Fonda, Jane (1937—)

views updated

Fonda, Jane (1937—)

A popular culture icon alternately revered and reviled by American audiences, Jane Fonda is an actress whose career often has been overshadowed by her very public personal life. The quintessentially mod sixties cinematic sex symbol in Barbarella, Fonda soon became one of America's most controversial figures following her highly publicized trip to Vietnam in which she spoke out against the war. Despite public disapproval, Fonda nonetheless became one of Holly-wood's most popular actresses, nominated for six Academy Awards and winning two. Off-screen, Fonda has been known as a dedicated political activist, a hugely successful workout guru, and wife to three prominent men—French film director Roger Vadim, politician Tom Hayden, and media mogul Ted Turner.

A member of Hollywood's aristocracy since birth, Jane was born in New York City to the legendary Henry Fonda and his socialite wife, Frances Seymour Brokaw. Jane spent her early years at the Fonda home in the mountains above Santa Monica, California, where Tomboy Jane and her younger brother, Peter, spent an idyllic childhood climbing trees and riding horses. After World War II, Henry returned to Broadway to star in Mister Roberts, and the family moved to Connecticut, where the Fondas hoped to raise their children away from the Hollywood limelight. But the marriage quickly disintegrated after Henry fell in love with Susan Blanchard, the twenty-one-yearold stepdaughter of composer Oscar Hammerstein. Shortly thereafter, Frances, who had long suffered from depression, had a series of nervous breakdowns and was committed to a sanatorium, where she committed suicide by slashing her throat. Feeling that his twelve-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son were too young to know the truth, Henry told his children that their mother had died of a heart attack. Both Jane and Peter later learned the truth through the press.

As a teenager, Fonda showed little interest in following in her father's footsteps. Educated at the elite girls' school Emma Willard and later at Vassar, she earned a reputation as a free spirit and rebel whose chief interests were boys and art. But when the opportunity came to costar with her father and Dorothy McGuire at the theatre where the two stars had made their debuts, Fonda accepted and, in 1954, made her own acting debut in the Omaha Playhouse production of The Country Girl. Yet, she continued to envision a career as a painter, studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and the Art Students League in New York.

After meeting famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg in 1958, Fonda became interested in acting but was afraid of being compared to her famous father. It wasn't until Strasberg told the twenty-one-year-old Fonda she had talent that she decided to become an actress. Fonda joined the Actors Studio in 1958 and two years later made her film debut opposite Anthony Perkins in Tall Story. Fonda soon found regular work on Broadway and in Hollywood, where her beauty and talent won her a growing public following. During the sixties, she starred in such popular films as Walk on the Wild Side, Cat Ballou, and Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park with Robert Redford.

In 1965, Fonda married French director Roger Vadim, and it was her controversial nudity in Vadim's futuristic film Barbarella which catapulted her to international stardom. Her next two films, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Klute, revealed her growing reputation as one of Hollywood's top actresses, earning her two Academy Award nominations. In 1971, Fonda took home the Oscar for best actress for Klute.

In 1972, Fonda traveled to North Vietnam. Shocked by the devastation, she agreed to make ten propaganda broadcasts to U.S. servicemen. This earned her the pejorative nickname "Hanoi Jane," and her speeches, calling U.S. soldiers war criminals and urging them to disobey orders, were carried around the world, along with pictures of her on the North Vietnamese guns used to shoot down American planes. Fonda's fame skyrocketed as she became both the darling of the antiwar movement and the sworn enemy of the Establishment, the U.S. military, and countless Vietnam veterans. For the rest of her life, Fonda would be associated with her trip to Vietnam, greeted with praise or literally shunned and spit upon.

Following her divorce from Vadim, Fonda became increasingly politically active after marrying radical politician Tom Hayden in 1972. The Haydens supported countless liberal causes, becoming one of Hollywood's most outspoken political couples. Fonda's reputation as an actress continued to grow. During the late seventies, she appeared in such film classics as Julia, Comes a Horseman, and Coming Home, for which she won her second Oscar.

In 1981, Fonda finally was given the opportunity to act opposite her father on film. On Golden Pond, starring Henry, Jane, and the inimitable Katharine Hepburn, would be Henry's last film and would earn the ailing actor an Academy Award. Jane continued to make movies throughout the eighties, appearing in Agnes of God, The Morning After, and Old Gringo, but much of her time was taken up with a new role, as she once again became an iconic figure in a new movement—the fitness revolution. She produced "The Jane Fonda Workout" series of fitness videos, which became national bestsellers even as the money they earned benefited the liberal political causes she and Hayden espoused.

In 1988, during an interview with Barbara Walters on television's 20/20, sixteen years after her trip to Vietnam, Fonda publicly apologized for her bad judgment in going to Vietnam and particularly rued the effects her trip had had on Vietnam veterans. She would later meet with Vietnam veterans in a semi-successful effort to heal old wounds.

In 1989, Fonda and Hayden were divorced. After a difficult period of adjustment, Fonda began dating Ted Turner. They married in 1991, and their union is thought to be a happy one. So happy, in fact, that Fonda has retired from acting, preferring to devote her time to her marriage and to the social causes she continues to support. As Jennet Conant wrote in an April 1997 Vanity Fair article, Fonda is now "the star turned supporting player, the activist turned philanthropist." After a lifetime in the public eye, the more private Jane Fonda nonetheless remains one of America's most intriguing popular culture icons.

—Victoria Price

Further Reading:

Andersen, Christopher. Citizen Jane: The Turbulent Life of Jane Fonda. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1990.

Conant, Jennet. "Married … With Buffalo." Vanity Fair. April 1997, 210-30.

Freedland, Michael. Jane Fonda: A Biography. London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson Limited, 1988.

Haddad-Garcia, George. The Films of Jane Fonda. Secaucus, New Jersey, Citadel Press, 1981.