Saint Fonda in the Backyard: The Iconic Jane Works It Out

Golden Age Hollywood scion, feminist activist, and general all-around bad-ass Jane Fonda is back, and this time she's hitting the campaign trail on behalf of the health of boomers and senior citizens.

Everyone knows who Jane Fonda is. She is one of the most complex, lauded, notorious actresses, artists, activists, and businesswomen of her generation. Known equally for her hell-raiser days during the Vietnam War era as she is for the juggernaut of her fitness empire and her Oscar-winning acting career (she was named Best Actress for Klute and Coming Home), Fonda is a pop culture figure who still inspires divisive reactions despite being largely absent from Hollywood in the past 20 years. When I announced to my friends, colleagues, and family that I would be interviewing Fonda, there was a predictable flurry of wildly mixed responses, ranging from “what an honor – she is an icon” to, well, less flattering things that don’t dignify being cyber-printed. This indicates to me that Fonda, who celebrated her 73rd birthday in December, is one of those rare Hollywood personalities who will always cause a degree of controversy with each new project. She always inspires passionate responses from those who know even a little about her life. And this is one of the signs of a truly great artist, at least in my estimation.

I was already extremely familiar with Fonda's work as an actress, but going deeper into her expansive film cannon as I researched her acting career to prepare for this piece, I was struck at the extraordinary determination that colored Fonda’s acting performances. Onscreen, I found a ravenous hunger for perfection frequently resulting in sublimely brusque acting turns, such as her beautifully-modulated, Emmy-winning turn in The Dollmaker (1984), the electric activism and prescience of The China Syndrome (1979), and the poignant, plaintive social justice of Stanley & Iris (1989). Fonda’s striking commitment to melding activism with her screen career has always been a draw, but it is her knack for syncing her own firebrand persona with an array of feminist characters that has best harnessed her focused, unique talents throughout a staggering career. Her creations include a range of diverse women, from sexpots, indigent mothers, and hookers, to working class saints, army wives, depressed daughters, and newscasters. Every character in her filmography bears this signature stamp and each is a virtual lesson in screen acting alchemy.

By the 1980s, Fonda could be found brilliantly engaging the comedic milieu along with a charismatic pair of co-stars – Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton – for Nine to Five, a film which ingeniously fused comedy with gender politics. Fonda and Co. brought a sorely needed awareness, a feminist consciousness, to the masses in a bold, inspiring, and successful way that people connected with and embraced, rather than viewing it as some sort of threat. Fonda has keenly used her enormous celebrity to foster essential humanitarian efforts worldwide after building a financial empire out of workout videos in the early 1980s, and though by the 1990s she had officially retired from film acting, the actress enjoyed a comedic comeback opposite Jennifer Lopez in 2005's Monster-in-Law, following that film's cool reception with a solid, warm turn in the much-ballyhooed Lindsay Lohan vehicle Georgia Rules (2007). She has returned to acting once again, and was recently directed in Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding by Bruce Beresford, opposite Catherine Keener, and will soon appear for Stéphane Robelin in Et si on vivait tous ensemble? with Geraldine Chaplin and Daniel Brühl. Yes, she speaks French.

Thank you so much for speaking with me today! Let’s get right into the questions. Physicality has been such a strong motif in your career – from your candidness about battling eating disorders, to exploring sensuality in film, to of course, your campaigns for wellness and fitness. What is one of your most memorable physical acting challenges where you really had to put your body to the test for a role?

It was a film called Comes a Horseman (1978), with James Caan. You know, I'm a good rider, but I had to learn how to lasso, and throw a calf, and castrate it, brand it, round up cattle. That was challenging.

I would have put money on They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

That would be the second.

How was your acting career influenced by the huge fame of your exercise videos in the 1980s?

Well, I stopped acting for a couple of years because I became so fascinated by the business world of fitness. I had no idea… I wish I could claim that I'm some business genius or that I knew what I was doing. That I knew that what I was doing would launch the fitness industry and the video industry [but] I didn't. I did, in fact, have no idea. I just knew what worked for me and when it because so successful I then had to figure out 'well, what do I do next? How do I grow this business?' So, I had a press conference and I announced that I was going to leave the movies for a while and that I was going to concentrate on building a work-out business. That was the early 1980s, I believe, the mid-1980s. I can't remember exactly when it was.

Looking back over your filmography, where do you see the most interesting chemistry with another actor – male or female?

[Robert] Redford, without hesitation. I made three movies with him [The Chase (1966), Barefoot in the Park (1967), and The Electric Horseman (1979)]. I always had a crush on him!

I'd like to talk just a little bit about cinephilia. I am a fan of Jean Luc Godard and I know you made Tout va Bien with him in the early 1970s. I wondered if you had a take on the controversy surrounding his recent honorary Oscar?

(silence for a longer-than-normal period) No, I don't.

(more silence)

I will say this: he is a great filmmaker and he's had a tremendous impact on cinema, and I salute him for that. I did not get along with him as a human being, but I admire his really breakthrough film work.

I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that. Let’s move onto another international auteur that you were going to work with back in the 1980s. I read that you were once going to make Rosa Luxembourg with [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder. What can you tell me about your association with this project and director?

I don't remember anything about it.

(laughing nervously) Ok, well let's just skip over that and talk about feminism. I am curious what kind of advice you have to offer younger generations of feminist activists – but particularly men who are interested in feminism?

(long silence followed by a heavy sigh) Wait a minute. I'm sorry, I'm sort of geared for the DVDs, this isn't...

[Editor’s note: At this point, the Lionsgate publicist who connected the call mysteriously chimes in from nowhere.]

Lionsgate publicist: Matt, I was going to say, we really want to keep the questions geared towards Fitness, Prime Time and Workout.

PopMatters: I thought we were doing more of a career interview? That was what I prepared for.

Jane Fonda: Sorry about that.

Lionsgate publicist: Yeah, you know, the whole pitch was based on, you know, that we have the fitness DVDs coming out....


[Editor’s note: Just for the record, there never was any “pitch” from Lionsgate, Ms. Fonda’s representatives, or any publicist involved with Fonda’s newest venture, made to PopMatters. It was me that contacted them to seek out this story, so I was well aware of the “pitch” because I personally made it. I would have not agreed to interview Ms. Fonda with the impediment of not being able to ask about acting, activism, feminism, or anything besides health, wellness, exercise and the product in question. I clearly, congenially, outlined my pitch over several weeks via email, providing examples of other comparable features that I had recently authored (on Pedro Almodovar, Ellen Burtsyn, and Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek), and I never agreed to any conditions, other than to not ask direct questions about Ms. Fonda’s recent (highly publicized) breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent successful surgery to remove a lump.

As I did prior to the interviews I had conducted with Almodovar, Burstyn, and Duvall and Spacek, I spent an entire month researching Ms. Fonda’s life, preparing an interview mindful of the many highlights in her distinguished career. For example, I thought our readers would be very excited to hear her current thoughts about the place of men in the world of feminism, and about the place of feminist men in patriarchy, mainly because I had read her erudite take on this matter previously and her responses were inspiring. Other lines of questions I prepared drawing on my research of Fonda which were now suddenly off-limits in the interview: Henry Fonda and the Golden Age of Hollywood, Lee Strasberg, the missing and murdered women of Juarez, Twitter (she is @janefonda ), transgender rights (Fonda’s son Troy Garity was in the amazing film Solider’s Girl and Fonda mentored the first-ever trans cast of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues), and most importantly, activism (hello! This is Jane Fonda!) Such is the life of an independent working in a corporation-dominated world, I suppose.]


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