For her sixtieth birthday, Jane Fonda decided she wanted to make a short video about her life to "discover its themes." When she asked her daughter, documentarian Vanessa Vadim, to help her, Vanessa said, "Why don't you just get a chameleon and let it crawl across the screen?"
Vanessa wasn't just being a jerk. Depending on the baby boomer you ask, Jane Fonda, the daughter of American icon Henry Fonda, is a sex-symbol comic book character (Barbarella), a political activist who got duped into posing on a North Vietnamese antiaircraft missile ("Hanoi Jane"), or a breathy workout-video sergeant. (Jane Fonda's 1982 Workout, the first exercise video ever, sold 17 million copies and remains the bestselling video of all time.) Diehard Democrats might remember Jane as the more beautiful half of a marital-political alliance with activist Tom Hayden, or, a decade later, as the trophy wife of CNN mogul Ted Turner.
Jane Fonda's one indisputable identity is as a celebrity. If sex, as Philip Larkin wrote, began in 1963 ("which was rather late for me"), the modern concept of celebrity came about almost simultaneously, just when Jane was establishing herself. The swelling of the media's presence and the audience's infatuation with "human entertainment" made it possible, as the historian Daniel Boorstin wrote in his seminal book The Image, to be "known for one's well-knownness." Previously, the fame of an actor like Jane's father was defined by the "success" of his career. (Fonda's final gaze in The Grapes of Wrath was seared into the minds of a whole generation.) But Jane, who in spite of her two Oscars has yet to play as classic a role, became famous as a "personality." She knew how to "get into the news and stay there." Jane, as Patricia Bosworth points out in her splendid new book, Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman, is as good at self-publicity as she is at acting—which is, very.
When Bosworth went to interview Jane in 2003 at her ranch outside Santa Fe, there'd already been nine biographies of the actress—all of them by men, "all of whom, [Jane] believed, felt threatened by her." "I'm glad," Jane told Bosworth, "a woman is writing about me." If you were to read only the prologue, with its anxious and earnest school-girl case-making, you might think this endeavor an embarrassment to the fairer gender: "Jane says she often shakes and cries when she writes, and so do I," Bosworth, who has also written biographies of Diane Arbus and Marlon Brando, writes. "If I judge her at all, it's because I see many of the same rationalizations and delusions in myself as a woman."
But the prologue is a stylistic departure from the rest of the biography, which is friendly toward its subject in all the right ways. The sentences are gracious and welcoming, and the snappy historical briefs are fresh. In an effort to understand Fonda's motivations and polarizing personality (Googling "Jane Fonda fan page" gets over 1 million results, and "Jane Fonda hate site" gets 10 million), Bosworth floats gentle and largely convincing Freudian assessments. Henry was an emotional ice pick. Jane's mother, Frances, wished that Jane had been a boy, and favored her younger son, Peter. When Henry announced that he was leaving for another woman, Frances, who had a history of mental instability, was institutionalized. She slit her neck not too long after, when Jane was twelve. It was "the crucial event in Jane's life," Bosworth writes, pointing out that Fonda still struggles to shake her association of womanhood with weakness.
Psychoanalyses in biography is often more limiting than revealing, a way of pasta-pressing a complicated subject into a text. But Bosworth's use is subtle and compassionate, and it feels suitable, given Jane's own propensity to psychologize herself, her inclination toward video-art self-discovery, and her roots in Method acting. The Method, developed by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg, trains actors to gin up the emotions and thoughts of their characters. Students of Strasberg's selective school, the Actor's Studio, include Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, and Marilyn Monroe (on whom Strasberg dotingly bestowed extra big milkshakes). Another was Bosworth herself, who as an aspiring actress overlapped with Jane in the '60s. Bosworth's familiarity with the intensity of the Actor's Studio scene yields a particularly cinematic depiction of the anxiety surrounding Jane's entrance audition. Finally on stage after months of preparation, Jane, who was supposed to be playing a character attempting to slit her wrist, spontaneously smashed a goblet and tried to jam it into her neck.
The biography is loosely sectioned around Jane's careers, which, as it happens, divide along the lines of her major relationships with men. In fact, Fonda's marriage decisions (and they were always decisions—negotiations, agreements, correctives, or capitulations) could be read in part as career moves. Her choice of husbands—a director who would make her an iconic actress and sex symbol, an influential activist who would lend her political cred, and a TV tycoon whose wealth could protect her like packaging peanuts—were responses to the times. Bosworth's thesis is clear: Jane "doesn't generate, she reacts—to people, places, and events; everything about the fast-paced, chaotic reality that is American life turns her on." Fonda chose the power she wanted and then wholly devoted herself to the magical man she thought would give it to her.
Of course Jane couldn't choose the first male force in her life: the taciturn father she worshipped and whom Bosworth sees mirrored in Jane's later loves. When Frances committed suicide, Henry told his children, Jane and her brother, the actor Peter Fonda, that she'd had a heart attack. Jane read the truth months later in a movie magazine, and for much of her adulthood, it continued to be through magazines—interviews and articles—that family members said anything of significance to one another. "She's going to be a bigger star than I am," Henry boasted to the Washington Post. "There's no limit to what this girl can do and it's scary because I'm her father." Henry also said nasty things to the press about his daughter, and he didn't always support her politics and sometimes tried to censor her sex scenes (he phoned Jerome Hellman and threatening to ruin him in the business if he didn't cut Jane making love to a paraplegic Vietnam vet in Coming Home). But he was ultimately proud, and Bosworth highlights many examples of this. It is significant to her biography because it was significant to her subject.
