I’ve been on a Jane Fonda jag ever since I took in the matinee of 33 Variations (which closed last night) on Broadway a couple of weeks ago. I picked up a copy of My Life So Far, her 579-page autobiography, from the table in front of Symposia Books a few days later and read it with relish.
I know many of my regular readers (the macho men, primarily) will be turned off by any mention of Hanoi Jane, the strident antiwar activist of the 1960’s, but I must write about her. I admire her enormously, even moreso after having seen her extraordinary performance in 33 Variations and now having finished the volume about her life in her own words.
Fonda had a childhood that would have made a weaker reed buckle and break. Daughter of a beloved movie star who was also a great actor (think Grapes of Wrath) who also was, without a film role to hide behind, cold and distant to the point of being unkind, she had that toxic combination growing up of living the appearance of privilege while tolerating the actual abandonment of a neurotic mother (in and out of hospitals and ultimately taking her own life by cutting her throat) and the emotional abandonment of a rigid and unavailable father. From her earliest days she was thrown in the pool of life and commanded to swim.
To be sure, she had the natural gifts of great good looks and the soul of an actress. This acting talent came in handy as she spent her childhood trying to please everyone while yearning to be free of the confusing hand she’d been dealt. With her own talents and a famous and adored father it was pretty easy to become a movie star. It was what went on behind the scenes that created the chaos of her days. In the book she expertly takes us through her childhood forward to her multiple careers as an actress, activist, fitness guru, mother, trophy wife, and back to her current reality at age 71 as her own person, at every step examining the value of her span on this earth and introducing us to a realm we could hardly imagine.
First of all, what about those husbands? One, an egomaniacal French movie director who wanted her to be as much a sex kitten as his ex-wife, Brigitte Bardot. He was intellectual and kinky and made an odd partner, although she insists he was a wonderful father to their daughter. Then came her political phase, in which she broke from the husband who was bored with what he called her “Jane of Arc” (his phrase) activism.
Soon she found and connected with Tom Hayden, the ex-hippie ("yippie," actually) who had political ambitions. Lastly, the oddball billionaire Ted Turner, who comes to life on the page as just the nimble-minded bumbler he seems when he appears in public.
All three larger than life—all three at least temporarily fit companions for the living legend she has become.
The book is full of movie anecdotes but it is hardly just another movie star memoir. Fonda looks at every page of her life anew, explaining to us and herself the depths of what her earnest curiosity exposed her to—including the moments she’d rather forget. She gives us the reasons for her involvement with the antiwar movement during Vietnam. She is brutally honest with herself in describing her mistake of being photographed sitting apparently happily on the enemy’s antiaircraft weapon in a time of war. She reveals herself as a young woman motivated by self-loathing that she regards bulimia as a weight control tool. She so driven in her pursuit of the craft of acting that it is difficult to fathom she is actually a beautiful girl with a natural talent for self-expression. Perfectionism, it would seem, is a curse with which she must constantly grapple.
Her central theme of being a woman of a certain age at this point in history resonates like a tuning fork with me. Her ability to deal with her mistakes and start again is inspiring and what she writes about feminism and the many phases of womanhood is insightful and causes the reader to confront them. I am pleased to have the book to refer to as it poses many questions and answers others.
About 33 Variations, I have to say she gave a very moving performance. I was sitting closer to the stage than I usually do, and I could see tears in those beautiful blue eyes and the trembling hands as the character she was playing grew weaker in the final scenes of the play. She was awesome to watch—every bit as beautiful at this age as she was in her unformed, glamorous youth. It made me proud to be a member of her team. The play is the recipient of several Tony nominations. I would be pleased if it wins them all, particularly if Fonda wins Best Actress in a Leading Role (Drama).