Jane Fonda in 2018. Photograph by John Parra for Getty Images.

Jane Fonda: The Ultimate Hollywood Paradox

A retrospective of Jane Fonda films reminds us that the actor contradicts herself—and very well.

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Jun 7 2018, 2:38pm

Jane Fonda in 2018. Photograph by John Parra for Getty Images.

In ’69—a very nice year—Jane Fonda got the kind of radical short haircut that most women recognize immediately as a break-up cut. (“The jitters,” Didion wrote about that year in Hollywood, “were setting in.”) To call a haircut “brave,” or worse, “empowering,” does not seem like a wise move under today’s whatever-wave capitalist feminism, when the word “brave” is for swimsuit modelling and the word “empowering” is for yogurt and deodorant: but “transformative” is fair. Jane Fonda looked like a gamine, all-American Brigitte Bardot, and then quite suddenly, she didn’t.

The haircut, bobbed and curly and a little like a boy’s, was for the role of Gloria in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, in which Fonda was supposed to be embodying a luckless girl from a Depression-era breadline. They had told her she could wear a wig; she did not want, she said emphatically, to wear a wig. It was a break-up cut because Jane Fonda happened to be breaking up with Barbarella, and the sixties, and her reputation as what Pauline Kael had called “a nudie cutie,” and eventually with her husband, Barbarella’s French director Roger Vadim—who observed her reinvention as a radical, a woman with opinions and a harder affect and the hair of a beatnik freak who did not need to be perpetually desired, and remarked that the “new” un-Barbarella Fonda “interested [him] less.”

It’s unclear whether either of them realized then that his disinterest might have been the point—that upon realizing that Daddy-husbands were for bimbos, she unsexed herself to make herself into a kind of self-sufficient Daddy-wife—but by the early seventies, they were divorced. Around the same time that their marriage floundered, she began to vocally oppose the Vietnam War, earning herself both the ire of mainstream America and the nickname “Hanoi Jane.” If she feared alienating more than half her audience, she did not show it; she no longer cared to be complaisant, or to modify her anger. “Interesting,” says Fonda to her onscreen husband in the 1977 rom-com Fun With Dick and Jane, which screened this week as part of the Metrograph’s Jane Fonda in the ’70s series, “that the only two jobs you consider me qualified for are secretary and hooker.” The message is clear: neither “Jane” nor Jane are the type to take dictation, and it does not take a dick—nor being Dick—to be the one who wears the pants in a relationship. Fun With Dick And Jane is a loopy, sometimes-bawdy comedy that might have been a satire had it been allowed to be appropriately dark: a married couple, used to living a luxurious life in L.A., are left unexpectedly adrift by the one-two punch of first the husband’s dumb financial planning, then his firing from a well-paid job in engineering, and turn to crime in order to maintain their former lifestyle.

The movie’s message that “it’s better to be criminal than broke” is either reprehensible, or a genius, laugh-or-else-you’ll cry depiction of the modern capitalist dream extended to its logical conclusion, making it tonally bizarre enough to give a modern viewer whiplash. That its leading lady isn’t all that ladylike makes Jane-as-“Jane” a smoother proposition. Married and divorced three times in life, the role of the more traditional wife eluded Fonda in her movies and outside them. Complicated, smart, looking at once alarmingly like Henry Fonda and like moviegoers’ idea of a pin-up, she has always been a mess of contradictions. She is hip and cool and totally neurotic; sensual and steely; an opinionated liberal in public and submissive in her marriages and her relationships; bulimic and intensely self-aware about the impact of the male gaze on her psyche, and her self. She has had breast implants and then removed them; she has self-identified as anti-feminist, and then become a fiery advocate for women’s rights. She has had several facelifts, and admitted that they did not make her happy, and that women who get facelifts are quite often women who have once been beautiful and are now unemployed and scared. She has behaved—and looked—like a golden good-time bimbo, and behaved—and looked—like a total hoyden, and eventually settled somewhere in between the two poles, both immaculate and still entrenched in activism. “There I was…pronouncing myself to be a revolutionary woman,” she would later write about her very public transformation from a babe into a Bolshevik, “while Barbarella had just played in a theatre around the corner.”

By the end of the seventies, Jane Fonda had two Oscars—one for Klute, and one for Coming Home—and a second husband, and a workout studio in Los Angeles, and she had started to resemble a Hollywood star again. (“The men in my life,” she would observe a little ruefully in her 2005 autobiography, My Life So Far, “liked [my hair] long and blonde.”) She made Nine to Five, and then became an icon of hard-bodied fitness. She divorced again, and married for the third time to a billionaire, Ted Turner, for whom she retired from acting until halfway through the noughties, when she came back for—somewhat improbably—the J-Lo vehicle, Monster In Law. It might look as though the bullish, boyish, fuck ‘em Fonda had repented, were not for the fact that now, at eighty, she is far more curious, outspoken, and political than ever.

