x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Activist and actress

Film profile Few Hollywood stars can balance outspoken political convictions with silver screen glamour, but Jane Fonda has made a career out of it.

A young Jane Fonda and her trademark baby blues.
A young Jane Fonda and her trademark baby blues.

"There's nothing like committing yourself heart, soul, body and mind, to something beyond yourself, something that you're willing to die for!" These are the words of the actress and aerobics queen Jane Fonda, spoken not from the streets of Hanoi in 1972, but only two years ago, during a promotional movie interview. The film was Monster-in-Law, a frothy and financially successful romcom in which Fonda played the titular matriarch from hell, determined to wage war on the bride-to-be, Jennifer Lopez. However, it's a testament to the 70-year-old icon's relentless activism - and her ongoing campaigning for causes as diverse as Mexican women, Native Americans, an Arab-Israeli peace process and an end to the Iraq war - that she refuses to wallow in the traditional Hollywood fluff of contemporary screen profiles.

The daughter of the screen legend Henry Fonda and the ex-wife of the corporate billionaire Ted Turner, she is, she says, an activist first and an actor second, and that the latter career has sprung from the former passion. And it's true, her most memorable roles have often been inseparable from the causes they document. Think of her beguiling Oscar-winning turn as Sally Hyde in 1979's Coming Home. Here she plays the slightly prim officer's wife whose tear-jerking patriotism and enthusiasm for the Vietnam War is thoroughly ruffled when she meets Jon Voight's crippled and outspoken veteran. Her slow transformation into a braless, fuzzy-haired war doubter is one of the movie's many pleasures. Similarly, in The China Syndrome, her ace TV reporter Kimberley Wells is forced to face the might of evil corporate America when she uncovers a safety scandal in a Los Angeles nuclear power plant. She is a reporter too in Tout Va Bien, a famous slice of political agitprop from Jean-Luc Godard that pairs her with an on-screen husband, Yves Montand, and pushes her around a striking French sausage factory where she debates the pros and cons of Maoist economics. Here she wears little make-up, sports her famous early-Seventies mullet haircut, and fights her fabled glamour with every fibre of her being.

And yet, you always sense with Fonda that there's an old-style Hollywood screen queen trying to break out from underneath the grungy protester. She gives magnificent close-ups, and does wonders with those glassy blue Fonda eyes, the same trademark jewels that made her father such a poster boy in his day. In Barbarella and Cat Ballou she is both a screen kitten and a commanding sensual presence. In The Chase, she trades method blows with a barely audible Marlon Brando, as she plays the protective sister of the lynch-mob target Robert Redford, and pleads with Brando's sheriff for his protection. She transformed the office comedy Nine to Five into a $100 million blockbuster, playing the everywoman assistant flung into the patriarchal hell of a white collar typing pool. And in On Golden Pond (another box office smash), she dragged her father, Henry, into the fray, while she played, naturally, his disgruntled daughter Chelsea, a woman furious at a lifetime spent quaking under the shadow of a harsh, emotionally unreachable man.

It is, of course, with the father that it all begins. "My father was remote," Fonda has said. "I wanted him to like me, but circumstances early on taught me that he wasn't going to like me as I was, so I had to become what he wanted me to be. That doesn't disappear when you grow up." On April 14 1950, Fonda's father was a heavy-hitting movie star and national treasure, having already made The Grapes of Wrath, The Lady Eve and Young Mr Lincoln. Her mother, however, the socialite Frances Ford Seymour, was a manic depressive. On that day, she found a razor blade and slit her throat. Jane Fonda, her daughter, was 12 years old.

Fonda has underplayed the loss of her mother in the past, saying that she had little in common with her to begin with, that she never felt loved by her and that, even, she didn't like to be touched by her. It is her father, instead, despite his icy reserve and outright "crankiness", towards whom she gravitated. She says that she recognised in him her own artistic temperament. And that even though their relationship was strained, critical and often damaging (she was, to him, "daddy's little fat girl" - a tag that, she later claimed, would exacerbate years of eating disorders and self-hatred), it was all that she had. "Bringing feelings to my dad was like bringing a dead animal and laying it at his feet," she once said. "It would elicit a look like, 'What do you want me to do about it?' He just didn't do it."

