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Her casting as Nancy Reagan has upset US conservatives -- but then Jane Fonda's been defying expectations for decades

Back in the 1960s Jane Fonda was a radical political firebrand, an uncompromising civil rights and anti-war campaigner who became the bête noire of the American gutter press, who dubbed her 'Hanoi Jane'. So not everyone was happy when it was announced last week that Fonda is to play Nancy Reagan in a new film called The Butler, which should start shooting later this year.

The film will follow the life and reminiscences of an imaginary White House servant, and Fonda will play the former first lady during the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was in its pomp.

Nancy Reagan, who's 90 years old and still going strong, is a doyenne of conservative American matronhood, famous for her family values, her "Just Say No" anti-drugs campaign and her unwavering loyalty to her husband's memory.

In an election year, Republican commentators have been quick to criticise the casting of Fonda, which some have declared "inappropriate" in light of her liberal politics. Thus far, Nancy herself has remained silent on the matter -- but the story shows that, at 74, Jane Fonda still has a knack for getting up Republican noses.

She looks terrific for her age, and in recent years she's become a Hollywood elder stateswoman who's happy to make occasional, regal appearances at the Oscars. The older Fonda seems effortlessly self-possessed and dignified, but that's not how she started out.

Jane was born on December 21, 1937, into a spectacularly unhappy family. She was christened with the ridiculous name of Lady Jayne Seymour Fonda on the insistence of her mother, a Canadian socialite called Frances Ford Seymour Brokaw, who claimed a family connection to Henry the Eighth's third wife.

Frances was the second wife of Hollywood actor Henry Fonda, who became a huge star on the back of performances 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, tortured, difficult man.

In her 2005 memoir, My Life So Far, Fonda described a lonely and neglected childhood in Greenwich, Connecticut, in which she and her younger brother Peter were pretty much ignored by their warring parents. At least her mother, who was manic depressive, had an excuse, but Henry Fonda was a remote, repressed man who detested displays of feeling and would fly into what her daughter called terrifying "Protestant rages".

As Jane grew up, her mother became increasingly unhinged, collecting butterflies and showing her terrified daughter her botched breast implants. As Jane tried and failed to catch her father's attention, she decided his lengthy absences were her mother's fault, and "vowed that I would do whatever it took to be perfect so that a man would love me".

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

Henry Fonda seems to have coped by pretending it wasn't happening. He arranged a hasty cremation, at which only he and his mother-in-law, Sophie Seymour, were present, returned the same day to Connecticut to tell 12-year-old Jane her mother had died of a heart attack, and then went straight back to New York to star in the stage play Mister Roberts.

"Didn't miss a beat," Jane later wrote in her memoirs.

Unsurprisingly, Jane Fonda grew up desperate to earn her father'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 reconciled before his death, Jane remained haunted by his personality, and his criticisms of her physique when she was a teenager left her with a hatred of her appearance and a lifelong obsession with bodily improvement.

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, Joshua Logan, helpfully suggested she have her jaw broken and reset and her back teeth removed to create a "more chiselled look".

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

She earned her first Oscar playing a prostitute in the steamy 1971 thriller Klute. She would win again 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 persuaded her to play a sex vixen in his camp space fantasy Barbarella, Fonda had an affair with Klute co-star Donald Sutherland and joined him on a controversial anti-war road show.

She then met a professional activist called Tom Hayden, moved to Los Angeles and became a prominent thorn in the Nixon administration's side.

She declared public support for the Black Panthers, and loudly criticised US actions in Vietnam. But in 1972 she took a step too far when, on a visit to Hanoi, she 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 later apologised, but the damage was done: the 'Hanoi Jane' tag stuck.

But Fonda carried on regardless, and in the 1980s made another complete image change when she became a keep-fit guru and released a series of hugely lucrative exercise videos.

In 1991 she surprised many of her old radical friends by marrying billionaire media mogul Ted Turner. He was a charmer, but also a womaniser and control freak. He persuaded Jane to give up acting and became very possessive about her, even going into a rage when she went to visit her heavily pregnant daughter Vanessa.

Turner stifled her, and in 2001 she left him. She has since returned to acting, and has written a bestselling memoir, and a kind of emotional self-help book called Prime Time.

At 74 she continues to fascinate, and remains as hard as ever to pin down and define. She seems locked in an eternal struggle with her father, even though he's been dead for 30 years.

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

pwhitington@independent.ie

Indo Review