tv review

Who Gets to Define Jane Fonda?

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

“What in the world is the matter with Jane Fonda? I feel so sorry for Henry Fonda, who’s a nice man.”

That’s Richard Nixon caught on White House tape in 1972, around the time that Jane Fonda, a movie star and Hollywood legacy in the process of reinventing herself as a left-wing activist, accepted the North Vietnamese government’s invitation to visit Hanoi. The trip culminated in Fonda letting herself be photographed sitting in a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun of the type that was used to shoot down U.S. planes. The image was treated as emblematic of Fonda’s “anti-American” stance on the war, including a quote suggesting that American pilots should expect to be beaten and tortured for trying to escape prisoner of war camps because they’d been caught “bombing and strafing and napalming the country.” Susan Lacy’s HBO documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts, which opened theatrically Friday and bows on the cable channel tonight, treats the Vietnam trip as the pivotal moment in Fonda’s adult life, after which she was known more for being an issue than an actress — but not to the exclusion of other meaningful moments in her life. Using a series of interviews with Fonda as its centerpiece, which are augmented with archival footage, rare photos, home movies, and comments from friends, colleagues, and her two living ex-husbands, this is an engrossing feature that will fascinate anyone interested in Fonda’s life and work.

The movie traces Fonda through the present, starting with her childhood in a family of Hollywood royalty marred by tragedy — her father Henry was domineering and withholding, and her mother Frances killed herself — and following her through six decades of career highs and lows, a gradual political awakening, and three marriages (to French filmmaker and Lothario Roger Vadim, political activist Tom Hayden, and media mogul Ted Turner). The film is broken into the eponymous five acts, each of which bears a title card stating the name of the person who most shaped Fonda’s life during a certain period. In chronological order, they are Henry Fonda, Vadim, Hayden, Turner, and finally Jane Fonda herself.

Fonda is always at the center of the film, sitting for interviews and describing her life in ways that seem alternately raw and powerful and overly polished and narrativized. (Many of the anecdotes and some of the phrasing are straight from her 2005 biography My Life So Far.) The documentary is most intimate and compelling when Fonda analyzes her motivations for major decisions, armed with hindsight, experience and (one assumes) decades of therapy. She’s brutally honest in assessing the eager-to-please girl who just wanted to be acclaimed for doing a good job and was terrified of asserting herself or making too strong an impression. She’s good at forgiving herself without letting herself off the hook; she’s publicly flagellated herself over aspects of the North Vietnam trip for three decades now, and she does it again here. (She mainly regrets oversimplifying the issues and seeming to demonize military personnel through careless language, not the trip itself.) She expresses regret over what her divorces, her constantly traveling, and her intense phase of political activism in the 1970s might have done to her children, even though the kids themselves accept her in totality, as a mother who, like most parents, was wonderful in some ways and useless in others.

Fonda straight-up tells us that her strong progressive stances on economic and racial issues are partly a reaction against having grown up so privileged and insulated, and feeling as if she needed to atone by fighting for people without advantages. She’s quite aware of the seeming hypocrisy of living in luxury while fighting for economic justice. (She admits that her ’70s phase, when she lived in a small, cluttered house and insisted on doing her own dishes, was a symbolic correction of sorts.) She’s also frank when admitting how her sex drive sent her down certain paths. When she talks about Vadim, Hayden, and Turner especially, her face lights up as if she’s just spotting them across a room for the first time and admiring the set of their jawlines. (Visiting Turner on his ranch, she peruses the master bedroom and says, “I remember the good times we used to have in here!”) All in all, Fonda emerges as a complex, in some ways contradictory woman who’s lived an extraordinary life, and seems to have reached a place where she can own her failures as well as her successes. Among the latter: producing and starring alongside her father in the 1981 film version of On Golden Pond, a project that now seems half-adaptation, half-therapy, and which won Henry Fonda the Oscar that had previously eluded him.

My main quibble is Jane Fonda in Five Acts is the frame Lacy has chosen. It seems meant to send a feminist message of empowerment — the narrative culminates in Fonda becoming the primary arbiter of her own life, after years of being overshadowed by certain men — but this ironically reduces her even as it strives to exalt and empower her.

The “five acts” of the title are phases of Fonda’s life. Four of these acts are ceded to important men: Fonda, Vadim, Hayden (who was with her during her sloganeering Earth Mother phase), and Turner. Chapter five credits Jane Fonda herself as the prime mover. But when this section arrives near the end of a documentary running almost two-and-a-half hours, the attentive viewer may raise a skeptical eyebrow, because everything we’ve seen up to that point suggests that Fonda had already been doing a bang-up job of defining her own life since at least 1971, when she had her hair chopped off to take the lead role in Klute (winning her first of two Best Actress Oscars). Maybe even before then: taking classes with Lee Strasberg and relocating to France were bold steps, too.

The long section about Fonda’s marriage to Vadim, who turned her into an intergalactic space vamp in Barbarella, never convincingly makes the case that Vadim “defined” her in any meaningful way, aside from investing her previously white-bread image with Gallic va-va-voom. By her own account, Fonda starts getting interested in the civil-rights, feminist, and antiwar movements in the late 1960s independently of Vadim — who was opposed to the Vietnam War, but seemed mainly interested in making films and getting laid. She starts morphing into 1970s Jane quickly and forcefully, and immerses herself in those causes. It’s obvious that she was thinking about these changes in terms of a life narrative back then; Fonda even provides a sophisticated reading of her role in the Depression-era drama They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? that connects the film to 1960s America as well as her own psyche. This section of Jane Fonda in Five Acts is so rich in both incident and insight that we forget Fonda is even married to Vadim until she reminds us that he exists by divorcing him.

Slightly less irksome is the idea that Tom Hayden defined Fonda in the 1970s. His time with her codified and expanded some of the viewpoints Fonda had held in the ’60s, and cemented her image as a movie star that Republicans could hate on sight. (She’s 80 now, and they still hate her.) But one could still make the case that Fonda defined Hayden as strongly as Hayden did Fonda, maybe more so. Exhibit A: Proceeds from from Fonda’s workout tape, still the best-selling home-video release of all time, funded Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy, something he was incapable of doing on his own.

By the time we get to Ted Turner, Fonda’s admission that marrying a billionaire undercut her image as a fiery progressive is somewhat mitigated by our realization that she was 53 when she hooked up with him — an age when even female movie stars of Fonda’s caliber get put to pasture by Hollywood for supposedly “aging out” of lead roles. (Fonda’s friend and frequent co-star, Robert Redford, appeared with her in The Electric Horseman in 1981, but five years later hired Debra Winger, then 20 years his junior, as his love interest for Legal Eagles.) So there, too, Fonda appears to have been making her own decisions for her own reasons, whatever we may think of them as we peek in from outside.

It’s a shame that the film tries to pack a life of overflowing abundance into a series of boxes that don’t quite suit the contents they’re designed to hold. Fonda is as mesmerizing an interview subject as she is an actress, activist, and fitness star, and she’s experienced more in her 80 years than some families do in generations. She defines herself each time she appears on camera, and judging from their awed and abashed tones as they talk about her, both her family and her exes agree. Based on Fonda’s own statements and comments by people who know her best, it seems quite possible that she was always defining herself, even when she thought she wasn’t.

Who Gets to Define Jane Fonda?