Movie Stars: Fonda, Jane–America’s Iconic Actress

“I’m in control. When they come to me, they’re nervous.
I’m not. I know what I’m doing. I know I’m good.”

Jane Fonda to her psychiatrist in “Klute”

Garbo might have been Hollywood’s most legendary personality, and Meryl Streep, to jump two generations forward, its most accomplished actress as far as Oscar nominations are concerned. However, when it comes to an actress whose life onscreen and off has reflected accurately the zeitgeist of America society over the past four decades, no actress can match the significance of Jane Fonda, the most uniquely American screen persona.

As an actress, Jane has always been captivating, and often irresistible to watch. In 1969, she was nominated for an Oscar and won the New York Film Critics for her performance as a 1930s marathon dancer in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” She won the Best Actress Oscar twice, as a brittle New York call girl in “Klute,” and as a politicized housewife in the Vietnam melodrama, “Coming Home.”

It’s not a coincidence that in her best performances Jane played variations of the actress role, a disillusioned wannabe actress in “They Shoot Horses,” an aspiring actress who works as a call girl in “Klute,” an aging, alcoholic actress in The Morning After,” for which she received her last Oscar nomination. Jane’s body of work represents the best studies of the meaning of being an actress in American film.

In her career and life, Jane has defied F. Scott Fitzgerald’s adage, “There are no second acts in American lives.” In her memoir, “My Life So Far,” which Ill review in a future column, Jane divides her life into three acts, but a closer look reveals at least six or seven distinct phases. Each of these phases is dominated by a strong male figure that had influenced her career, screen image, politics, lifestyle, and her self-perception as an actress and a woman. As the fiercest actress in American history, Jane has continued to reveal new, unexpected sides of her multifaceted personality in terms of the men in her life.

The men who have shaped Jane’s life the most are her severe father, legendary actor Henry Fonda; French director and first husband Roger Vadim, who tried to impose a sexy look on her; the politician and liberal activist Tom Hayden to whom she was married for 17 years; and third husband, the media mogul Ted Turner. There have been other important men, such as Donald Sutherland, her co-star in “Klute.”

In her best performances, Jane has explored the art and life of acting, the tension between her image onscreen and off. Her movies are as much about Jane the role-playing actress as about Jane the role-playing woman. As her career progressed, Jane seemed intent on accomplishing the impossible task of drawing together, and even unifying her personal, political, and screen performances.

Henry Fonda’s Daughter

Jane was born on December 21, 1937 in New York. She is the first child of Fonda’s second marriage to Frances Seymour Brokaw and older sister to Peter Fonda. She was brought up on the West Coast until she was ten. Her mother Frances suffered from poor health and anxiety while Henry was away during the War. In 1950, when Henry sought a divorce to marry a younger woman, Frances cut her throat. Henry told Jane that her mother had died form heart attack, and she learned about her mother’s suicide from a movie magazine.

When Henry came to N.Y. to appear in “Mister Roberts,” Jane and Peter moved to their grandmother’s home in Greenwich, Connecticut. Although Jane had occasional parts in school plays, she showed little interest in acting. Nonetheless, in 1954, she appeared with her father in the Omaha Community Theatre production of “The Country Girl.”

Growing restless during her college days at Vassar, she went to Paris to study art. When she returned to New York, she took up modeling and twice made the cover of Vogue. In 1958, a meeting with Method guru Lee Strasberg led to studies at the Actors Studio and to a passion for acting.

Early Hollywood

In 1960, Jane made her Broadway and Hollywood debuts and was immediately recognized as a potential star. Her first screen appearance was in Joshua Logan’s charming story, “Tall Story.” She then played supporting parts in “Walk on the Wild Side” and in George Cukor’s sex soap, “The Chapman Report,” as the brittle, skittish girl in the broad-rimmed hat. Jane scored better in George Roy Hill’s comedy, “Period of Adjustment,” and in the Drew-Leacock essay, “Jane” (1963), which offered the first evidence of her talent.

The French Era

After the mediocre “Sunday in New York,” (1963), Jane went to France and made “Les Felins” for Rene Clement. In 1965, she married French director Roger Vadim, then best known for the scandalous film, “And God Created Woman,” staring his wife, sex symbol Brigitte Bardot. A notorious svengali of sex goddesses, Vadim molded Jane into another Bardot sexpot. He directed Jane in “La Ronde” (released in the U.S. as The Circle of Love,” 1964) and “La Curee” (1966), but their most (in)famous collaboration is the bizarre
scifi comic book erotica, “Barbarella” (1968), in which she is as vacantly sexy but offered guilty pleasure to many viewers. With brother Peter, she appeared in the “Metzengerstein” episode of Vadim’s “Histoires Extraordinaries” (aka as “Spirits of the Dead”).

Confused and undetermined, Jane was torn between the personalities of her father and her husband, quickly becoming aware of the difficulty of living with and pleasing Henry or Vadim.

