Friday 23 March 2018

Review: Biography: Jane Fonda: The Private Life Of A Public Woman by Patricia Bosworth

The Robson Press, £20

During his marriage to Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden was asked by Barbara Waters what the hardest thing was about living with the actress. "The attention. No one person deserves that much attention," he declared rather sourly, which prompted Gore Vidal to remark that Hayden was the kind of kept man who gave rampant opportunism a bad name.

Patricia Bosworth (a Vanity Fair editor) has known her subject since they were both students of Lee Strasburg and begins by describing a visit in 2003 to Fonda's 2,500-acre ranch near Santa Fe.

She was there to explore some old FBI files dating from the time when 'Hanoi Jane' was considered a palpable danger to the nation. It's a four-mile drive from the gates to the house proper and Bosworth was suitably impressed.

"After she showed me around her comfortable, spacious home, we sat down in her vaulted living room in front of a crackling fire, and drank wine from oversize goblets," she writes.

Admiring the cut of her host's blue jeans, Jane tells her she has 50 pairs. Patricia expresses surprise. "Well, Ted (her husband, CNN boss Ted Turner) had 27 ranches. I used to keep clothes at every ranch so I would never have to pack."

We get the Hello tour of Jane's gleaming modern kitchen, where "the air is fragrant with bunches of fresh flowers in crystal vases", and then there's the stables and Jane's six horses -- "one a white stallion she had just bought from Mike Nichols" -- the dog the cast of Seinfeld donated and, of course, a state-of-the-art gym.

A wide-eyed young masseuse arrives whom Jane doesn't take to, which prompts Patricia to remark: "I learned when I should stay out of Jane's way. She confided she sometimes takes Prozac for her mood swings."

Indeed, Patricia begins to wonder if the tightly wound, impeccably groomed icon can every really relax.

They watch CNN together and before bed Jane offers her some DVDs she's previewing for the Academy and, oh yes, a sleeping pill.

Also in the prologue, we learn that in an effort to keep pace with Ted, Jane shot a bear and cried after; that she plants old trees because she won't live long enough now to see young ones grow; that she bolts her food; that she financially supported her first two husbands (gambling debts and back taxes in the case of Roger Vadim, the one who pushed her into threesomes; and Tom Hayden's political campaigns) and that she once filed a million-dollar lawsuit against Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger for conspiring to destroy her life.

We learn that she still dreams of her dead father and as a child hated her mother's touch.

Like her biographer, Jane often "shakes and cries when she writes", the author adding mysteriously: "Maybe because we have motives we haven't expressed. We are protecting ourselves; we are both very polite."

After nine biographies, all by men, Jane also tells Patricia she's glad a woman is having a go, especially as she believes all nine felt 'threatened' by her. And perhaps they did, the woman is a force of nature and need combined.

"Beautiful, icy and Henry Fonda's daughter" is how her contemporaries at Vassar College saw her, though of herself at the time she said: "I drank too much, got hooked on Dexedrine and failed most of my examinations."

She also began what appears to have been a long and troubled battle with bulimia. An early lover/mentor Andreas Voutsinas describes how, when in binge-mode, he watched her consume "three roast chickens, a couple of Sarah Lee cheesecakes and a loaf of cheap white bread".

Puzzling over the pathology (a lot more secret then than now) he triumphantly concludes that bulimia is "an actual cultural rejection of the female body".

Bosworth describes in detail how Fonda brilliantly expressed in drama class the "disgust, helplessness and panic" bulimics feel, which comes as no surprise as the young Jane Fonda was first and foremost a terrific actress.

Spectacular performances as Bree Daniels, the call girl in Klute, and as the driven, desperate Gloria in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? brought her critical acclaim and a huge following.

'We all wanted to be like her -- the liberated, sexually free woman," recalls Susan Brownmiller.

"Everybody copied her shag hair do, the mini-skirts and boots, but she wasn't a feminist; she was still depending on powerful men to find her identity."

But was she? She describes herself at the time as "insatiably ambitious" and on the evidence of this exhaustive biography it would appear that the power balance in her first two marriages was, despite appearances, very much on her side.

At one stage, Vanessa, her daughter by Vadim, began calling her father 'Maman' and sent him Mother's Day cards, probably out of spite, but you never know.

And what catapulted Jane into the financial stratosphere had nothing to do with powerful men but was entirely of her own creation. Her first workout book was translated into 50 languages and the first workout tape sold 17 million videos, with sales still going strong.

Suddenly she was all about 'empowerment' and surfed the 1980s zeitgeist of self-obsessed narcissism just as fluidly as she'd surfed the waves of sex and radical politics in the decades before.

Impeccably researched and with all sources cited, this is not hagiography by any means as many of Bosworth's interviewees are not entirely smitten with Fonda, nor does Bosworth pull any punches when describing some of Jane's more outrageous moments, as in thinking herself a bit of a martyr during her political phase.

There was also the ill-judged Black Panther salute on the way in to the Oscars -- and maybe calling her son Troy (born in 1973) after one of the Vietcong who tried to assassinate Robert McNamara (when he was Secretary of Defence) wasn't such a good idea.

Because Fonda is such a contradictory person, she's a smashing subject and Bosworth has done the actress, activist, fitness queen, philanthropist, mother, not to mention lover to many and wife to three husbands, proud.

Indo Review

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment