Klute (1971): Jane Fonda’s Oscar-Winning (and Best) Performance

For a change, the 1971 Best Actress Oscar went to the right woman.  There is no doubt that Jane Fonda’s multi-nuanced portraiture in Klute was the strongest and richest dramatic performance in her career.

A neo-noir urban thriller, Klute is considered by some critics to be the first installment of what came to be known as Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy.” The other two panels are The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976).

The story details the troubled life of a Manhattan prostitute stalked by one of her johns. Call girl Bree Daniels is an aspiring actress who turns tricks for the cash and to be free of emotional bondage. But Bree’s life soon veers wildly out of control when she becomes the target of a killer. Donald Sutherland plays detective John Klute, who falls for Bree.

Director Alan Pakula and his screenwriters have captured with a good degree of authenticity the lifestyle and the dilemmas of a tough New York call girl, a would-be independent woman torn by her need to be loved and protected on the one hand and the threat of losing her identity and be assimilated by the male world.

Jane Fonda plays a prostitute unlike any seen before in a Hollywood film. Defying stereotypes, she is not a happy hooker, a victim of social circumstances, or a whore with the heart of gold. Instead, Bree is a young, bright woman, who consciously uses her body to prove to herself her own worth. “I’m in control,” she tells her psychiatrist. “When they come to me, they’re nervous. I’m not. I know what I’m doing. I know I’m good.”

At the end, she gives up her compulsive need to manipulate and control, and leaves with Klute for his hometown. Some female critics were disturbed by Pakula’s profoundly un-feminist, but emotionally true resolution. But if you look and listen carefully, it’s not exactly a neat happy ending and there’s an element of ambivalence about relationships, when Bree tells therapist (in voice-over narration): “I may be back in a couple of weeks.”

The distinguished music was composed by Michael Small.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Actress: Jane Fonda

Story and Screenplay (Original): Andy Lewis and Dave Lewis

Oscar Awards: 1

Best Actress

Oscar Context:

In 1971, Jane Fonda won her first Best Actress Oscar in a contest that included Julie Christie in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” Glenda Jackson in “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” Vanessa Redgrave in “Mary, Queen of Scots, and Janet Suzman in “Nicholas and Alexandra.”

The Screenplay Oscar went to vet writer Paddy Chayefsky for “The Hospital.”

Klute was a commercial success, earning $12 million against a $2.5 million budget.

Narrative Structure: Detailed Synopsis
A Pennsylvania chemical company executive, Tom Gruneman, has disappeared. The police reveal that an obscene letter was found in Gruneman’s office, addressed to a prostitute in New York City named Bree Daniels.

After six months of fruitless police work, Peter Cable, a fellow executive at Gruneman’s company, hires his family friend and detective John Klute to investigate Gruneman’s disappearance.

Klute rents an apartment in the basement of Bree’s building, taps her phone, and follows her as she turns tricks. Bree appears to be liberated by the freedom of freelancing as a call girl while trying to get into acting and modeling, but in a series of visits to her psychiatrist, she reveals the emptiness of her life.

At first, Bree refuses to answer Klute’s questions. But after learning that he has been watching her, Bree says she does not recognize Gruneman. She acknowledges being beaten by a john two years earlier, but cannot identify Gruneman from a photo.

Bree takes Klute to meet her former pimp, Frank Ligourin, whose fellow prostitute Jane McKenna passed the abusive client on to Bree. McKenna has apparently committed suicide, and their other colleague Arlyn Page became a drug addict and has disappeared.

Klute and Bree develop a romance, though she tells her psychiatrist that she wishes she could go back to “just feeling numb.” She admits to Klute a deep paranoia that she is being watched.

When they find Page, she tells them the customer was not Gruneman based on the photo but an older man. Page’s body turns up in the river. Klute connects the “suicides” of the two prostitutes, fearing the client was using Gruneman’s name and probably also killed Gruneman and might kill Bree next.

By typographic comparison, the obscene letters are traced to Cable, to whom Klute has been reporting on his investigation. Klute asks Cable for an additional $500 to buy the “black book” of McKenna’s clients, certain that it will reveal the identity of the abusive client.

Cable corners Bree and reveals that he sent her the letters, explaining that Gruneman had interrupted him when he was with McKenna and seen what they were doing. Believing that Gruneman would use the incident as leverage against him within the company, Cable attempted to frame Gruneman by planting the letter in his office.

Cable follows Bree and traps her and then confesses to the killings. After playing an audiotape he made as he murdered Page, he attacks Bree. Klute rushes in, and Cable jumps out a window to his death.

Bree moves out of her apartment with Klute’s help, though she confides in her psychiatrist her continuous anxieties  about adapting to domestic life and that the therapist likely will “see me next week”.