What does Jane Fonda want from us?

Dissecting the mainstream.
April 6 2005 7:21 PM

Jane Fonda

What does she want from us?

Those who think Jane Fonda's sole raison d'êtreis to annoy conservative opinion writers should note this passage from her new memoir, My Life So Far. The year is 1970. Fonda has just engaged in her very first acts of civil disobedience, on behalf of aggrieved Native American tribes. The protests, she writes, "morphed me from a noun to a verb. A verb is active and less ego-oriented. Being a verb means being defined by action, not by title." So there. Jane Fonda aspired to something greater than liberal do-gooding; she wanted to become a part of speech. Fonda (v.): to plead for harmony and social justice until humanity can't take it anymore.

My Life So Far announces the emergence of a new Fonda—what she calls her "Phoenix," poised to lift off from Atlanta at any moment. This follows on the heels of at least four previous permutations of Fonda: the Barbarellasex goddess, the lefty noodge, the aerobics instructor, and, more recently, the tireless Braves fan. What is the new Fonda like? Savvier than "Hanoi Jane" but slightly frailer than the aerobics queen—she faces hip-replacement surgery at the conclusion of her book tour. Previous Fondas wanted our hearts, our minds, our abdominals. What does this new Fonda want from us?

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Plainly, not our forgiveness. In the preface of her book, Fonda announces her intention to "set the record straight" about her 1972 adventure in North Vietnam, which remains potent ammunition for the right. (See, for example, the forged photograph of Fonda and John Kerry that turned up during last year's presidential campaign.) But Fonda has little new to say about Vietnam and offers few words of contrition—and these only for posing in front of an anti-aircraft gun, which she says she wandered in front of by mistake. "I carry this heavy in my heart," she writes, an apology that will satisfy no one, least of all the neocon grunts who emerged this week to denounce her on TheO'Reilly Factor. The one revelation she offers? That she determined to have a second child after spotting a female North Vietnamese soldier who was manning a gun installation while pregnant.

Nor does Fonda, as she limps into her eighth decade, have much desire to entertain. My Life So Far swells to 579 turgid pages. If it has been suspected that Hollywood memoirs emerge as a byproduct of therapy, Fonda removes all doubt by importing a team of shrinks to elucidate key moments in her life: "Dr. Blumenthal told me that Mother's behavior suggests that she may have been suffering from post-partum depression. …" Only rarely does Fonda unleash the charm-bombs that made her the most winsome actress of the 1970s. She playfully growls at rival diva Faye Dunaway and drops a few absurd Hollywood anecdotes: "[T]here was a loud noise, some plaster fell from the ceiling, and an owl fell onto Gore Vidal's plate."

What Fonda wants, it seems, is a messy public divorce from the men in her life. She says her ever-mutating public image was stage-managed by the men in her life, who sought to mold her in their own image. Most fearsome was her late father, Henry, who treated her and her brother Peter like a pair of particularly unloved pets. Henry Fonda was a cold, churlish man; he is said to have cried only once, upon learning of the death of Franklin Roosevelt. His aloofness drove Fonda's mother, Frances, into a sanitarium, where she committed suicide by cutting her throat. (Fonda, then in grade school, learned the news by reading a film magazine.) Henry drifts in and out of Fonda's life, occasionally reappearing to upbraid her for her nascent activism. This leaves Jane grievously perplexed: How could the man who played Abraham Lincoln, Tom Joad, and Clarence Darrow turn a cold eye to social justice?

Fonda's three husbands prove even more loathsome. She flits from director Roger Vadim to lefty rabblerouser Tom Hayden to Ted Turner, perhaps the only man on the planet whose liberal do-gooding is more schizophrenic than her own. Their union is like the merger of two giant charities. Turner calls Fonda the day after her divorce from Hayden hits the newspapers to ask her out on a date. She demurs. He calls back three months later, and she accepts. She appears in a black miniskirt, halter top, and spike heels, and Turner becomes so frantic that he has to excuse himself six times during dinner to use the toilet. On their second date, at Turner's Montana ranch, the billionaire pleads, "Come on, why don't we make love? Huh?" When Fonda relents, Turner squeals, "Hot dog!" Fonda says little about the prostrate aerobics that follow, though she coyly alludes to the spurting fountains of Versailles. After nine years of marriage, Turner dumps Fonda for what he charmingly refers to as his "backup."

She says you can trace each decade's Fonda to a particular husband. Vadim, a pal of Albert Camus and Henry Miller who preferred his leading ladies to perform in zero-gravity, molded her into a vapid sex goddess. Hayden turned her to further liberal martyrdom and, later, when his charities needed infusions of cash, aerobics. Turner, the most domineering of the three, abhorred Fonda's acting and freelance activism. He wanted a trophy wife and season-ticket partner—hence Fonda's decade-long exile in Atlanta.

The rule-of-man theory ties My Life So Far together in a neat, therapeutic kind of way, but you ultimately feel that Fonda is playing a bit coy. Roger Vadim is dead and largely forgotten; Hayden and Turner's liberal empires have withered. And yet one 60 Minutes segment with Fonda stirs up more Vietnam demagoguery than anything since the unfortunate appearance of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Perhaps Fonda is so mired in new-age body talk—"my daughter's home had become a womb in which I was pregnant with myself"—that she cannot see that she's outdistanced her former keepers. If "fonda" has indeed become a verb, perhaps what it means is to sell oneself short.

Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.