“No decade has passed without Fonda leaving behind some iconic image,” wrote Paul Harris, The Observer’s U.S. correspondent, in 2005, appearing to be equal parts impressed and baffled. “[She has been] the archetypal 1960s sex kitten…Hanoi Jane…perched on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun and symboliz[ing] America's trauma in Southeast Asia…a 1980s fitness guru…the wife of a media mogul at a time when cable news and the internet created the global village. Through it all America has loved and loathed her in equal measure. Yet few have understood her or the contradictions that mark her life.” “There’s only one problem with Jane Fonda,” said the journalist Rupert Cornwell in 2004: “ Which Jane Fonda?”

“Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent,” Fonda says in character as the writer Lillian Hellman in the opening of 1977’s Julia. “When that happens, it is possible in some pictures to see the original lines. A tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called a pentimento, because the painter repented: he changed his mind.”

Does Jane Fonda contradict herself? Very well—then she contradicts herself. Containing multitudes is, as an actress, Fonda’s job; her contradictions are less contradictions proper than they are successive evolutions. “There are certain things I wish I had or hadn’t done but they made me who I am,” she told The Guardian in 2015. “One thing that’s really important: what makes you what you are is your mistakes. It’s not your successes.” Of the fifteen movies screening at the Metrograph, including Julia (1977), Klute (1971), A Doll’s House (1973), Coming Home (1978), The China Syndrome (1979) and The Electric Horseman (1979), the best are those that showcase her least yielding and most dude-like qualities. Her greatest asset, and her terrifyingly exposed Achilles heel, is her intensity. In Godard’s Tout Vas Bien (1972), she is a simmering “American correspondent…who no longer corresponds to anything.” In Julia, writes Pauline Kael (clearly in a better mood than when she called the actress “nudie cutie”), “she creates a driven, embattled woman…her hair sculpted out of the same stone as her face.”

Until playing Bree, the guarded prostitute in Klute, she claims she had not heard her real, deep voice on film. “I remembered my voice in my early movies….all high and thin, not revealing any of what I was. My voice dropped in Klute. It was the first-movie I made in which I identified myself as a feminist. There was a resonance there,” she later told Oprah in a 2005 interview, “because my voice was coming [from my diaphragm].” In Klute, the newly-feminist Fonda is as mean and as standoffish as a feral cat, and looks far less like Barbarella than she does like Barbarella’s nemesis, the Black Queen. Her haircut in the film, a modish shag like the hair of a runaway junkie, was created by a barber rather than a women’s hairdresser. To piss off Roger Vadim, it was also brunette. I adore Klute, and love her performance in Klute in particular, because it is the Fonda-est of Fonda roles: a tough, reluctant sex kitten who acts out fantasies for men, and then returns home to her grimy bachelor’s apartment to be sad, and scared, and real. To say, desire me, but also fuck you for desiring me is a modern woman’s tightrope trick. “Jane Fonda's motor runs a little fast,” wrote Kael again in her review. “As an actress, she has a special kind of smartness that takes the form of speed; she's always a little ahead of everybody, and this quicker beat—this quicker responsiveness—makes her more exciting to watch.”

Preparing for the role, she shadowed sex-workers. She spent time in the morgue looking at photographs of women who’d been murdered by their pimps, or by their johns. She lived on spinach and raw corn and—in a very Play It As It Lays development—boiled eggs; she said the Klute shag satisfied her “pathological need to be a boy,” and found that she could suddenly slip through New York without being seen because “I didn’t look the way I was supposed to”—i.e. like a sex-crazed idiot blonde from outer space. Of all the films that Melissa Anderson has chosen, Klute is most like the key to understanding why the Fonda of the seventies mattered so much then, and still matters now: Bree’s absolute confusion in the face of intimacy, her completely maddening contradictoriness, and her post-therapy awareness that although behaving like a hot fool for a man is not immoral, it’s quite often joyless, all belong as much to the actress as they do the fictional sex-worker. Just like every sexy and too-clever woman I have ever personally met, both are intriguing, unapologetic, and a minor ideological disaster. Easy to criticize, yes—but then, easier by far to fall in love with. Fonda is a work of art that shows, like Hellman’s tree beneath the woman’s dress, the underlying work.

“Perfect?” she shrugged in an interview last year, in Town and Country. “It doesn’t exist. What matters is that you’re whole.”