Bosworth is perhaps too tactful about Jane's taste in scripts. Fonda, who was famous for what Strasberg identified as her "hunted animal" quality, turned down Bonnie and Clyde and Rosemary's Baby. She didn't want to play mother in The Exorcist, rejected a starring role in Mike Nichols's Carnal Knowledge, and refused the Faye Dunaway part in Chinatown. She did, initially, have the good sense to throw an offer to be Barbarella into the trashbin. But then Roger Vadim, the French new-wave director who would become her first husband, found it, and being that Barbarella was a cult comic-book character and Vadim was a comic-book fanatic, he urged her to accept. Before dating Fonda, Vadim had dated Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve and it was as a result of his direction that each was minted a vaunted sex symbol. Desperate to excel in his eyes, Fonda accepted the role, even though she secretly considered it vulgar. She also gave into Vadim's taste for threesomes—and sometimes even solicited the sort of nubile girl she knew he liked. Although the two were growing apart by Jane's thirtieth birthday, they decided to have a baby. It was on bed rest that Jane became obsessed with the horrific footage of the Vietnam War and became politically galvanized.
After her first dalliance with activism, sitting in with the Indians at Alcatraz, Jane adopted radical causes almost indiscriminately. She took up feminism, donated over $50,000 to the Black Panthers, and denounced the deceit of the Nixon administration, inducing Nixon to vengefully set the FBI after her. When she was invited to visit North Vietnam, she suggested recording a radio interview urging American soldiers to consider their actions. She had no idea it would be played on loop in the POW camps. "We heard Jane Fonda yakking till we almost went crazy," one POW said years later. When Jane had her long blond hair sheared into a shag, the culture was so fluent in Freud that Vadim immediately knew their love was over.
A year or so into her tireless activism, Fonda fell in love with Tom Hayden, one of the last-standing ideologues of the New Left. In Tom she saw a means for securing acceptance from other activists. He also limited her to one cause: the Indochina Peace Campaign, a traveling antiwar show geared at raising awareness about Vietnam. "Tom saved my life," Jane said. But he also sought to control it. When Hayden expressed discomfort about her Cartier watch, she switched to a Timex. When he suggested they move closer to their ICP office, she gave up the modest Laurel Canyon home she loved, and bought a $45,000 shabby two family home in Ocean Park sight-unseen. She had a son, washed the family's clothes by hand, and to publicize ICP—and later, Tom's campaigns—she orchestrated articles on her and Tom, in which Tom insisted his name appear first. Over the years, she contributed at least $10 million to his campaigns, not including the money raised by the production arm she founded for ICP. That company did a bold thing with film; it made "message" movies that would appeal to mass audiences. Coming Home, the politicized love story of a woman and a paralyzed Vietnam vet, won Jane an Oscar for best actress. Nine to Five, a feminist buddy movie about rebellious secretaries, grossed $150 million.
But Hayden only grew increasingly contemptuous of Jane in public. When asked what the most difficult part of living with Jane was, he answered, "The attention. No one person deserves that much attention." When her exercise video, which lined the pockets of their causes, blew up, he became even more resentful of her celebrity. Rumors had it he was cheating. But Jane, if she was aware of the rumors, didn't acknowledge them explicitly. She only said, "If Tom ever had a lover, I would just try to get close to this woman and make her my best friend." Hayden left her on her fifty-first birthday, before she had a chance.
Bosworth brilliantly shows the way this actress, so successful at summoning different personas on screen, had considerably greater difficulty in her marriages figuring out how she should act as an accomplished woman. Although she was ambitious, she melted into a little girl around her husbands—except, that is, when it came to money. She willfully maintained her economic independence: in fact, she paid for her first two husbands, and initially resisted being treated by television tycoon Ted Turner, her billionaire third. All three cheated on her—Turner both least and most surprising of all. In spite of his notorious appetite for Playboy bunnies, he'd convinced her to marry him by vowing fidelity, then pulled one of his "nooners"—sex at lunch—a month into their marriage. They overcame it in counseling, and at Turner's wish, Jane gave up acting and activism to spend the next ten years as a full-time wife, stepmother, and philanthropist. But by 2001, with the birth of her first grandchild, she had out-grown that role too.
Jane Fonda's sprinting chameleon quality no doubt gave cameras something to chase after. Fonda loves to talk too, which makes it easy for journalists to spin a story and form an opinion. Yet, by the epilogue, Bosworth seems almost at a loss for one—a final one, that is, because it's simply impossible to tell. Bosworth retreats into notes, and in a final one, mentions that Jane has accepted an offer from HBO to star in a TV series about a woman in her third act.
What was the last successful show you saw about aging ladies since The Golden Girls? Could that be Fonda's lasting influence? And will Fonda's recent Christian stint in inspirational self-help be the persona she takes to the grave, or is another conversion imminent? Regardless, as Fonda marches on into her seventies, the series is certainly a forward-looking alternative to that reflective short she showed 300 of her friends when she turned sixty in December of 1997. That movie was a jumble of raw fragments and fraught images from Jane's past. As Jane's beloved stepmother, the socialite Susan Blanchard, told Bosworth, the film was uncomfortable to watch. The material was too personal and Jane wasn't able to explain it. That, of course, is the opening Bosworth seized for herself, and marvelously fills.
Francesca Mari has written for the New Republic and the New York Times Book Review.