Arts Hollywood transformer
Survivor is not really the right word for Jane Fonda, even though she has been at the top of the show business heap for more than 50 years.
Transformer might be a more accurate term, as moviegoers watched the star shift from her early cotton candy roles in films such as “Tall Story” and “The Chapman Report,” to the sex kitten parts she played for her French director husband Roger Vadim, to the meaty dramatic roles in films like “Klute” and “Julia.”
When Fonda first emerged in the early 1960s, Doris Day was the biggest female star in movies and leading roles for women were more or less restricted to the nice girls that Day and Audrey Hepburn played (Hepburn was so beloved that some fans didn’t even pick up on the fact that she was playing a call girl in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”).
Fonda conformed to the prevailing Hollywood stereotypes during much of the 1960s, but her decision to play the doomed marathon dancer in the 1969 drama “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” shocked moviegoers who had just seen the star play a quintessential sex object in “Barbarella” a year earlier.
Pauline Kael of The New Yorker was one of many critics stunned by Fonda’s transformation from “(a) nudie cutie in recent years” to playing “sharp-tongued Gloria, the hard, defiantly masochistic girl who expects nothing and gets it, the girl who thinks the worst of everybody and makes everybody act it out...”
In the review, Kael made a prediction that would come true: “Jane Fonda stands a good chance of personifying American tensions and dominating our movies in the seventies as Bette Davis did in the thirties.”
Although Fonda’s anti-Vietnam War activism would sideline the star for much of that decade, she still managed to win two Oscars during the ’70s — for “Klute” and “Coming Home,” with the latter film becoming Hollywood’s first treatment of the American homefront during the war.
The metamorphosis of the performer is the subject of an HBO documentary, “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” that will debut Monday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. On Thursday, Sept. 27, the actress will be at Fairfield University’s Quick Center for an evening called “Speaking Out: Artist as Social Activist.”
Part of Fonda’s transformation in the 1970s was the decision she made to produce as well as star in films that could combine social commentary with mainstream entertainment. She scored a huge hit in 1979 with “The China Syndrome,” a film that alerted the public to the potential dangers involved with nuclear power just a few weeks before the catastrophe at Three Mile Island.
The following year, Fonda produced an even bigger hit with “Nine to Five,” a comedy about three office drones’ revenge on their abusive boss. The star based the film on research she and her company did into the real concerns of secretaries and other office workers around the country during the late 1970s. The issues explored in the movie are still relevant in the #MeToo era, so it is not suprising that Fonda and her co-stars Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton just signed to do a sequel.
Fonda’s ability to make entertainment with substance, in which she played deeply flawed women, would inspire the generation of film actresses who came after her, including Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek. They made films during the 1980s, such as “Silkwood,” “Country” and “Marie,” that one could imagine Fonda tackling a decade earlier.
One of the most amazing aspects of the star’s career is the way that real life has fed and deepened her acting. Few stars have ever dared to take the prolonged breaks from the screen that have marked the actress’ relationship with Hollywood. After completing “Klute” in 1971, Fonda didn’t do another big commercial film for six years. She took an even longer break after filming “Stanley & Iris” in Waterbury in 1990. Fonda would not make another film for 15 years, displaying her formidable comic chops as Jennifer Lopez’s adversary in “Monster-in-Law.”
The time away from movies allowed Fonda to develop her iconic 1980s exercise tapes, devote herself to personal relationships (the 1990s could be termed the Ted Turner years), and to create a wide variety of philanthropic enterprises. She also used some of that time to write one of the most substantial Hollywood memoirs, “My Life So Far.”
Just as 21st century Hollywood began transforming from movies and TV to multi-media platforms, Fonda branched out to HBO for one of her juiciest recent roles — cable network tycoon Leona Lansing in Aaron Sorkin’s sorely missed 2012-2014 series “The Newsroom.” She also became a streaming service pioneer with her decision to co-star with Lily Tomlin on the very funny and very socially relevant Netflix series “Grace and Frankie.”
Now 80, Fonda says in the HBO documentary that she is at “the beginning of my last act,” but with her track record, we can hope that the final chapter might be the best part of the book.