Oscar Politics: Jane Fonda

The explicit use of the Oscar show for advocating social causes was mostly a phenomenon of the 1970s.

Jane Fonda was praised for her performance in They Shoot Horses, Don't They for which she earlier won the New York Film Critics Award. However, many believed that Fonda's chances to win were spoiled by her radical politics: She supported the Black Panther Movement, and conducted fund-raisers for reluctant G.I. and U.S. Servicemen's Fund. There were other good performances in 1969, such as Liza Minnelli's in The Sterile Cuckoo, but majority opinion held that Fonda deserved the Oscar; the winner, however, was Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Two years later, when Fonda received her second nomination for Klute, the industry speculated that she would either renounce her nomination or use the occasion to promote her politics. Earlier she had sent a Vietnam vet to accept the Golden Globe from the Hollywood Foreign Press. For a while, Fonda considered declining the prize, if she won, but on second thought, she decided to attend the ceremonies. Fonda explained: “A woman who is much wiser than I am said to me: “You're a very subjective individual, an elite individual. The Oscar is what the working class relates to when it thinks of people in the movies. It's important for those of us who speak out for social change to get that kind of acclaim.”

At Oscar night, when Fonda's name was announced, there was a mixture of cheers and boos. But contrary to expectations, Fonda gave a restrained speech: “Thank you. And thanks to those of you who applauded. There's a lot I could say tonight. But this isn't the time or the place. So I'll just say thank you.”

Shortly after, Fonda was informally blacklisted and didn't work for several years in America. Earlier, she had formed with actor Donald Sutherland, as part of her antiVietnam battle, “the Anti-War Troupe,” which toured military camps in defiance of the Pentagon. In July 1972, Fonda went to North Vietnam, a move that put her career–and life–on the line. When she got back, she was labeled by her opponents “a Commie slut” and “Hanoi Jane.”

Undaunted, Fonda coproduced F.T.A. (Free the Army and also Fuck the Army), a filmed version of the tour. She also campaigned with other actors for the Presidential Election of Senator George McGovern. In 1973, she married Tom Hayden, the antiwar militant activist. Joining forces with cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the three codirected Introduction to the Enemy, which documented Fonda's visit to Vietnam.

For a decade, Fonda's record as a screen actress was rather poor. She appeared in JeanLuc Godard's Tout va bien (Everything's All Right), a film about the 1968 student revolutions and strikes. She showed her commitment to socially relevant films in playing Nora, Ibsen's feminist heroine, in Joseph Losey's 1973 A Doll's House. But a cameo role in the 1975 AmericanSoviet co-production, The Blue Bird, was downright embarrassing.

For her American comeback, Fonda chose a comedy, Fun With Dick and Jane, co'starring George Segal. However, the turning point of her career was Julia, in which she was cast as playwright Lillian Hellmann, a part that she said “means more to me than any movie I've ever made.” When Fonda was asked to cohost the 1977 Oscar show, it was interpreted as a sign of Hollywood's forgiveness.”

In 1978, Fonda's second Best Actress for Coming Home proved that she emerged triumphantly from her aborted career. Her comeback was compared to that of Ingrid Bergman, whose second Oscar for Anastasia also represented a kind of reconciliation. Both Fonda and Bergman were restored to “respectability” while still young–in contrast to many blacklisted artists who had lost the creative years of their lives.

In the 1980s, Fonda's politics have mellowed and she has become accepted as a mainstream actress. Her new causes were the ERA (now defunct), opposition to nuclear weapons, rent control, and issues that were more accessible to the public. Fonda supported her then husband's grassroots organization, CED (Campaign for Economic Democracy), whose goal was to curb the power of large corporations. Maturity and a second motherhood changed Fonda, though she was still committed to films with strong political convictions.

Looking back on her past, Fonda concedes to have been “a bit shrill.” But she also reached the conclusion that “rallies and speeches aren't necessarily as effective as making one hell of a good movie.” In the 1980s, Fonda became a media star due to the popularity of her books and videos, “The Jane Fonda Workout.” Watching her co-host the 1986 Oscar show, in which she introduced Kermit the Frog, was an ironic commentary on the fate of a onceradical actress. Fonda received a Best Actress nomination for The Morning After, in 1986. But after two failures, Old Gringo and Stanley and Iris, she retired from the screen, and in 1991, married media mogul Ted Turner, a marriage that lasted a decade.

If you would like to know more about this issue, please read my book, All bout Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards(NY: Continuum International, paperback 2003).