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Fonda, Jane Seymour

FONDA, Jane Seymour

(b. 21 December 1937 in New York City), the most celebrated and controversial American actress of the 1960s, whose own journey in art and politics was emblematic of her generation and gender. From pinup girl to political activist to feminist entrepreneur, she personified female emancipation and malleable identity in an era of sexual revolution and radical politics; even her successive choice of husbands—the softcore new wave auteur Roger Vadim, the hardcore New Left activist Tom Hayden, and the media mogul Ted Turner—kept pace with the prevailing zeitgeist.

Fonda was one of two children of the screen legend Henry Fonda, an icon of all-American decency, and the socialite Frances (Seymour) Brokaw Fonda. She inherited her father's bone structure and natural ease before the camera. When Fonda was a young teenager, she was told that her mother had died of a heart attack; she did not find out until a year later that her mother, who had battled fits of depression, had committed suicide. Fonda graduated from the Emma Willard Preparatory School in Troy, New York, in 1954. She first acted on stage at a family fund-raiser at the Omaha (Nebraska) Community Playhouse in The Country Girl with her father in 1955. Fonda attended Vassar for two years, from 1956 to 1957, before leaving to travel to Paris. In 1958 Fonda returned to New York City and trained at the Actors Studio, where she parlayed her lithe five-foot, seven-inch form and regal pedigree onto the catwalk as a fashion model and then as an ingenue in a series of nondescript motion pictures in the early 1960s. Fonda made her film debut in Tall Story (1960) for Warner Bros. and her Broadway debut at the Cort Theatre in There Was a Little Girl (1960).

In 1963 Fonda returned to Paris to make films. Fore-shadowing her later versatility, Fonda became a recognizable screen face by displaying flesh for Roger Vadim in La Ronde (1964), by exhibiting a comedic flair as the feisty outlaw in the western farce Cat Ballou (1965), and by playing the bubbly newlywed in the Neil Simon play Barefoot in the Park (1967). She also gave a hard edge to soft roles in overwrought melodramas, such as Arthur Penn's The Chase (1966) and Otto Preminger's Hurry Sundown (1967). Often deemed cold and mechanical by critics, Fonda was indistinguishable at this stage from a bevy of shapely and big-haired motion picture actresses. On 14 August 1965 Fonda married Vadim; they had one daughter and divorced in 1973.

Fonda emerged as a bankable, above-the-title star by playing the compliant sex toy and wide-eyed bimbo in Vadim's Barbarella (1968), a kinky science fiction fantasy based on a French cartoon. Variety panned the film as "artless, tasteless, and misdirected vulgarity," but it was also profitable, popular, and (stylistically if not artistically) groundbreaking. Just a year earlier, with Hollywood operating under the censorious Production Code, such flaunting of promiscuity and nudity would have been unimaginable on American screens.

Fresh from the sexcapades of Barbarella, Fonda bid to be taken seriously not merely as an actress—a conventional enough goal for a Hollywood starlet—but as a political activist, an audacious and counterintuitive ambition. The cultural disconnect between "Fonda the sex kitten" so lately on-screen and "Fonda the firebrand" presently on television chat shows was too abrupt a persona shift even for the turbulent 1960s. The same actress who had cavorted in a reverse striptease over the opening credits of Barbarella and had ridden half-naked on horseback in Spirits of the Dead (1968) was now lecturing Americans on foreign policy, gender inequality, and racial prejudice. Dressed down in guerrilla streetwear and sporting a no-nonsense hairdo, passionately intense if not always persuasively well informed, she represented (depending on the ideological eye of the beholder) a woman transformed by heightened political consciousness or a Hollywood poseur undertaking a radical chic makeover. Nonetheless, as a titillating poster girl for charismatic 1960s radicalism, only the black activist Angela Davis competed with Fonda for the dormitory wall space of undergraduate males.

By the late 1960s the actress was a lightning rod for criticism, a kind of cross-generational Rorschach test. Fonda's filial rebellion, and the kindred rebellion of her brother, Peter, served as a celebrity synecdoche for the gulfs in sensibility and style opening up in homes across America: the pampered offspring of Hollywood royalty rejecting her birthright and turning apostate, the baby boomers bringing up a fifth column against the silent majority. "You don't mind if I turn on, do you?," she would ask interviewers as she lit up a marijuana cigarette.

