Jane Fonda: Still inflaming passions, 30 years after Hanoi

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There's only one problem with Jane Fonda: which Jane Fonda? The range of personae on offer is quite bewildering. Sex kitten, anti-war activist, notable actress, health and fitness queen, dutiful corporate wife, and symbol of the global feminist movement. During her life Fonda has been all of these things, not infrequently two or three of them at once. Indeed you can make a strong case that, as much as or more than any other single individual, she embodies the twists and turns of American history in the second half of the 20th century - its tensions and its obsessions, its traumas and its vanities. This week, two Fonda incarnations have been back in the headlines. One is Thoroughly Modern Jane, leading a delegation of the V-Day feminist movement last week to Guatemala and Mexico to protest the scourge of violence against women. The other is a Fonda redux, a ghost of Vietnam returned to haunt the current presidential election campaign.

This latter in turn is a tale of two photos, one true and one false, both of them seized upon by the Bush campaign to discredit the Vietnam war veteran and likely Democratic nominee John Kerry. One, a montage purporting to show Kerry and Fonda sharing a platform at an anti-war meeting in the early 1970s, has been revealed as a smear straight out of the Joseph Stalin playbook of doctored photos. The real one has a young Kerry, war hero turned war protester, listening intently at some other rally at the time, three rows behind the unmistakable figure of Fonda.

There is no evidence the pair even exchanged words on that occasion, let alone knew each other well. But the very use of the picture is testament to Fonda's enduring power to inflame passions. The Vietnam war ended three decades ago and is universally agreed to have been a colossal blunder. Even so, many people are still shocked by the memory of Fonda - Oscar-winning daughter of one of America's most venerated actors - flying with the left-wing activist Tom Hayden (later to become her second husband) to Hanoi in 1972.

That July, she went on North Vietnamese radio to urge American soldiers to desert; she peered through the sights of an anti-aircraft gun aimed at US planes, and accused her countrymen of war crimes. There were calls for her to be tried for treason, even to be executed. To this day, most Vietnam veterans cannot stand her. Small wonder Republicans believe that, even three decades on, tarring Kerry by association with "Hanoi Jane" still has political mileage.

However, that is but one facet of Fonda, for which she has amply and long since apologised. "It just kills me I did things that hurt those men. It was never my intention," she told the television interviewer Barbara Walters in 2001. But, Fonda explained, "I went from a person trying to be pretty and trying to be popular ... The Vietnam War turned a lot of young people inside out. We felt betrayed by our own country. It changed me and affected me very deeply." The enduring Jane Fonda is laid bare: passionate, committed (occasionally misguidedly so), but unfailingly - and often brutally - honest about herself.

These days, she says, she often winces when she sees her earlier films such as Cat Ballou, made in 1965. ("A wonderful movie, but I was really bad.") Then, of course, came Barbarella, the fatuous intergalactic romp made by French director Roger Vadim in 1968, in which she plays a female astronaut hopping from planet to planet, surviving exotic sexual encounters with monsters, angels and others. The film marked the end of Fonda's sex-kitten phase, and of Vadim's bid to become a major player in Hollywood, with Fonda as his vehicle.

But if her relationship with Vadim failed, first professionally and then personally, the episode speaks volumes about Fonda the woman, and her attitude to men. The director became her first husband in 1965. He wanted to mould her as his own - and Fonda went along. Much the same happened with Hayden, and then with her third husband Ted Turner, the media tycoon whom she married, to much astonishment, in 1991. The actress and activist gave up her film career and renounced feminism, to become a house-trained corporate spouse. The couple divorced after 10 years, but more in sorrow than anger, amid the realisation by Fonda that, in her early 60s, she had finally found herself, that she had "grown up and healed". That she ever lost herself was mainly due to her father, Henry Fonda. On screen he might have embodied all things noble, but to Jane and her brother Peter who worshipped him, he was a cold and distant parent. Their mother, Frances Seymour Brokaw, committed suicide when Fonda was 12, and to this day she cannot talk about it.

Instead she gave her heart to her father, but received little in return. Again, the interview with Barbara Walters is revealing. "If you're a girl and your father is remote and you adore him, you learn to tie yourself into pretzels to become whatever he wants you to be." It was an attitude that led her, inescapably, to strong and domineering men. As she put it, "You want me to be this? You want me to be that? Fine. I can be anything you want me to be." Thus it was with Vadim. Thus it was with Hayden, as Fonda threw herself into his radical politics, and later a good deal of her money into his unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat in 1976 and other political ventures, before the marriage broke up over the following decade. And thus it was with Ted Turner, manic and ultra-demanding alpha male of the media business. In the end, in 2000, she dumped him - just as she'd dumped Hollywood when they married - before he dumped her. Jane Fonda had exorcised her demons.

