Wednesday 21 March 2018

Jane's affliction

Almost 80 but still in huge demand, Jane Fonda is the queen of reinvention - from actress to activist, to keep-fit guru. But was it all just a bid to win the approval of her famous dad

Image change: In the 1980s, Jane Fonda released a series of keep-fit videos
Image change: In the 1980s, Jane Fonda released a series of keep-fit videos
Jane Fonda pictured earlier this year

Paul Whitington

Somehow, in spite of the fact that she gave up acting for several decades, Jane Fonda has always managed to stay in the headlines, with her doomed marriages, her causes and charities, her outrageous statements, health fads and brave insistence on going against the grain.

She's a maverick, and at 79 is enjoying a career renaissance in films like The Butler and Youth and the hit Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie. Last week, however, she was in the news for very different reasons.

Fonda is a vocal supporter of the V-Day movement, which works to prevent violence against women. In a typically frank interview on that subject with actress Brie Larson for Net-a-Porter magazine, Jane announced that "I've been raped, I've been sexually abused as a child and I've been fired because I wouldn't sleep with my boss".

While she didn't go into detail, Fonda added: "I always thought it was my fault, that I didn't do or say the right thing. I know young girls who've been raped and didn't even know it was rape. They think, 'it must have been because I said no the wrong way'."

Jane Fonda pictured earlier this year
Jane Fonda pictured earlier this year

She also explained that it had taken her a long time to fully embrace feminism because she "was brought up with the disease to please". That's a very interesting quote, and undoubtedly a reference to her father, Henry, who has cast a long shadow over her rich and eventful life.

Unhappiness can be a great motivator: as a child, Fonda adored her father, but was never able to win his approval. So when she grew up, she made sure she got his attention.

She was born on December 21, 1937, into a spectacularly unhappy family. She was given the ridiculous name of Lady Jayne Seymour Fonda by her mother, Frances Brokaw, a Canadian socialite who claimed a blood link with Henry VIII's third wife.

Frances was the second wife of Hollywood actor Henry Fonda, who became a huge star in the 1940s and 50s in classic films like The Grapes of Wrath and 12 Angry Men. Like James Stewart, he was famous for playing quiet, decent, principled types, but behind the public façade he was a dark and difficult man.

In her 2005 memoir My Life So Far, Fonda described a lonely Connecticut childhood in which she and her younger brother, Peter, were pretty much ignored by their warring parents. At least her mother, a manic-depressive, had an excuse, but Henry was a cold, indifferent father.

He detested displays of feeling, and would fly into what her daughter called terrifying "Protestant rages" whenever anyone else got emotional. As Fonda grew up, her mother became increasingly unhinged, collecting butterflies and showing her terrified daughter her botched breast implants.

In 1949, her melancholy childhood exploded into a Greek tragedy when Henry asked his wife for a divorce and Frances had a total breakdown, ending up institutionalised. On a rare trip home, the poor woman stole a razor and slit her throat.

Henry seems to have coped with all this by pretending it wasn't happening. He arranged a hasty cremation, returned to Connecticut to tell 12-year-old Jane that her mother had died of a heart attack, then went straight back into New York to star in the stage play Mister Roberts. "Didn't miss a beat," his daughter later wrote in her memoir.

Fonda grew up desperate to earn her dad's approval, and followed him into acting. But their relationship did not improve, and he stopped talking to her altogether when she became an activist. She eventually realised that "if I wanted his attention, disapproval was the best I could hope for".

Though they would reconcile before his death, Fonda remained haunted by his personality, and his criticisms of her physique inspired a lifelong obsession with bodily improvement. "I was taught by my father," she said later, "that how I looked was all that mattered. He was a good man, and I was mad for him, but he sent messages to me that fathers should not send: unless you look perfect, you're not going to be loved."

Her early experiences in Hollywood did little to boost her confidence. On her first movie, Tall Story, studio boss Jack Warner made her wear false breasts, and the director suggested she have her jaw broken and reset to create a "more chiselled look".

But she had her father's talent, and by the early 1960s was being touted as one of Hollywood's brightest new stars. She excelled in comedies like Barefoot in the Park and Sunday in New York, but could also handle more dramatic stuff.

She won a Golden Globe for playing a prostitute in Walk on the Wild Side (1962), and earned her first Oscar playing another sex worker in the steamy 1971 thriller Klute. She would win another Academy Award in 1978 for Coming Home, but by then she was at least as famous for her political activism as she was for her acting.

After emerging from a tumultuous first marriage to French impresario Roger Vadim, who had persuaded her to play a sex vixen in Barbarella, Fonda had an affair with Klute co-star Donald Sutherland, and joined him on an anti-war road show.

She then met activist and agitator Tom Hayden, moved to a seedy part of Los Angeles to live among 'the people', and became a prominent thorn in the Nixon administration's side. She championed the Black Panthers, applauded the occupation of Alcatraz by Native Americans, and loudly criticised US actions in Vietnam.

Fonda's real motive in all of this may have been to annoy her ultra-conservative father, and in that she most certainly succeeded. But in July of 1972 she took a step too far when, while on a visit to Hanoi, the actress allowed herself to be photographed sitting on a North Vietnamese battery gun.

The photo was reprinted across the world and caused outrage in the US. She apologised, but the damage was done: the 'Hanoi Jane' tag stuck, and many right-wing Americans have never forgiven her.

But Fonda carried on regardless, and in the 1980s executed another complete image change by releasing a series of keep-fit videos.

In 1991 she surprised many of her old radical friends by marrying billionaire media-mogul Ted Turner, an old-fashioned patriarch who insisted she retire from acting. Turner was a charmer, but also a compulsive womaniser and control freak. He became very possessive, even going into a rage when she went to visit her heavily pregnant daughter, Vanessa.

Turner stifled her, and in 2001 she left him to start her life over yet again. She has since returned to acting, written bestselling memoirs, and set up a charitable foundation.

She'll turn 80 in December, but continues to fascinate.

"I have a fake hip, knee, thumb," she said recently, "more metal in me than a bionic woman, but I can still do Pilates." And while she wishes she'd been "brave enough to not do plastic surgery", she reckons that, in career terms, "I bought myself a decade".

But whatever she achieves, Fonda seems locked in an eternal struggle with her father.

As a New York Times commentator once put it, "if only Henry Fonda had been a hugger".

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