Typical of Fonda's presentation of self during her avatar period was an appearance in 1970 on The Virginia Graham Show, a television talk show that showcased the controversial opinions of the young, the radical, and the photogenic. In tandem with the John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy-monger Mark Lane, she spoke out for Native-American rights and against American military malfeasance. "With Miss Fonda, spouting the 'instant radical' line of dissent she's recently captured headlines with, coherence was at a minimum," sniffed a Variety critic unimpressed by her "strongly anti-establishment" views. When a Native-American activist from the studio audience rose to challenge Fonda's "whiteface" presumption of leadership, however, the seasoned performer's ability to mollify the heckler forced the critic to admit that Fonda had handled "the Indian slight in deft fashion." The activist might be an amateur, but the artist was always a professional.

Fonda often was labeled "strident," the adjective applied to feminists who refused to stifle opinions deemed unlady-like. In truth, she spouted some of the ripest examples of 1960s revolution-speak on record. "We must oppose with everything we have those blue-eyed murderers—[President Richard M.] Nixon, [Defense Secretary Melvin] Laird, and all the rest of those ethnocentric American white male chauvinists," she declaimed from the stage during skits for a traveling antiwar theater group named FTA in 1971. The troupe toured in venues located off military bases to encourage soldiers to resist the war in Vietnam. The acronym stood for "Free the Army," though, as anyone under the age of thirty knew, "Free" was not the preferred F-word.

In 1972 Fonda journeyed to North Vietnam with a group of antiwar activists. In what in some ways would be her most indelible screen appearance, newsreel film captured the actress smiling in the turret of an anti-aircraft gun. To many Americans, the antics crossed the line between voicing legitimate protest and giving aid and comfort to the enemy. On 22 August 1972, in a propaganda broadcast over Radio Hanoi, Fonda charged the United States with "the systematic destruction of civilian targets—schools, hospitals, pagodas, the factories, houses, and the dike system" and compared the "sinister" language of President Nixon to that of "a true killer." Denounced by Congress and on the editorial pages, she earned the enduring enmity and loathing of many Vietnam War veterans. "Vietnam Vets Are Not Fonda Jane" read one of the less obscene bumper stickers. "Hanoi Jane," they dubbed her, and the label stuck.

The work was always a refuge and best retort. If her political opinions were derided or condemned, even the skeptics never denied her artistic talent. Utterly erasing the celluloid memory of Barbarella, the actress gained the up-market respect she craved when she played the desperate marathon dancer Gloria Beatty in the director Sydney Pollack's grim, depression-set They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969). The melodrama chronicled the escalating torments of a melange of impoverished couples competing for the prize money in a marathon dance contest, a 1930s craze that served as a convenient 1960s metaphor for capitalist exploitation as popular entertainment, humanity as commodity. Reviewers commented on how Fonda intertextually evoked her father's touchstone performance as Tom Joad in another depression-era tale, The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Contrary to cultural expectations, however, The Grapes of Wrath ends on an upbeat note of defiance and endurance: "We're the people that live," says Tom Joad. "Can't wipe us out." They Shoot Horses, Don't They? ends on the most hopeless of notes, with the mercy killing of the defeated Gloria and the curtain line that gave the film its title.

Fonda's fiercely committed performance garnered the New York Film Critics Award for best actress of 1969 and an Academy Award nomination—though other critics said that Fonda's characteristically tight control and forceful personality conspired against the likelihood of her character's psychic breakdown. Like Fonda, Gloria seemed too much the born survivor to be beaten down by either a marathon dance or the interminable depression. Her failure to win an Oscar that year was attributed to her alienation of older Academy voters, who later recognized her as best actress for her role as the hard-bitten hooker in Klute (1971).

If Fonda gained critical respect the usual way pretty actresses accrued professional capital—through being unpretty—her follow-up film, the director Alan Pakula's Klute, had her again playing the sexy face card. As Bree Daniels, a high-priced call girl struggling to make it as a low-priced actress, she embodies erotic enticement and emotional emptiness: feigning orgasm for one customer as she checks her watch for her next appointment. Stylistically and thematically, the film prefigures the tropes that would dominate the next decade: psychotherapy, wiretap surveillance, casual sex, discotheques, and mind-deadening (as opposed to mind-expanding) drugs. Though Bree disrobed for her customers, and moviegoers, the real departure from Hollywood convention was the shocking level of verbal explicitness and the businesslike, nonjudgmental attitude toward the sex trade. Despite the clinical depiction of sex, however, by the end reel Klute devolved into a conventional Hollywood romance, with the heroic small-town male (played by Donald Sutherland, Fonda's offscreen collaborator in FTA) rescuing the messed-up female from the sordid dangers of the big city. "I'm in control," says Bree of her call girl calling. "I know what I'm doing. I know I'm good." The remark might also have expressed the sure sense of command of Fonda the actress, if not the stumbling uncertainties of Fonda the activist.