She was wasted in the comedy-Western “Cat Ballou,” but fared better in Arthur Penn’s “The Chase” and Otto Preminger’s “Hurry Sundown,” (both 1966), in which she showed greater maturity. A year later, she revealed comedic chops in “Barefoot in the Park” (1967) opposite Robert Redford.

The First Hollywood Success

The turning point in Jane’s career was her appearance in Sydney Pollack’s downbeat, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” (1969), which was made memorable by her intensity and fierce nihilism. Jane gave her most impressionable performance as Gloria, the terrified existential heroine. The film depicts the despair and madness during a grueling six-day dance contest in the early years of the Depression. A bleak parable about American life, the saga was set almost entirely in a shabby ballroom, and the circular patterns of the dances, a movement that leads nowhere, became the film’s strongest metaphor.

Robert (Michael Sarrazin) a gentle, passive dreamer of being great director, is tried for Gloria’s murder. As he waits his execution, he recalls the sequence of events. When asked why he killed Gloria, Robert says, “She asked me to.” He then adds, “They shoot horses, don’t they” thus signaling the film’s most disquieting element, its stated assumption that people are horses. Fantasizing about movies, Gloria sees herself as an actress and heads for Hollywood, where she quickly becomes disillusioned. Gloria’s suicide attempt at the beginning (taking poison because of a man) and her demise at her boyfriend’s hands at the end (through her own influence) bookend the story.

Jane’s most complex role and definitive performance were in “Klute” (1971), another fascinating exploration of the art and life of acting. A Kafkaesque thriller in the mold of the 1940s, it’s another investigation of Jane the actress and the woman. “Klute” represents the first major attempt to transform Hollywood’s clinical understanding of prostitution into human and dramatic meaning.

Though dealing with urban paranoia, at the film’s center is a study of a caller girl’s confused sexual identity, her divided self, which Jane embraced completely, clutching the whole film to herself. Alan Pakula grasps with authenticity the dilemma of a would-be independent woman, faced with the need to love and the threat of assimilation by the male. As such it captured the spirit and the contradictions of the nascent feminist movement. Bree has become a prostitute partly to exercise her acting ability, but mostly to keep control of her life and her emotions, to avoid for as long as she can the trap of “falling in love.” She has misapplied her defensiveness and is now afraid of any emotional commitment.

The film’s resolution was perceived as anti-feminist. Bree must accept her vulnerability and expose herself to assimilation in the relationship with Klute. At the end, Bree gives up her compulsive need to manipulate and control, and leaves with Klute. However, still ambivalent about the relationship, she tells her therapist (in voice-over) “I may be back in a couple of weeks”. Originally, the film ended with Klute and Bree laughing and loving, but Jane changed it, opting for a hopeful yet more enigmatic ending. You don’t really know what’s going to happen to the call girl, there’s no assurance of happily ever after. Fragile and negative as her identity is in the city, New York is the only place where she feels real.

Curiously, “Klute” was named is secondary character, detective John Klute (Donald Suthealnd), instead of its chief character, Bree. Jane gave a masterful performance as a prostitute who is both a victim and a master of her situation. Bree was not a happy hooker, nor a whore with the heart of gold. She is a young woman using her body to prove to herself her worth. She likes her job and she’s good at it, but she’s trying to become a professional actress. “Why do I still want to trick” she asks her analyst. “What is the difference” the latter replies, “You’re successful as a call girl, you’re not successful as an actor.”

One of the decade’s most affecting love stories: Fonda and Sutherland peel away layers of suspicion to make emotion contact with each other. The life surrounding Bree’s profession frightens her, but the work itself offers peculiar compensations, and she enjoys her power over her customers. She’s by turns maternal and provocative, confident and contemptuously cool with her clients. The story involves the ways in which prostitutes attract the forces that destroy them. Bree’s knowledge that as a prostitute she has nowhere to go but down, and her mixed-up efforts to escape her fate, make Bree one of the strongest women characters to reach the screen.

“Klute” offered a full-scale, definitive portrait of a modern prostitute who’s trapped by circumstance but is smart enough to want to get out. The film’s tone is neither pitying nor judgmental, and there’s no vulgarity, sensationalism, or nudity. Throughout, Pakula is more concerned with their relationship than with the murder mystery, about a policeman who leaves the force in order to investigate the disappearance of a married research scientist, who was one of Bree’s clients.

The Vietnam Era

In the late 1960s, Fonda returned to the U.S. and immediately plunged into fervent social activism, championing a variety of anti Establishment causes that got her into trouble with the authorities over her actions on behalf of Black Panthers, Native Americans, and reluctant GIs. As part of her campaign to end the war, she formed with actor Donald Sutherland the Anti War Troupe, which toured military camps in defiance of the Pentagon. She co produced and co wrote “F.T.A.” (“Free the Army,” aka “Fk the Army,” 1972), which was a filmed record of the tour. With her second husband, antiwar militant Tom Hayden, and Haskell Wexler, she co-directed the docu, “Introduction to the Enemy” (1974), an account of her controversial visit to North Vietnam. Her activities earned her the pejorative moniker “Hanoi Jane.”

