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Patricia Bosworth Tries to Explain Jane in 'Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman'

Chris Foran
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)

Screen sex kitten. Serious Actress. International star. Political activist (celebrated and reviled). Oscar winner (twice). Box-office star. Exercise mogul. Billionaire’s wife. Sellout. Lifestyle guru.

Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 608 pages
Author: Patricia Bosworth
Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-08

Jane Fonda can even make shopping controversial.

Last month, the Oscar-winning actress disclosed on her blog that QVC had canceled her appearance on the cable TV shopping channel after getting calls criticizing her involvement in anti-Vietnam War activities in the '70s.

Not that she was peddling anything political: She was going to be on the cable channel to sell her latest lifestyle book, Prime Time.

After all these years, Fonda, 73, remains one of the most polarizing figures in American pop culture — a fact made all the more remarkable considering how many mutations her public persona has gone through over the years.

Screen sex kitten. Serious Actress. International star. Political activist (celebrated and reviled). Oscar winner (twice). Box-office star. Exercise mogul. Billionaire’s wife. Sellout. Lifestyle guru.

In Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman, veteran showbiz biographer Patricia Bosworth shows they really are all the same person. And, while Bosworth’s admiration for her subject sometimes tinges her portrait with softer tones, that portrait reveals a bundle of contradictions in a very public, very complex life.

The biggest contradiction of Fonda’s life is the most obvious one: A symbol of independence and autonomy, she has spent most of her life being defined, redefined and reined in by the men in her life.

Chief among those, of course, was her famous father. Unfortunately, Henry Fonda wasn’t much of a father; distant and self-absorbed, he may have been a beloved actor, but his private life was colored by infidelities and a lack of interest in home life.

Out to win her father’s love, she drifted into acting. It turned out she was good at it, but it wasn’t enough: She was determined to be as good on stage or screen as her old man, something she was sure would win his approval.

Fonda was admitted to the hallowed Actors Studio, with help from her acting coach/lover Andreas Voutsinas. After getting solid reviews in a few early productions, she went to France, where she fell under the spell of star-maker Roger Vadim, the director who had made sex-object stars out of Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve.

Fonda and Vadim became ground zero for the '60s screen sexual revolution, especially with their sci-fi comedy Barbarella which made her an international star but left her feeling like she wasn’t a serious actress.

Politics provided a more serious outlet, and she became more radical as the '60s went on. She got more involved in protests — against mistreatment of American Indians, for the Black Panthers — but it was her involvement in the fight against the Vietnam War that earned her the nickname detractors still use: Hanoi Jane.

As Bosworth reports, the truth behind the incident that triggered it — a photo op during a trip to the North Vietnamese capital, with Fonda sitting behind an anti-aircraft gun — is a little more complicated, inflated by exaggerations and falsehoods in years since. But Bosworth doesn’t let her off the hook, either: Fonda did go to Hanoi, and did sit at that weapon, an act that she has apologized for ever since as one of stupidity and naiveté.

Fonda threw herself into acting with the same competitive intensity that she brought to politics. Two of her best performances — in 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and in 1971’s Klute which won her her first Academy Award — came during the peak of her political activism.

Fonda’s political passion was rechanneled by another man, activist Tom Hayden. Like Fonda, Hayden, who’d become husband No. 2, was ambitious and focused on his own fame. Although they stayed together for more than 16 years, their marriage was a combative partnership, with Fonda supplying the star wattage (she won a second Oscar for 1978’s Coming Home) and cash, and Hayden bitter she was getting more attention than he was.

Two years after her divorce from Hayden, Fonda married another hard-charging, womanizing ego: Ted Turner. While their marriage lasted a decade, it doesn’t sound particularly happy. Just busy.

Bosworth says she had planned to call the book "Becoming Jane Fonda", and it’s in the early decades of Fonda’s life that her subject comes most clearly into focus. Bosworth’s recounting of her radicalization, and the often-bizarre permutations it took, underscores how her simultaneous desires to be famous and to make a difference short-circuited many of her efforts.

It all makes for tantalizing reading — and, in the sections about her years with Vadim, pretty hot stuff — but it’s also subject matter that has been dealt with before, including by Fonda, who has written two autobiographies to date. Bosworth does interview a swarm of characters in Fonda’s life, including some who are no longer living; their stories add depth to the telling of the tale, even ones that have been told before.

But Bosworth’s focus on Fonda’s earlier years comes at the expense of the decades that follow. Building an exercise empire, her bitter divorce from Hayden, the whirlwind courtship and complicated marriage with Turner, her return to acting after a decade away — a 30-plus-year period is dashed off in a couple of chapters.

Yet Fonda’s still out there, slugging away. As Bosworth points out, Fonda, in her third act, is finally becoming her own person. It would have been nice to get a more coherent sense of how that act is unfolding.


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