man to define her. But the journey, despite having already been essayed in her 2005 bestselling memoir "My Life So Far," with the assistance of archival footage, is a fascinating if ambivalent one.

The first segment, the longest and probably most consequential, was being born into Hollywood royalty, which defined Fonda's early life. Henry Fonda was a cinema icon, the Nation's Monument, but apparently incapable of expressing any emotions, except perhaps anger, without the aid of a script. Jane was very much Daddy's Girl despite his criticism, especially about her weight. She had a distant relationship with her mother, Frances, whom she would later discover was bipolar, and who killed herself when Jane was 12. Henry, who'd had affairs with other women during the marriage, remarried a younger woman, and sent Jane to a posh boarding school where she learned how to become bulimic. She returned home, and was introduced to the Method by her Malibu neighbor, Lee Strasberg, who told her she had talent. She headed to New York to get stage experience. Eventually Hollywood discovered her and gave her boring Girl-Next-Door roles ("The Tall Story"). Desiring change, she escaped to France, where she met and married Vadim, a ladies' man who introduced her to free love, exploited her name in films (the campy sci-fi "Barbarella," with nude scenes), and gave Fonda her daughter Vanessa.

She was exposed to people who made her more politically aware, leading to her embracing the anti-Vietnam War movement. This involvement resulted in the biggest regret of her life, posing with North Vietnamese soldiers sitting on an anti-aircraft gun, using polarizing language about POWs and American military that earned her the nickname "Hanoi Jane" and the enmity (still) of almost half the country. While she acknowledges her failures, she doesn't regret the overall mission. Her activism allowed her to meet Hayden, becoming peace-movement royalty through their grass-roots organizing. With her aerobic exercise workout, the best-selling videotape ever (and accompanying book), she funded Hayden's Campaign for Economic Delivery, and finally overcame decades of bulimia. Hayden resented her success and Hollywood career, which by the time of her divorce was in decline, despite her two Oscars, for "Klute" and "Coming Home." She was happy to be a trophy wife for Ted Turner, but couldn't quite muster the total devotion he required, though the sex was great.

Shot from 2015-17, including interviews with admirers Robert Redford (they made three films in 50 years), best friend producer Paula Weinstein, Hayden (before he died in 2016), Turner (despite his dementia), gorgeous son Troy Garrity (with Hayden), stepdaughter Nathalie Vadim, and adoptive daughter Mary Luana Williams, the principal focus is Fonda herself, commenting on her life. Director Susan Lacey (known for American Master specials and a Steven Spielberg documentary) gives her space to show her evolution, but at times the film has a therapy-session feel to it, and Fonda's proclivity toward speechifying can be wearying. Fonda regrets being a poor mother. Daughter Vanessa wasn't interviewed. Nor was her brother Peter, both noticeable gaps. But the parts relating to her mother, especially as she visits her grave for the first time, are unexpectedly stirring.

One wishes there had been more commentary on her movie roles, though Lacey's emphasis on her dramatic rebirth in "They Shoot Horses Don't They," her greatest performance, as a turning point is spot-on. In her superstar years, Fonda often picked roles to reflect her politics, i.e., in the anti-nuclear "China Syndrome." Fonda's almost confessional honesty about her flaws, fears, failures, and her final observation about herself — being perfect is a toxic journey, good enough is good enough — reveal her complex maturity minus her younger stridency. Viewers will empathize with her quest to find her authentic real self after a roller-coasterlike trajectory, even if it took almost eight decades to arrive at her own shaky enlightenment.