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

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….

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[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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Fitness Videos and Feeling Great in Your 70s

Right…ok. Well, I apologize, that’s not exactly what I had prepared for. I was going to be doing more of a career overview and I wasn’t exclusively going to be writing about the videos. Though I am interested in what you have to say about them…

(unclear as to whether this is directed towards Mazur or the publicist) Well, what do we do then?

I’m sorry?

But, I mean, what advice to feminist men? That’s too far a field…My brain’s too foggy.

Hmm. Ok… Let’s then maybe talk about why you wanted to revisit physical fitness in your 70s…

I spent the last three and a half years writing a book for Random House and its called Prime Time: Creating a Great Third Act. I spent a lot of time researching aging bodies and exercise, and I realized that whereas when you’re young, we don’t always get physically fit. It’s not good, but it’s ok. Your body is forgiving and you’ll get by. When you get older, if you don’t stay physically active, it’s one of the worst things you could do for yourself as you’re going through age. One of the best ways to be successful and maximize everything that you’ve got in this long life, now much longer than we used to have, is to stay physically active. It’s mandatory. It doesn’t have to be, you know, gung-ho, I’m-gonna-get-ripped, but just move. Walk. Lift weights. Stand up and sit down using your quads. These are kind of the things that I thought ‘well, I’m old, and I have a replaced knee, so I’m the perfect person and have the credibility in the fitness arena to make some DVD programs geared for older people. Nobody’s doing it. So that’s why.

When did physical fitness first become an integral part of your own life?

Well, I suffered from eating disorders for about 20 years and during that time like a lot of people who suffer from anorexia and bulimia, it was ballet. I studied ballet for 20 years. I broke my foot and I had to do something different and a friend of mine had developed what was, essentially, the Workout, and I started doing this and it just blew my mind. It changed my whole body. That was in 1976, I think. I mean, I just couldn’t believe it. I had never seen anything like it. You know, there was no fitness video industry then. There was Richard Simmons. There weren’t too many people doing work-outs besides him, and then I started the video and it was the beginning of the video industry, putting out for people what I had discovered, that did so much for me, and that was in the late 1970s. First, I opened a studio. The videos didn’t come until the early 1980s.

What kind of advice can you offer to people who maybe have indulged a little bit too much during the holidays?

Well, first of all, try not to indulge too much, because you’ll have to pay for it later and it’s harder. So pick your pigging out! Maybe once or twice. But you know, try to eat healthily because you’ll be so proud of yourself and so much better. Go out and walk, before you sit down for dinner, unless you’re the one who is cooking it. Take a long walk, it will make you feel good. Get your blood flowing, your lungs working, you won’t quite feel like pigging out as much. Also, try drinking a glass of water before you sit down to eat, it’ll fill you up a little bit.

Are the new videos only for older people? Can younger people use them too?

I would say that they would be for younger people if the younger people had just given birth, or had just recovered from an operation, or had never worked out in their life. It’s geared for people who have to be more careful with their joints and tendons and ligaments. You know, our bodies get less forgiving, so its especially for Boomers and seniors. But young people can do it with them, yeah.

“Jane Fonda” by Andy Warhol

In your fitness career what have you learned about exercise that’s bad for the body?

(long pause) Any exercise that you’re doing with the wrong posture is bad. Again, you can get away with it when you’re young, cause your body is forgiving, but boy, when you’re older…having the right posture, being in the right position when you’re doing the exercises is so important, because you can hurt yourself. And in fact, bad posture, when you’re young, it doesn’t look good, but it causes physical damage when you get older, so learning about good posture is very, very important when you’re older.

What kinds of stories do people tell you about their experiences with your fitness videos?

Oh, it’s just unbelievable. Where to begin? I get hundreds of letters. ‘This saved my life.’ ‘This helped me recover after my mastectomy.’ You know, I did twenty three videos, so some of them appeal to somebody on some level, and I would hear about it. Now that my original Jane Fonda brand — and I’m re-launching it with new fitness leaders and will talk about that in a minute – but you know, I’m trying to buy them back so I can put them on DVDs. They’re still on videos and people have worn out their videos! So, you know, I’m trying to bring those back. I’ve lost track of what the question was…

I was just curious about the stories people would tell you in relation to the fitness videos…

I remember a letter from a woman who was in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, listening to my cassette in a mud hut. Or the group in South Africa, who, they sent me a photograph, there were twelve women, and they would meet three times a week to do Jane, but it was a social event, you know? There was a statue called ‘Saint Fonda’ in the back of Art Buchwald’s house, up in Martha’s Vineyard or wherever it was, and his wife would get together with a bunch of friends and do me on their lawn. Art sent me a picture of himself dressed as the Pope, walking downstairs, carrying the Jane Fonda Workout book. The number of people, women, who I’ve crossed paths with, say “I loved doing Jane with my mother.” And that’s great, because it never occurred to me that it would give rise to a new generation of women who thought of fitness because they did it with their mothers. That makes me feel very proud.

What are the difficulties in obtaining the rights to your videos?

They’re owned by the company, who doesn’t do anything with them. You know, they’re asking for a lot of money if I buy them back and we’re negotiating.

You mentioned teaming up with some new partners, physical fitness leaders, for a new project?

Yes, well, you know, while I’m aiming at an older demographic, I’ve decided to re-launch my Workout brand to give a platform to a new generation of fitness leaders. Jeanette Jenkins, Tara Stiles, and Karena Dawn and Katrina Hodgson. These are young, new fitness leaders who are doing their own thing, aerobics, stretching, toning and yoga, under the Jane Fonda Workout label, to help give them visibility. In December, their first videos will be at Target.

That’s all I’ve got actually…Thanks again — sorry if the questions weren’t…

It’s just a misunderstanding! (comically, with mock exasperation) I mean, Fassbinder?! Godard?!

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Fonda will next be found reprising her Tony-nominated stage role in Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations in Los Angeles, beginning in February (ticket information can be found here). The actress will be blogging about her experiences — as she did during the play’s successful New York City run — at her official website. Jane Fonda’s Prime Time and Fitness are in stores now.

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