And still, desperate for some connection with him, it was perhaps only natural that when Fonda senior asked his 17-year-old daughter to join him in a charity stage performance of Clifford Odets's The Country Girl in an Omaha theatre, that the acting bug bit hard. And it was her father again, four years later, in 1958, who introduced her to the acting guru Lee Strasberg, who subsequently invited Fonda to join his famous Actors Studio in New York.

It didn't take long for Fonda, bearing that auspicious surname and an often electrifying screen presence, to make her own impact. The 1962 movie Walk on the Wild Side was a star vehicle for the French-born actress Capucine (real name Germaine Lefebvre). Yet Fonda, taking second billing as the New Orleans prostitute Kitty Twist, earned rave reviews and a Golden Globe award for most promising newcomer. It was around this time, with her star in the ascendant, that Fonda met the French film director Roger Vadim, who had previously turned Brigitte Bardot into a style icon with And God Created Woman, and would soon announce to the world that he had found in Fonda "the American Bardot". The relationship with Vadim (10 years her senior), as described in her recent autobiography, My Life So Far, was debilitating. "When I met him, I was on a search for womanhood," she said, explaining her compliance. "I was terrified of being a woman because it meant being a victim and being destroyed like my mother was."

Their relationship nonetheless produced what is perhaps Fonda's most purely iconic role to date - that of the eponymous naive space nymph in the 1968 farce Barbarella. The film was deliberately kitsch, devoid of realism, and mildly salacious. Yet in Fonda's heroine, it had found an archetype (the gun-toting space vixen) that would repeatedly re-emerge, reformed in subsequent years in movies as diverse as The Fifth Element and Serenity.

Fonda, meanwhile, continued to wow the mainstream with an Oscar for Klute, a nomination for They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and five subsequent nominations, plus another win (for Coming Home). It was during this period, however, during her greatest hour of fame, that she became overtly politicised, divorcing Vadim and marrying the activist Tom Hayden, and making her ill-fated trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Here, in 1972, while speaking out against the conflict, she was famously photographed sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, and described some American soldiers, in a live interview, as war criminals. Unsurprisingly, Fonda was branded a traitor by the American media, and nicknamed Hanoi Jane, a name that still has painful resonance today (she was, allegedly, spat upon by a Vietnam veteran while on the book tour for her autobiography).

"They myth of Hanoi Jane lives on and is bigger than me," she said recently. "I was a lightning rod, someone for American vets to blame for losing the war. Even today it provides right-wingers with material to keep people from protesting about Bush and the Iraq war. 'Better not do that or you'll become like Jane Fonda!'" Fonda, despite her pariah status among the US media, kept working. Her movies, during this heady 1970s period, inevitably were full with tension between the glamourpuss Oscar winner that she seemed to be and the strident activist that she had become. Some of these movies, such as the comedies Fun With Dick and Jane and California Suite, swung back towards Hollywood, as if to prove a point. While others, such as the quasi-documentary Tout Va Bien and the satire Steelyard Blues, were undeniably Marxist in their outlook. And, just occasionally, there was one, such as Coming Home, that seemed to do everything at once - in this case it was savagely anti-war and hugely critical of the government, and yet it also allowed Fonda a great Hollywoodian character arc, and a journey from loveless repression to loving freedom.

By the end of the next decade, however, after the commercial success of Nine to Five and a multimillion dollar fitness empire (Remember "Go for the burn!"?), Fonda's access to glorious Hollywoodian character arcs would dry up. As the wife of the CNN magnate Ted Turner (she divorced Hayden in 1990), she gave up acting completely. Though later, after divorcing Turner too (she is now single), she would return to it, both in 2005's Monster-in-Law and 2007's Georgia Rule. She never stopped being an activist though, and is rarely out of the spotlight as far as media controversy is concerned. She was famously heckled by right-wingers during a 2002 visit to Israel, and accused of being a stooge for the left-wing conciliatory movement Peace Now. She made headlines when she flew to Sweden in 2006 to support an all-feminist party in the elections there.

While, most poignantly, as recently as last year, after an anti-Iraq war rally in Washington, DC, conservative pro-war supporters were seen wielding an effigy of Fonda, pasted with a misogynistic slur that labelled her "An American Traitor". It's not quite a heroine's epitaph, and it's certainly misguided, and definitely antiquated (Hanoi Jane was a long time ago, boys!). But in its bold directness it hints at the unseen complexities, the personal sacrifices and the inevitable steel- willed determination it has taken to become, and to simply remain, Jane Fonda.