Fact: Jane Fonda’s film career has lasted longer than her father’s — 52 years for her, 46 for him.
The now 74-year old daughter of Henry Fonda was 22 when she starred in her first movie, a dopey campus comedy called Tall Story, way back in 1960. She played a perky student who puts the moves on a star basketball player (Anthony Perkins), announcing, “Why does any red-blooded American girl go to college but to get married?” (The quote may not be verbatim; it’s a good 30 years since I watched a late-night telecast of the film.)
Fonda's latest movie, a lightweight generational comedy called Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding, opens June 8. In it, she lampoons her own well-established persona as a political activist, playing an aging artist and hippie grandmother in Woodstock, N.Y., who sleeps around, attends weekly protests against the war(s), grows and sells marijuana and bays at the full moon monthly with a group of fellow female Luna worshipers.
All of this puts Fonda’s character at odds with her uptight, conventional lawyer daughter (Catherine Keener) but wins over her college-age, Walt Whitman-reading granddaughter (Elizabeth Olsen, the gifted younger sister of Full House twins Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen). Peace, Love is essentially a formulaic TV movie blessed with a superior cast. The “hippie” scenes are cringe-inducing, as movie hippie scenes always are, but the film is overall a pleasant enough viewing experience, if not a life-altering one.
Fonda will also be turning up this summer on a new HBO series, The Newsroom, which begins airing June 24. That ought to have a little more bite than Peace, Love, given that it comes from the pen of Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network and The West Wing). It’s a satirical drama centering on the inner workings of a nightly TV newscast and the professional and personal relationships of its anchor (Jeff Daniels) and staff (including Emily Mortimer and Sam Waterston). Fonda will pop up in a recurring role as Leona Lansing, the tough-as-nails chief of the corporation that owns the network. (The inside joke to her casting, of course, is that she was once married to CNN founder Ted Turner. On her blog, Fonda described her character as "a combo" of Turner and Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. empire includes Fox News.)
To 20-year-old moviegoers or TV watchers catching her in either project, Fonda must seem like just another old-lady actress who they know from Mom and TV jokes, someone who was once a really big star.
Big star is right. To anyone who came of age in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Jane Fonda was huge. This is the woman who defined sex kitten when she did a striptease in space in Barbarella (1968), won her first Oscar for Klute (1971), nabbed a second for the anti-war film Coming Home (1978) and starred in the prescient anti-nuclear thriller The China Syndrome (1979). Fonda continued to make major movies through the 1980s (including Nine to Five, On Golden Pond, Agnes of God) but then took more than a decade off to oversee her video workout empire—remember those headbands and leg warmers? She married Ted Turner in 1991 (they divorced 10 years later) and became a grandmother. In 2005, Fonda made her first film in 15 years, Monster-in-Law, and wrote an autobiography, My Life So Far. Her how-to guide for baby boomers, Prime Time: Love, health, sex, fitness, friendship, spirit; Making the most of all your life, was released last year, along with a related series of fitness DVDs.
In many ways, Fonda's journey has traced a path familiar to baby boomers. She was born into a life of comfort, though it was rocked by emotional turmoil (a socialite mother who committed suicide when Fonda was 12; a movie-star father who kept his feelings in tight check). She found success early, experimented with drugs and sex, got married and divorced three times and is currently single. Her forays into politics — especially a trip to North Vietnam that earned her the nickname "Hanoi Jane" — made Fonda a lightning rod for political conservatives.
She has since toned down the rhetoric, if not her vocabulary. (Fonda notoriously dropped the C-word during a live interview on the Today show a few years back while discussing her Off-Broadway role in The Vagina Monologues.) Times have changed — and so has she. Fonda is no longer at the barricades, though she continues to campaign on behalf of feminist issues, teen pregnancy prevention and the importance of maintaining fitness (albeit no longer exhorting followers to “go for the burn”).
And she continues to act. That, after all, is what she has always done best. Although her commitment to every marriage and political cause was doubtless sincere, one can’t help wondering if they were roles she was trying out. Some fit better than others and a few even stuck. But only one has endured for a half-century: actress.
Further proof that the longer we work at what we’re really good at and were meant to do, the happier we are.
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