The 1970s extended her good fortune on screen and her mixed fortunes in romance and politics. In 1973 she divorced Vadim. "Jane wants to be Vanessa Redgrave," he said with a Gallic shrug, referring to the controversial British actress and celebrity radical. On 20 January 1973 Fonda married Tom Hayden, the politician and 1960s activist whose causes and candidacies she backed financially. They had one son and divorced in 1989. Among many screen roles, the most notable, appropriately, were the most politically charged—though only with conventional Hollywood liberalism, not with vanguard radical politics. In Julia (1977) she appeared as the hard-drinking left-wing playwright Lillian Hellman, co-starring with Vanessa Redgrave as a noble anti-Nazi resistance fighter, thereby impersonating one ideological kindred spirit while playing opposite another.

Fonda and the producer Bruce Gilbert formed the IPC production company, named after the Indochina Peace Campaign, to make movies that raise social awareness issues. The first IPC project was the sudsy Vietnam home-front melodrama Coming Home (1978), which was a telling cultural bellwether about retrospective American attitudes toward the war: the paraplegic antiwar veteran gets the girl, and the gung-ho warrior is driven to suicide. The film won Fonda her second Oscar as best actress. Finally, as the chirpy television anchor turned hard news reporter in IPC's China Syndrome (1979), a prescient warning about the dangers of nuclear power, Fonda enacted a transformation on screen that seemed to echo her own passage from eye candy to political activist. The next two IPC projects addressed such issues as women in the workplace in the satirical Nine to Five (1980) and the control of international economics in the thriller Rollover (1981).

Fonda's next screen landmark was On Golden Pond (1981), where she appeared with her father and Katharine Hepburn in a familial melodrama that acted out the generational squabbles of the 1960s. She played a rebellious daughter, and he played a crusty and remote patriarch. Ironically, however, it was another visible exposure of flesh that proved more epochal than any unveiling in Barbarella. Fresh from a flurry of magazine cover stories on "Jane Fonda Turns Forty," the actress removed her shirt to reveal a bikini-clad figure of stunning proportions. It was the best publicity possible for a high concept that entered the ground floor of the videotape revolution. In 1982 she released the first in a series of hugely profitable aerobic exercise tapes, Jane Fonda's Workout, and books, Jane Fonda's Workout Book. Students, housewives, and career women across the ideological spectrum all jumped, strained, and sweated to "Jane," the 1960s obsession with societal change evolving into the 1980s obsession with self-improvement: no longer "burn, baby, burn," but "feel the burn." As with her earlier incarnations, sarcastic remarks bubbled up from the gallery. "Who would ever have thought she'd embrace capitalism with such fervor?" wisecracked the singer Bette Midler.

Fonda embraced an actual capitalist by marrying Ted Turner, the colorful media mogul and founder of Cable News Network, on her birthday on 21 December 1991. They had no children. In 1999 she appeared on a Barbara Walters 20/20 television special celebrating the great women of the twentieth century and apologized, after a fashion, for the hurt her trip to North Vietnam had caused Vietnam veterans. Excluding exercise videos, she retired from screen work after Stanley and Iris (1990), until, in 2002, she signed with the high-powered Creative Artists Agency in a bid to resume her acting career. On 22 May 2001 Turner and Fonda divorced, allegedly over Fonda's conversion to born-again Christianity, another unexpected role for the always mercurial, always fascinating Fonda.

Biographies of Fonda include Thomas Kiernan, Jane: An Intimate Biography of Jane Fonda (1973); Fred Lawrence Guiles, Jane Fonda: The Actress in Her Time (1981); James Spada, Fonda: Her Life in Pictures (1985); Michael Freedland, Jane Fonda: A Biography (1988); Tom Collins, Jane Fonda: An American Original (1990); Christopher P. Anderson, Citizen Jane: The Turbulent Life of Jane Fonda (1990); and Bill Davidson, Jane Fonda: An Intimate Biography (1990). Biographical information is also in Thomas Kiernan, Jane Fonda: Heroine for Our Time (1982); Jane Fonda, Women Coming of Age (1984); Peter Collier, The Fondas: A Hollywood Dynasty (1991); and Russell Shorto, Jane Fonda: Political Activism (1991).

Thomas Doherty

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