Friday, May 22, 2009

Pondering Jane Fonda

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).


Hoboken Kid said...

Jane Fonda is a lovely and talented actress, but the years have not faded my memory of her as a traitor to this country. How lucky she is to be an American. Guess we don't shoot traitors any more. Her posing for pictures in North Viet Nam maybe can be excused. A mistake, as she says...but what excuse does she have for handing notes POWS gave her and handing them over to the enemy? They suffered harsh beating because of it...she could have stuck them in her pocket for the families of the POWS...that was an act unexcusable

No one hates war more than I do. I've seen the much sadness war brings to families. Viet Nam should have never happened, BUT IT DID. Americans have short memories ...and will still go see her movies ...I will not...I lost my company commander and a good friend from Hoboken in Viet Nam. THIS MEMORIAL WEEK END, I will honor them.

This war we are in, now that's another blunder with no light at the end of the tunnel...when will we ever learn?

Mary Lois said...

I'm not surprised you feel this way, Kid, and I know there are many who will agree. As to the handing of the notes from the POWS to the enemy, Fonda says that never happened. She saw that they got to the families.

She was a lightning rod for all the discord over that war and there was a lot of misinformation about her put out by those who objected to the protesters, of whom she was only one of very many. I think the word traitor is not right for her. She loves her country as much as anybody, and she was very young when she got involved so publicly in her political activism.

I don't expect to convince anybody, but I did read what she said about this and think she got a bum rap. About a lot of things!

Benedict S. said...

She was right about the war. Many folks still find that a hard pill to swallow.

birdwatcher said...

Everyone hates war, and Jane Fonda exercised that most American of rights, free speech. She should not regret it all these years later.She was brave, especially considering the considerable vitriol she recieves after forty years...
That said, she has lead a most interesting life- though I will add that perhaps "Barbarella" was not her finest hour!

Mary Lois said...

If my emailbox is any indication, those of us who admire Fonda are in the minority. Funny, I thought all that was far in the past, and that she had explained and apologized enough for that phase of her activities in life.

Doesn't change my view of her as a talent and a woman of many facets. I've made a mistake or two myself.

Hoboken Kid said...

In the 90s I spent 3 days with Peter Paul and Mary. They came to do a concert. I was their driver. We talked of the Viet Nam war and the protesters. The war in the Gulf was just starting...we passed a large group of combat ready army guys sitting along the side of the road. They asked me, what's going on? I TOLD THEM WE ARE AT WAR AGAIN. I said, do you plan on writing any more antiwar songs? THEY SAID NO, we are done with that. No point in that, NO ONE IS LISTENING. True story...YES. (All we are saying, is give peace a chance.)

Mary Lois said...

Here's a clip that should have gone with that Peter Paul and Mary comment.

jacques mullet said...

Yep, good ole Jane, rich famous with nothing to lose really by doing whatever whim strikes her. Her real inner self that demands to be recognized and heard and seen, is likely her strength. I think most any one who has the money and
family recognition can ply their way into anything almost anywhere....except real
cut throat politics.

Bobarella said...

Why ponder Fonda?

What's a girl to do? Pretty, rich, talented...and she has a life journey in front of her like everyone else. Only unlike everyone else, her journey is "news". And as good Americans (read "consumers")we're simply expected to care, or at the very least buy her products. She strikes me as a generational icon just like (insert pretty showbiz face here: Shirley MacLaine, Angelina Jolie, Mylie Cyrus, Carrie Fisher, Drew Barrymore...) beating her drum as the mood and the media have their way. Politics aside, I do my best to opt out of that particular America.

Why this woman's personal details or life philosophy or endorsements should have any bearing on me or my life escapes me. Our starting points and life experiences are radically different. Fonda's experiences show that she changes, that she learns from her mistakes, that she's a survivor. Good for her. Me too. I'll be moved by the characters she portrays at the movies but that's pretty much the extent of our involvement.

Mary Lois said...

Bob, I don't know of any endorsements Ms. Fonda is asking you to accept. I saw her in a Broadway play, and she blew me away. I see a 71-year-old woman playing a musicologist whose life work is a thesis on Beethoven's variations on a waltz by Diabelli and I am riveted both by the play and the actress. As a result, I (decidedly NOT an expert on Beethoven or any of his variations) read her book outlining a life rife with conflict in spite of privilege and I am impressed. I hope she keeps writing and acting.

Her life experiences will resonate more with women than men, that is certain. But she is an extraordinary person, traveling this earth about the same time I am, and I am pleased to share some space on the planet with her.

Steve said...

I saw Jane Fonda at our college over thirty years ago. I don't recall what she came there for, but I do recall, as I stood not more than five feet away from her, how remarkably pretty she was. As pretty as she was on the big screen, that was nothing compared to how she appeared in person just being herself. She glowed with an inner light.

I was also very impressed by how intelligent, articulate, and thoughtful she was. I confess that I was expecting her to be something of a bubble-headed movie star, but she was so very much more than that!

As for those who still despise and condemn her for her misguided actions in North Vietnam, some of which may even be fiction rather than fact, God help them if they or a loved one ever do something in which they genuinely believe at the time but later come to see and regret as a serious mistake, and no one forgives them.

The best of us make our share of mistakes and learn from them and become wiser and better human beings. And the best of us forgive.

Carolyn Miller said...

Your take on Jane Fonda has certainly stirred up some intense emotions! Personally, I admired her stance against the war in Viet Nam, and was among the masses of protesters against it. (Just as I have been against the "war" [read "invasion"} in Iraq from the beginning.) I imagine your readers who thought the US was right to become involved in the Viet Nam conflict support our involvement in Iraq, too. I wonder, has Fonda expessed her views Iraq?

I very much enjoyed what you had to say about Fonda, and have a new appreciation for her after reading this. Wish I'd been able to see the play.