Thursday, May 04, 2006

Her Life So Far

Kath Day-Knight, in summarising the Bolton twins, Kylie and Dannii - two of Kim's rivals for Brett's affection - said: "I know them both, pieces of work, both of them. But to give them each their due, they are go-getters, the pair of them."

The same might be said of Jane Fonda. One might think she is a piece of work, and the hatred and contempt that can sometimes be heard for or read of her now, over 30 years after the Vietnam War ended, is testament to the voracity of emotion she can still generate within her detractors.

But very few could argue Fonda hasn't lived a remarkable life or achieved some incredible milestones. How many other people can cite dual Oscar and Emmy-winning actress and film producer, anti-war activist who helped achieve a turnabout in US policy, and fitness guru who shaped an entirely new industry of video work-outs, on their CVs?

Fonda is also a woman of great contradictions. She identifies as a feminist, but was once the pin-up star of an exploitative, moderately soft-core pornographic cult sci-fi classic. She currently devotes much of her time to helping young disadvantaged women develop self-esteem, but battled her own eating disorder for many years. She opposes the capitalist regime that necessitates war, but was married to one of the world's wealthiest men. She speaks out against plastic surgery, but once had breast implants (now removed).

Many of these contradictions are explored, without necessarily being resolved, in her autobiography, "My Life So Far." She can easily add accomplished writer to her extensive list of skills, as the book is an engrossing and illuminating read, with clear, precise prose and only occasional lapses into self-indulgent, "self-help" jargon that seeps through when writing about how her latest "hobby", born-again Christianity, now informs her current perceptions and inner strength.

For the most part the book reads as honest and sincere, with more admissions of regret than one might expect from such a high-profile individual. She apologises, for example, for the image of "Hanoi Jane", subsequent to an interview with 60 Minutes last year in which she said: "The image of Jane Fonda, Barbarella, Henry Fonda's daughter ... sitting on an enemy aircraft gun was a betrayal ... the largest lapse of judgment that I can even imagine." This is not a woman placing herself above culpability or denying the broader impact of her actions. But her story does go some way to explain the motivation behind such a productive, focused and life-embracing woman.

Divided into 3 "acts", MLSF explores the complex and ultimately sad relationship Fonda had with her father, Henry. She describes how America saw Henry as its honest, upstanding and kind Everyman through his film roles, but in her reality he was a cold, distant father largely incapable of expressing love for and appreciation of his children. This, combined with the suicide of Fonda's socialite mother, made for a rocky childhood whereby Fonda idolised the "Lone Ranger" and determined to live her life accordingly, saving the world but gaining no friends or companions along the way. Her three marriages all demonstrate to some degree a level of paternalism and female submission, and though Fonda's image has always been of an independent, free-spirited woman, she would on several occasions allow herself to be overshadowed by dominant men for the sake of maintaining the charade of a happy marriage.

Being the daughter of Henry Fonda no doubt helped Jane get a foot in the door for film acting, but ever since her breakthrough dramatic role in "Klute" (for which she won her first Oscar), Fonda has usually been an accomplished and versatile performer. Films she starred in and produced remain among the greatest even today, including "Coming Home" and 2 of my personal favourites, "The China Syndrome" and "9 to 5". The most poignant chapter relating to her film career, however, has to be her recollections of working on "On Golden Pond" with Henry, in his final role, and another woman legendary for an image of pioneering independence, Katharine Hepburn. The parallels between the fictional, fractured relationship between father and daughter in the movie, and the real-life equivalent, make for moving reading, and although Henry does not die with a typical filmic moment of death-bed mea culpa for his sins, Jane manages to find some sense of closure and certainly appears to have forgiven him.

Many have argued that Fonda is a political sell-out and she seems to have pissed off both sides almost equally - the Right continues to demonise her as a traitor to the US while the Left seems to have given up on her the moment she married media mogul Ted Turner. But reading MLSF, you appreciate that her sense of justice has never wavered. Just because the media - and, indeed, the President and FBI - are now not scrutinising her activism as they did in the 1970s doesn't mean she's not doing anything. Her current political work involves raising awareness for people, young women especially, in underprivileged areas such as Mexico and India. Again, she cannot easily be dismissed, as so many Hollywood liberals are by the Right (or South Park), as an armchair critic offering merely lip service and no action.

