Jane Fonda: No ordinary Jane

There was the mother who committed suicide; the famous father; the Hanoi and Workout Janes; the brilliant and difficult movies; the three failed marriages and retirement. And that, we thought, was that. But now close to 70, she's back. And she has some explaining to do

David Thomson
Sunday 10 April 2005 00:00

A few weeks ago, I happened to see Klute again. It is 34 years old now, but it is also the kind of movie that a modern kid would be shocked by - not by the fear in the suspense (although that's considerable), but by the remorseless intuition about prostitution and the way it is a variant on all our power systems in which women feel bound to please men and despise themselves.

Our movies no longer deal in such truths; we have agreed with ourselves that we are not grown-up. Klute was also Jane Fonda's first Oscar as best actress, and she is so tough, so smart and self-destructive it hurts. Now you can read how she prepared for the film by talking to the prostitutes she felt compelled to accept when her first husband, Roger Vadim, said two in the bed was rather dull. Jane Fonda is back.

Ted Turner, her third husband, was more gentlemanly. He was as Southern as Rhett Butler, so he observed the proprieties. Driving to an airport in the late 1990s, she mustered all her courage to tell him their marriage was over. This was sad, because it had been fun. But he was unfaithful. He was angry at being challenged - that's how men had always intimidated her. So he said it would be different. But it wasn't and when he dropped her at the airport in farewell, she learned later that he had a replacement, new fun, lined up and waiting. And now, coming up to 68 she is back with an autobiography, My Life So Far, that tells these rueful stories.

In America, just a few days ago, she went on 60 Minutes (still the most important magazine show on current events), and you felt that the retirement announced in 1991 might be over. The main thrust of her appearance was to admit the horror with which she looked back on certain things she did in North Vietnam in the early 1970s. That is the time of "Hanoi Jane", the period in which she earned the contempt and loathing of many in - and supportive of - the armed forces for the flagrant way in which she gave comfort to the enemy. Well, she realises that, and she said she was sorry. But then the interviewer said: "Sad about the war?" "Oh no," she said, "not that - I was right about that. That war was wrong. But I offended our own people."

You can read the book, you should, for she is no ordinary person. Witness the ability to feel remorse as well as the certainty about political principle. Of course, there is a danger that this seems like stale history, but it was our loss when Jane Fonda went away, even if it was because Hollywood thought she looked too old and because she felt she had a chance at an honest, decent relationship with a man. She was never afraid to make mistakes, and if fear was the dominant force in her life she never walked away from it. Her book tells stories that were known once by insiders, but Jane Fonda has been away nearly 15 years and there are millions of the new audience and the new electorate who don't know how to handle a good-looking woman who went to Vassar College, who could act in her sleep, and who was ready and willing to produce difficult pictures.

So the history may come as something new: born in 1937, the daughter of Henry Fonda, the great actor, the model of decency - as in Young Mr Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, Mr Roberts and 12 Angry Men. Except that Fonda was also a cold, strict martinet with a terrible temper who never told Jane that her mother had died, cutting her throat with a razor, in a mental hospital when Jane was a child. So there were problems of candour and intimacy that the young woman battled in her brave struggle to be an actress instead of just a pretty sexpot. But Vadim (the man who had previously discovered Brigitte Bardot) put her in Barbarella, where she wore few clothes and pretended to have orgasms. And she was terrific. But still, the Vadim years made it harder for her personally and professionally and it was only gradually that the babe proved herself an actress - Sunday in New York, Cat Ballou, The Chase, Barefoot in the Park, They Shoot Horses Don't They? Try that last picture - a Depression era story about marathon dance contests. It is so bleak a picture that it hardly ever gets shown these days.

She dumped Vadim, and then she married Tom Hayden, a political activist who drew her into the great and necessary campaign against the war. That's when she lost Middle America, endured death threats and abuse, made a fool of herself, and was right. Those two things are inseparable in Jane Fonda and they ought to be a part of growing up. It's just that too many

kids today are too cool to risk being idiots or to take the chance on being right. Fonda worked on - Klute, Tout Va Bien (made for Jean-Luc Godard), Steelyard Blues, The Dollmaker (for Joe Losey), Fun With Dick and Jane, Julia (playing Lillian Hellman) and Coming Home - that anguished Vietnam movie in which Jane is married to a hard-core military man (Bruce Dern) until she finds solace and tenderness with a paraplegic veteran (Jon Voight). She helped produce that film and it lost as Best Picture only to The Deer Hunter, which was better, but which definitely told the story from the male point of view.

In those years, Jane Fonda was everywhere and a lot of people came to see her as a pain in the neck. She was doing pictures like Coming Home and The China Syndrome (big issue pictures) and she was making an industry on her work-out tapes. This was in the early days of video and Jane - well into her 40s - saw the show business and the sexual politics in a series of video instructionals in which her own tight body got a lot of play. She says now she sold 17 million units and helped bring video to the masses. Maybe that's what Ted Turner was drawn to - because he was a pioneer in that form.

Her last few films were not very good - On Golden Pond (reunited with her father as he was dying), Agnes of God, The Morning After, Old Gringo, Stanley and Iris. And when she retired it was with some sense of weariness and over-exposure. So she had her quiet decade with Ted, in Montana and Hawaii, and all over the world. And now she is back - and do we need her! I don't know what a woman close to 70 can do in the way of acting, but I can't believe that this very active, fierce, courageous woman has not lain awake at nights for years planning. Her apology over Vietnam was decent and honest, and I hope enough of her enemies can accept it. If not, just remember this - she was right, and for a few years in pictures she was the toughest lady we had.

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