Jane Fonda slumps into her chair admitting that she is exhausted. After all, the Oscar winning actress has been on every talk show imaginable promoting both her autobiography and return to movies, as a manipulative mother in law opposite Jennifer Lopez in Monster in Law.
Often defined as a true icon of Hollywood, one thing she insists she is not, and that’s a diva. “Well, what do you think, huh? It takes about a half minute. I’m clearly not a diva. I like people and you know the thing that I don’t like about celebrity, is that it puts up barriers between you and humanity.”
At near 70, Fonda is remarkably youthful and surprisingly down to earth, a facet of hers, which she says she attained from her father. “He came from Nebraska., good, hard working protestant stock where you just did the work. You showed up, you were on time, you knew your lines, you did the work afterwards to sell the film and then you went on to the next one. I loved him for that.” But it is her estranged relationship with her father, the aloof Henry Fonda, as well as the ultimate effect of her mother’s suicide, which are a main thematic component of My Life So Far, Fonda’s acclaimed autobiography.
In commenting on how her parental relationships ultimately shaped her life, Fonda, the actress remains matter-of-fact. “When a child grows up made to feel that they aren’t good enough, that in order to be loved they have to be perfect, I think that boys internalize that differently than girls do. With girls it usually attaches itself to your body, in that you’re just not perfect and you need to try and be perfect. Now that doesn’t mean that your parents are bad or cruel, they just didn’t know how to do it differently. That marks you unless you’re willing to put in the work and the time to try and get well, which I have.”
Fonda, whose private and public life has become a matter of so much interest over the years, admits that a lot of self-healing went into the process of writing her memoirs, a cathartic process that actually began before she finally put pen to paper. “The catharsis happened before I wrote the book, which is why I wrote it,” Fonda admits. “I realized that I have a story tell and that everything sort of turns out okay.” She adds that the process of writing the book was “more transformational than cathartic, because when you get to a certain age, if you’re able to step and look at your whole life [which you really can’t do until you’re in your third act] and understand the patterns and what you’re supposed to learn from your past, that is such an amazing experience and it taught me a lot.”
Clearly, it taught the Oscar winning legend about self-reflection, which comes to the surface more specifically in reference to Vietnam and the whole ‘Hanoi Jane’ episode. From a life of failed marriages and movie stardom, it is her visit to North Vietnam that continues to dog her. Now at last, Fonda decided the time was right for her to apologise, not for everything that occurred then, but for the infamous photo, for which some Vietnam Vets still refuse to forgive her. “Look, I’ve been apologizing for twenty or thirty years, but I think that it says a lot about the war itself and how in denial the country is that people still can’t hear the apology ort internalize it. We’ve not come to terms with the war and it’s hard to come to terms with something like that, because you have to re-examine what you feel about your country, the fact that it’s possible that your government will lie to you and put you in harms way, based on a lie. Some people have a harder time than others to let go of a perceived reality because then it’s like, ‘Well, who am I then?’ And we haven’t done a good job answering the question. ‘If it was wrong, who are you? And you were wounded or you had friends who were killed for wrongness, then who am I?’ That’s hard and I understand that.”
Three decades on, and Fonda says that many of those Vietnam vets have finally forgiven her. “I get letters and I carry them with me from Vets all the time even now after all this time. They say, ‘I’m able to forgive you now., and that makes me so happy because I know that means the healing has started.”
Politics aside, it is Fonda’s movie career that is also of interest to her fans, a career that included classic gems as diverse as Barefoot in the Park, Barbarella, Klute, Coming Home, The China Syndrome, Nine to Five and On Golden Pond. After 1990’s Stanley and Iris, Fonda retired from the silver screen, preferring to concentrate on her latest marriage to Ted Turner, and invest her energy in social causes. She says that it never occurred to her to return to acting. “During the fifteen years that I wasn’t acting, I didn’t miss it for a minute, not at all. she confesses, adding that during her 15 year hiatus, she never gave it a second thought, nor still does. “I don’t much think about acting. I have other things on my mind, and it’s not that I don’t love acting. I’m a huge movie fan, I see a lot and I kind of love everything just about. But If something fun comes along I would love to do it. I’m easy,” she adds, laughingly.
That ‘something’ happened to be Monster in Law, an irreverent romantic comedy that happened to take her fancy. She says there were three reasons why it was this film, in particular, that lured her back to the cameras. “One is that I realized that I am really different than I was fifteen years ago when I left the business and I had no intention of coming back. I thought, ‘Gosh, I wonder if that would make the process joyful again?’ Then this character came along and I’d never played anyone like her and I thought, ‘Wow. That would be fun and I’m ready for laughter.’ Then three, half of my salary went to support the work that I do, so it was a way to involve the work in Georgia.” Asked if the experience of making Monster in Law has made her miss the business any less or more, Fonda says emphatically not. “.I didn’t miss it when I was out of it and I’m not sorry I left. It was fun to come back and I hope to do a couple more before I die.”
Jane Fonda has left us with a cinematic legacy that most actresses today can but envy. In comparing the availability of roles for women today to when she was working, the actress said that eventually, it was up to her to find the right role. “I kind of ended up having to make my own roles. I began to produce films or work with producers on films that conveyed things that I wanted to say, starting with ‘Coming Home,’ ‘China Syndrome,’ ‘Nine To Five’ and ‘On Golden Pond’ . I don’t want to do that anymore because they take so long and I’m of a different age.”
But Fonda would not be drawn as to which of her classic films remains a personal favourite of hers. “Oh, that’s like naming a favourite child. I have a lot of favourite films: ‘Barefoot In The Park.’ ‘Klute.’ ‘Coming Home.’ ‘Nine to Five.’ ‘On Golden Pond.’ ‘The Dollmaker.’ I don’t know, a lot of films. I got very lucky that I had very good directors.” And through her work, Fonda was able to marry her need for social change, with her acting, at least when she finally realised that acting was for her. “I got into acting by default. I did not want to be an actor and I never got the feeling from my father that there was joy in it. He never brought joy home, but he brought problems: Script problems, director problems. I thought that I was plain and that I didn’t have talent, so it was Lee Strasburg who gave me the confidence. I came from a family where you did not express emotions, because that was weak. So when I became an actress and suddenly I was encouraged to explore an inner life and to reveal emotions, it was like manna from heaven. That was in class, and then real life work in Hollywood was a different thing because there was so much pressure on how you look and all of that. I just hated that. I tried to be a secretary, but I was fired and I didn’t know what else to do to earn a living, but when I began to become an activist and then made movies that reflected my social concerns starting with ‘Coming Home,’ that was when I really began to enjoy making movies.”
Fonda says that writing her book has turned her into an optimist of sorts. These days, she continues to live in Atlanta, immersing herself in women’s causes and a perennial fight for social justice. Married three times and currently single, asked whether she would marry again, she offers a hearty laugh in response. “At my age you learn never to say no. I would love to be able to fall in love again, because I want to see whether what I think I’ve learned is real and you can’t find that out with dogs or grandchildren. You’re tested on the anvil of relationships, and whatever issues there are come up in relationships.”