The book offers a few "juicy" tidbits that may have been kept secret until now - her long-standing eating disorders, for example, or soliciting prostitutes in Paris for threesomes with her then-husband, Roger Vadim, or the admission of her own affair during her second marriage, to failed Senate candidate and activist Tom Hayden. But it's hardly a sensationalist tell-all; rather, an insight into the mind of a woman who has never sat on her hands and watched the world pass by. I've always insisted on having Fonda as one of my 10 guests at my ideal dinner party, and if the book is anything to go by, she's personable and easy-going, someone you could have a chat with without being surrounded by an entourage.

This is not to say I don't have a few reservations about both Fonda and her story. For one thing, born-again Christians always make me, as a gay homosexual, nervous. In her all work over the years with various oppressed and marginalised groups - women, African-Americans (via the Black Panthers), victims of war, the impoverished and so on - gays and lesbians are conspicuously absent throughout. Knowing as I do, that some of the world's greatest faith-based activists who've done amazing work with poor and disadvantaged people can also be the most homophobic, I find this omission glaring. I could be wrong, but this is something I'd certainly like to bring up between main course and dessert, after perhaps the third glass of grenache.

I also find the absence, in this story, of her opposition to plastic surgery rather telling. Though she does admit to the breast implants and their subsequent removal, she does not write about the times when she has spoken against plastic surgery - and frankly, although she is naturally a very beautiful woman, I'm pretty sure those aren't her original cheekbones on the cover of the book. I read somewhere she did admit to getting only as much work done as an actress has to in order to remain competitive in the industry, but to me this does not sit well with a woman writing in great length of all the work she is doing to make other women feel good about themselves.

One can be extremely cynical about the timing of this book, being published as it was around the time of her 15-year break from film acting retirement in the fairly average J-Lo movie "Monster-in-Law" last year (surely she could've waited longer for a better script?) But this doesn't make it any less of a good read by an intelligent and candid writer. Love her or loathe her, Jane Fonda is a remarkable person, and fully deserves this articulate and illustrative right-of-reply.


At 5/5/06 4:10 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who are the other 9 at the dinner party?

At 5/5/06 10:43 am, Blogger Gay Erasmus said...

Oh Sam, I've loved 9 to 5 ever since I was a very gay (yet pre-gay) kindergarten student. The first time I went to the Imperial and heard Dolly P's theme song play, I knew I'd come home. It's the anthem of my soul.

Did you catch Jane's interview with Denton last year? She came across as troubled and confused, but very sweet, engaging, and principled. I liked her, even though I felt I couldn't exactly admire her.

At 5/5/06 12:01 pm, Blogger weasel said...

gay erasmus - do you have the almighty mix (aka. the palms mix) of 9 to 5? You need it, trust me.

At 5/5/06 12:09 pm, Blogger Sam said...

Would have to give that some thought, anon. Fonda, Tennessee Williams, Albert Camus and Nelson Mandela would definitely be there for starters.

9 to 5 is many a gay boy's anthem I think, GE. I did catch that interview and did sense a feeling a trouble, or least regret. I don't she'll ever find true happiness so long as she sets her own standards and expectations of herself so incredibly high.

At 5/5/06 3:57 pm, Blogger Gay Erasmus said...

weasel: No, I don't. Thanks for the headsup! I've been trying to find the name of that mix for ages.

Bless the internet!

At 8/5/06 8:37 pm, Blogger Brownie said...

Jane is OK by me.
She has shoveled her share of shit and having money doesn't make it easier.

Same can be said for Cher and Dolly Parton and Miss Elizabeth Taylor who has earned her own living since she was 9.

I love all the 'Monument Women'.

At 9/5/06 4:26 pm, Blogger Splatterbottom said...

Jane Fonda is a brilliant actress. However, I'm not fonda Jane's politics.

At 9/5/06 6:11 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Was wondering who'd be the first to make that particular pun...


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