When we first see Jane Fonda around 90 minutes into Paolo Sorrentino’s new film Youth, she’s standing with a hand on her perfectly arched hip, staring at an artwork on the wall and calling it a piece of shit. “Human beings really know how to be pathetic when they want to be,” she spits at no one in particular. She then examines her lipstick in a knife.
Later on in the movie, we check in with Jane in the middle of a full-scale airplane meltdown. She smacks a kindly stewardess in the face, which sends the poor girl spinning into the wall. The entire flight crew tries to wrestle Jane to the floor in an attempt to calm her down, but this whirling dervish of a woman cannot be contained. (She is Jane Fonda, after all.) “You fucking bitches!!!” she screams at them. And then her wig falls off.
Suffice it to say, the 77-year-old Fonda really brings it in Youth, which screened this morning at the Cannes Film Festival to both cheers and jeers. The film’s partisans are predicting awards-season action for the film’s lead Michael Caine, who plays Fred Ballinger, a celebrated conductor reflecting on his life and career while on vacation at a beautiful resort in the Swiss Alps. The naysayers, who spiked the applause this morning with some loud, scattered boos, think that Sorrentino (who won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for The Great Beauty in 2014) is suffering from the same sort of overindulgence as his lead character.
But the one thing everyone could agree on is that Jane Fonda walked away with the picture in what can’t be more than five minutes of screen time. At first blush, her character Brenda doesn’t seem like much of a stretch: Like Fonda, who now stars on the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, Brenda is an aged movie star who’s turning her back on the big screen to headline a TV show. “Television is the future,” she tells Mick (Harvey Keitel), a film director who’s vacationing with Fred and trying to woo Brenda to star in his next project. That’s about the only thing she says to Mick that isn’t meant to vivisect him; the rest of their conversation is filled with so many put-downs that the audience began spontaneously applauding, turned on by Fonda’s full-throttle bitchiness. “You’re going on 80, and like most of your colleagues, you’re getting worse with age!” Brenda tells Mick, and as the man sits there squirming, Brenda launches insult after insult in an epic rant that concludes with one last knife-twist for good measure: “You’re old. You’re tired.” Damn, girl.
The scene is surely Youth’s secret weapon, but it remains to be seen whether Fonda will actually want it on her highlight reel. When we spoke to Fonda’s friend and Grace and Frankie co-star Lily Tomlin last January, she dished that Fonda wasn’t happy with how Sorrentino shot her. “She says, ‘I really look terrible,’” Tomlin told us. “She says the lighting, everything, is just awful.”
Fonda’s harsh look must have been by design — everything in Youth is meticulously art-directed, and there are plenty of beautiful women in the film who are flatteringly photographed by Sorrentino’s camera — but I don’t doubt that it was hard for the elegantly nipped-and-tucked actress to take. Fonda is a Cannes icon who regularly walks the red carpet of the Palais in chic, body-hugging couture, but in Youth, she looks less like an age-defying icon and more like a badly lit drag queen. Her character enters the film wearing a long dress the color of a yellow highlighter, and her makeup is so criminally misjudged that it’s practically Kabuki. And that wig! What can I say about Fonda’s massive, straw-colored wig, except that it’s so bad that you practically expect it to become a plot point? If they were giving out movie hairpieces on a RuPaul’s Drag Race challenge, the queen left with that wig would surely self-eliminate.
But at least by wearing it, Fonda confirmed her commitment to camp. Make no mistake, there is plenty in Youth that the older straight guys in the Academy will enjoy, like the nubile, naked young women who cavort at the resort for Caine (and the audience) to ogle. Fonda’s five minutes, though, feel like a sop to a very different demographic, the kind that will turn her clip into GIFs and shout “Yassss” and “Drag him!” as she decimates Keitel. Let me put it this way: Jane Fonda could have lesbian sex tomorrow, and it really wouldn’t matter. Her Youth cameo would still be the gayest thing she did all year.