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'Jane Fonda In Five Acts' Reveals The Shifting Identities Of An Icon


This is FRESH AIR. For half a century, Jane Fonda's been a cultural lightning rod - an actress as well known for her personal and political life as she is for her acting. Her career is the subject of a new documentary "Jane Fonda In Five Acts," which debuts Monday on HBO. Our critic-at-large John Powers says it's a fascinating portrait of a woman unafraid of extremes.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: We live in an age when it's possible to become famous without having achieved anything. Although she was the daughter of a movie star, Jane Fonda earned her fame the old-fashioned way. For more than half a century, she's been exceedingly good at two things - acting, for which she won two Oscars, and being a target. Her juicy controversial life is the subject of an engrossing new HBO documentary "Jane Fonda In Five Acts" by Susan Lacy, creator of the PBS series "American Masters."

Although this doc is as conventional as Fonda herself has never been, Lacy tells a terrific story. The film reminds us why Fonda is the only actress of the '60s generation whose name still resonates. And it takes us inside her experience of a career that once made her a satirist's dream. Each of this film's first four acts is named for the man under whose influence Jane lived.

It starts with her father Henry Fonda, who behind his heroic image was a tense, judgmental, emotionally remote figure - whose love his beautiful daughter spent decades chasing. Her attempts to please him by being a good girl set her life's template - her pattern of adoring a man and then letting him create an identity that she would try to live up to.

First, she married Roger Vadim, a charismatic French filmmaker known for chic, shallow, vaguely erotic films. With him, she became an international sex kitten in the sci-fi romp "Barbarella." Yet there's always been a deep core of earnestness in Fonda. Leaving Vadim and returning to Hollywood, she reinvented herself as a serious actress with her two greatest performances - the nihilistic marathon dancer Gloria in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and the high-class call girl Bree in "Klute." She was brilliant at darkness.

She soon discovered politics, becoming an activist so entitled and strident that the footage still makes me cringe. She married the renowned radical Tom Hayden and, in a foolhardy move, went to North Vietnam where she was filmed sitting on an anti-aircraft gun. This folly got her dubbed Hanoi Jane, a moniker that haters still want carved on her tombstone - preferably after her execution - although she's apologized for it over and over. It also put her, as she tells us, in the government's crossing.


JANE FONDA: I will never forget the day that we came home - there wasn't a drawer in the house that wasn't pulled out and turned over. Everything was torn out of the closets. Papers were rifled. Desks were open. I mean, someone had gone through our house. And it was done so blatantly and messy. I mean, I knew that it was to scare us.

POWERS: Even as she made hit political movies like "Coming Home" and "The China Syndrome," Fonda again felt she was suppressing her true self to live up to her man's expectations. After making her smash workout tape, whose profits she donated to their campaign for economic democracy, the two broke up. And in a move that left everyone stunned, this latter-day fitness guru quickly married the raffish billionaire Ted Turner - even giving up the movies to play the wife of a ranch-owning mogul.

While Lacy's film is surely correct that Fonda's shifting identities were tied to her men, it overlooks something important. What made her trajectory breathtaking was how perfectly her personal U-turns meshed with the ever shifting zeitgeist. The nice-girl Jane of the bottled-up '50s became a sex bomb in the swinging '60s, a political activist in the radical '70s and a tycoon's wife in the era of greed is good. She always had a knack for finding precisely the men who made her emblematic of the prevailing cultural moment.

What's even more breathtaking is that I don't think this was calculated. Unlike, say, Madonna who played with shifting identities, Fonda cannonballed into every new persona and era as if she'd finally found revealed truth. In this, she was merely doing a high-profile version of the changes millions of her fellow citizens were going through - be it changing their hairstyles, flaunting radical politics for a while or giving up weed for the gym. Easy to mock, her ceaseless search for her true self may be the most American thing about her.

Lacy's narrative builds to the upbeat notion that Fonda, now 80, is enjoying a good fifth act. At long last, she's a single independent feminist who calls her own shots. She spends her days as a still-committed activist and as an actress, who co-stars with her pal Lily Tomlin in "Grace And Frankie," a show on the daring subject of older women in which the funny, touching Fonda is better than she's been in three decades. Jane, we are to think, has finally become herself. And who knows? Maybe she has.

DAVIES: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "Jane Fonda In Five Acts," which debuts Monday on HBO. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "The Sisters Brothers," a new comic western starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly. This is FRESH AIR.


John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.