Jane Fonda: Six decades of lust, controversy and revolution on and off screen

As Jane Fonda’s first ever screen role turns 60, Bessie Yuill revisits the star’s incredible journey from unhappy sex symbol to one-woman revolutionary

Bessie Yuill
Friday 03 April 2020 14:45
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'An almost feral alertness… like this bright blue attentiveness to everything around her': Jane Fonda in 1969
'An almost feral alertness… like this bright blue attentiveness to everything around her': Jane Fonda in 1969

Last year, Jane Fonda was arrested five times. As her 82nd birthday approached, the actor was staging weekly climate crisis protests in Washington DC, accompanied by famous friends like Ted Danson and Joaquin Phoenix. “I may be detained overnight,” she told reporters, as she was once again led away in handcuffs. “One night. Big deal.”

It wasn’t the first time she’d spent a night in jail. Fifty years ago, a mugshot of Fonda with a fist raised and a new shag haircut became a piece of protest iconography. Ever since Fonda made herself an enemy of the Nixon administration by throwing herself into the fight for civil rights, supporting the Black Panthers and leading anti-war protests, Fonda’s activism has been intrinsic to who she is. It seems bizarre that she’s found time to fit in a prolific film career.

But Fonda’s been a magnetic screen presence since her first film role 60 years ago this week, in the romantic comedy Tall Story. Her blue eyes and distinctive low voice have brought life to every character she’s played – though that inaugural role reflects how far Hollywood’s view of women has shifted in her lifetime. In her debut, Fonda played a perky cheerleader who admits that she’s pursuing higher education “for the same reason that every girl, if she’s honest with herself, comes to college – to get married”.

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