Fonda, Jane: My Life So Far

There are many good reasons to read Jane Fonda’s candid memoir, “My Life So Far,” all 620 pages of it. In an act of marketing synergy, the high-profile book coincides with Jane’s comeback appearance in New Line’s comedy, “Monster-in-Law” (May 13), marking her first big screen appearance after absence of 15 years!

Candid, personal, and full of interesting observations about her childhood, life, and career, My Life So Far, is aptly titled. Having divorced her third husband, media mogul Ted Turner, Jane, 67, seems to be embarking on a new, exciting journey of her ever-evolving life

There are several sensationalistic revelations, such as the sexual threesome she had had with her first husband, director Roger Vadim, father of her daughter Vanessa, who’s named after her idol actress, Vanessa Redgrave. Jane is careful enough to point out that she was talked into, but nor forced to, participating in a sexually open marriage, taking full responsibility for her acts.

Then there’s the Vietnam disclosure. Contrary to what was reported in the media, Jane doesn’t apologize for going to North Vietnam. The apology is more nuanced and complex. Jane regrets the infamous photograph, depicting her seated at a North Vietnamese anti-craft gun. She observes: “The buck stops here. If I was used, I allowed it to happen. It was my mistake, and I have paid and continue to pay a heavy price for it.”

However, Fonda doesn’t apologize for her 1972 trip to Hanoi, which earned her the label “Hanoi Jane,” a characterization born out of operatives inside the White House. Nor does she regret her strong participation in the anti-Vietnam War movement, or support of the Black Panthers, for that matter.

As interesting as the chapters on her politics are, I found the sections dealing with her personal life and evolution as a feminist much more riveting and illuminating. The book is dedicated to her mother, Frances Seymour Brokaw, who committed suicide when Jane was 12. Her father, Henry Fonda, told Jane and brother Peter that their mother had died of heart attack; she later found out the truth from a film magazine.

All the rumors and speculations about her tense relationship with her father, legendary actor Henry Fonda, turn out to be true—and more. Henry emerges as a distant, difficult, and angry man, full of tensions that were seldom expressed in his famous screen performances.

One of the ironies of Jane’s life is that when she moved to Paris, in the mid-1960s, she wanted to detach herself from her father, yet, when she arrived there, most of the people she socialized with wanted to talk about Henry’s memorable characterizations and related to Jane as Henry’s daughter.

Fonda emerges as less noble and likable than his all-American screen image allows.

Apparently, the cantankerous, irascible character he played in “On Golden Pond,” was true to his real nature. “I have often pored over shoeboxes full of family memorabilia looking for clues to my father’s dark moods,” Jane observes, concluding tentatively that a hidden familial history of depression might have been at work. She cites others who remember Fonda as brooding and frightening, including author John Steinbeck, who described him as a “a man capable of sudden wild and dangerous violence, sharply critical of others, but equally self-critical.”

The book is extremely frank, well written, and swiftly paced (I read it in one session, on my flight from LA to NY). It’s also entertaining and replete of self-deprecating humor.

Though extensive, the book is short on Jane’s acting career. The only chapter that talks at length about her work is the one on “Klute,” in which she gave her most complex role, as a New York call girl, winning for a well-deserved Oscar; the second Oscar was for “Coming Home,” in 1978.

Clearly, Jane is less interested in acting or in Hollywood than in other, more personal and political aspects, of her life. Making movies was hard work. The section on the physical ardor called by “Barbarella” is particularly poignant. She notes that the sci-fi erotica “Barbarella marked a start “down a new path—as a female impersonator.” Contrary to popular notion, it got harder and harder and less and less interesting as the years rolled by. Her last two pictures, “Old Gringo” and “Stanley and Iris,” were particularly disappointing.

The best and most detailed chapters are those that chronicle her life in Paris, her marriage to director Roger Vadim, her membership in the social-intellectual circle that included such leftist artists as Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, and Costa-Gavras.

Jane gives Lee Marvin credit for raising her awareness about working conditions and labor agitation on the set of the Western comedy, “Cat Ballou.” Also poignant are her memories of Katharine Hepburn on the set of “On Golden Pond, which she produced for her father (Fonda received his only Oscar for that role), marking a symbolic father-daughter reunion and their only film together.

As expected, the running motifs throughout the book are gaining self-esteem, the need for personal growth, the decision to stop pleasing men (father, three husbands, directors), redemption and peace of mind.

In her post Turner phase, Jane has removed her breast implants, crediting Eve Ensler and her influential play, The Vagina Monologues,” for opening her eyes to various female issues, including physical standards of female beauty and satisfying sexuality for both women and men.

“My life has been a series of gigantic leaps of faith, based almost always on intuition and emotion, not on calculation or ego—or ideology,” Jane writes. The last leap of faith might be the most improbable of all. In need for a stronger self-perception, she has returned, by choice, to the “patriarchal, hierarchical structure of Christianity,” for which she offers a defense that won’t earn her fans among the Christian Right. But how do you reconcile genuine feminism and dogmatic Christianity I guess we will find out about tackling this challenge in the sequel to the memoir.

There is much to debate and admire about this thoughtful, meditative, and introspective book, which took five years of Jane’s life to research and write. Judging by the results—for her as well for us readers—the effort was worth every minute of Jane’s labor.