Obscured by the controversies and the biting self-analysis is the fact that Fonda in her prime was a very considerable actress. She was nominated seven times for an Oscar, and won two Academy Awards for Best Actress. The turning point was They Shoot Horses, Don't They? in 1969, about a brutal dance marathon in the Depression. Then came Klute in 1971, arguably her finest film in which she played a call girl stalked by a killer, and which secured her first Oscar.

In retrospect, the roles pointed to her latest incarnation as a feminist. In both, she played women who were exploited - economically in They Shoot Horses..., sexually in Klute. The trip to Vietnam derailed her career for a while. But the marvellous and overlooked Julia of 1977 alongside Vanessa Redgrave got things back on track, followed by The China Syndrome in which she plays a TV reporter who discovers safety risks at a nuclear power station. The next year, Fonda won a second Oscar for the moving Coming Home. Her role is an army wife whose husband is sent to Vietnam. She then volunteers to work in a military hospital where she falls in love with a disillusioned veteran semi-paralysed by his combat wounds.

If Coming Home made peace of a kind with the trauma of Vietnam, On Golden Pond (1981), which she produced and starred in with Henry Fonda, made peace with her father a year before he died. Amazingly, he won his only Oscar for the performance. For the daughter it was "a gift to my father that was unbelievably successful". Thereafter, the successes grew fewer, not least because Fonda's marriage to Hayden was collapsing, destroyed by separate but parallel mid-life crises. The movie queen, however, had always made a point of keeping in fine physical shape. So, in yet another makeover, she turned herself into a fitness icon. In 1979, she opened the Jane Fonda Workout Studio in Los Angeles. Three years later, the first Jane Fonda Workout Video appeared. Two dozen aerobics videos on, she found herself in charge of a $600m-plus health and fitness empire.

And so we arrive at today's Jane Fonda, post-Ted and liberated at last. She looks wonderful even though she swears she doesn't exercise any more. In poll after poll, she's voted one of the most admired women in America. And after a 14-year interlude, she's back in movies, playing a mother-in-law from hell in the romantic comedy Monster-in-Law opposite Jennifer Lopez.

But you sense that, more than ever, Hollywood is a sideline. She spends much time with her large extended family, including Vanessa, her daughter by Vadim, and Troy, her son with Hayden. Having made the men in her life her cause in earlier years, she is now fighting for women.

During her marriage to Turner, she threw herself into good works in CNN's home city of Atlanta, founding and funding a group dedicated to preventing teenage pregnancies. Then in 2001 came a new epiphany. Fonda saw a Broadway performance by Eve Ensler of her Vagina Monologues - the evening of theatrical readings that Ensler intended as a celebration of female sexuality but which, as she gradually found, became for many women an outlet to talk about sexual misery rather than sexual joy.

The Monologues transformed Fonda. "I said I want to be part of this, and I've become part of it," she told an interviewer later. By then Ensler had started V-Day, a movement to combat violence against women and girls. Fonda became her companion-in-arms, travelling the world to press the cause. Those travels have taken the duo to the Middle East and Africa - and last week to Central America, and the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, where 258 women have been killed in the past decade, many of them sexually assaulted and mutilated. Fonda met mothers of victims, urging the Mexican government finally to make a serious effort to solve the killings.

V-Day, obviously, is Fonda's consuming cause. But the Kerry episode and America's latest revisiting of the Vietnam era have offered glimpses of the fiery Fonda of old. The faked picture at the anti-war rally was "hogwash", she says, part of an effort to present the candidate as unpatriotic, mounted by "a very narrow, extremely conservative right-wing segment. People have had it with this sort of black propaganda". Thus "Hanoi Jane" 30 years on, contrite and wiser to be sure - and somehow proof that for all her changes of persona, deep down it's the Jane Fonda of always.

A life in brief

Born: New York City, 21 December 1937.

Family: Her father was the actor Henry Fonda; her mother, Frances Seymour Brokaw, committed suicide in 1950 when Jane was 12. She has been married three times: to the French film director Roger Vadim (1965-1973, had a daughter, Vanessa), to Tom Hayden (1973-1989, had a son, Troy) and to Ted Turner (1991-2001).

Education: Vassar and the Actors Studio in New York.

Career: Seven times nominated for an Oscar; twice won the Best Actress: Klute (1971), Coming Home (1978).

She says: "When I saw Vagina Monologues, the best way to describe it is that my feminism moved from my head to my body, and changed me for ever." "Women are not forgiven for ageing. Robert Redford's lines of distinction are my old-age wrinkles."

They say: "I had difficulty placing Jane's IQ, but I was very impressed by her tremendous intellectual curiosity, a rare quality in anyone." Roger Vadim

"People think she's cold, hard and opinionated, but she has something of a little girl about her." Dolly Parton