Along with her opposition to the Vietnam War, she campaigned against women in bondage, or any subservience. Her new,radical politics was reflected in two films: Godard’s “Tout Vas Bien” (1972) and as Ibsen’s proto-feminist heroine in “A Doll’s House,” directed by Joseph Losey in 1973). She also became the subject of two other documentary-essays: “Letter to Jane: Investigation of a Still,” a visual and intellectual deconstruction of the Hanoi photo, by Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, and the made-for-TV, “Jane,” from Midge Mackenzie.

Jane’s First Comeback

For the next five years, Jane was blacklisted by mainstream Hollywood. She reemerged in 1977, as one of the co-hosts of the Oscar ceremonies, all elegant and made-up. For her Hollywood comeback she chose the middle-class comedy, “Fun With Dick and Jane,” in which she played a suburban wife turned bank robber. She then appeared with Vanessa Redgrave in Fred Zinnemann’s “Julia” (1977), as playwright-activist Lillian Hellman, and gave a firm, tense performance in an otherwise mediocre biopicture.

Jane won a second Oscar for “Coming Home” (1978), in which she played Sally Hyde, a bored, middle-class wife, married to a hawkish, chauvinistic Marine captain (Bruce Dern) into a politically aware citizen, while volunteering in a war veteran hospital, where she meets and falls in love with a sensitive paraplegic (Jon Voight). For a change, the film doesn’t condemn the sexually liberated, adulterous wife, instead letting the husband drown himself in the ocean.

She then appeared in a succession of popular films that made her a top moneymaking star in her 40s, an old age for women to become viable stars in Hollywood. In Pakula’s “Comes a Horseman,” she played a tough rancher; in the socially conscious expose, “The China Syndrome,” she was a TV reporter, and she played another TV newswoman in “The Electric Horse,” reuniting her with Robert Redford. In the all-female, light feminist comedy, “9 to 5,” she played a bashful secretary, who joins a group of other exploited women in a revenge plot against their macho boss.

“On Golden Pond” (1981), was Jane’s first screen pairing with her father, with whom she had had strained relations. The film, which she produced and acted in, was a gift to Henry, marking a symbolic reconciliation between father and daughter, even if it had to be in a suitably show unification. The inspired casting, which also included Katharine Hepburn as her screen mother, elevated the film above its nature as a soupy “Hallmark Hall of Fame TV drama.”

The Entrepreneurial Businesswoman

In the 1980s, Jane became an entrepreneurial businesswoman, not just as an actress and film producer, but as the starring body in her own series of workout books and videos, which were ardent and modestly erotic. She is credited with ushering in an era of self betterment through physical exercise with the publication of Jane Fonda s “Workout Book,” and accompanying record and videotape. Several exercise videotape sequels fo1lowed, amassing a fortune for her and making her the decade’s fitness guru.

In 1982, she helped finance Hayden’s election to the California State Assembly. In a 1988 TV interview, she apologized to Vietnam veterans and their families for posing at the controls of a North Vietnamese anti aircraft gun during her 1972 visit to Hanoi.

Her film work during that era was mediocre. She “Rollover” for Pakula, “Agnes of God” for Norman Jewison, again playing an investigative reporter. Then after almost decade of dull and constricted performances, Jane surprised Hollywood with her gritty performance in “The Morning After,” which was in the vein of Bree in “Klute,” Gloria in “They Shoot Horses,” and Lillian Hellman in “Julia.” As Alex, Jane plays an alcoholic actress who wakes up in bed with a corpse but can’t remember how she got there; Jeff Bridges comes to her aide in unraveling the mystery. Using a husky barroom voice, she proved again what a terrifically rich voice and precise diction she had. Jane’s first-rate performance was the one saving grace of an otherwise routine, senseless thriller. Hollywood responded with another Best Actress nomination.

She continued to appear in and produce films until she announced her retirement from acting in 1990, after two disappointing pictures: “The Old Gringo” (1989), in which she played a spinsterish schoolteacher, and “Stanley and Iris” (1990), as a small town teacher fighting illiteracy. In 1991, Jane married broadcasting mogul Ted Turner and began yet another phase in her evolving life: The Housewife.

No matter what we think Jane Fonda’s sexual and global politics, she is a brilliant dramatic actress, and a naughty comedienne as well. Just watch her outrageous performance in the upcoming comedy, “Monster-in-Law,” which terminated her 15-year-absence from the screen. Jane has always been blessed with the gift of true stars, the ability to draw viewers to her emotionally, even when her characters are not likeable. Her special kind of alert intelligence was reflected in the form of speed. In most of her films, she is ahead of the game with smart and quick responsiveness. Indeed, the look in Jane’s eyes was always too alert and resolute for the conventional, unenlightened roles she was playing, reinforcing a healthy tension between her life onscreen and off.

The New Jane: Single and Activist
To find out about the new phase of Jane’s evolving life, please read Part Two of this article.