Of all the notables one might expect to open a documentary about Jane Fonda — actress, activist, fitness icon, Hollywood royalty and, now, inspiringly in-demand octogenarian — Richard Nixon probably wouldn’t feature high on the list. “What in the world is the matter with Jane Fonda?” the then-president’s voice is heard asking, on a White House tape from 1971, as Fonda was busy recasting herself in the role of anti-Vietnam War protester. “I feel so sorry for Henry Fonda, who’s a nice man. She’s a great actress. She looks pretty. But boy, she’s often on the wrong track.”
But Nixon’s unexpected appearance and dismissive, chauvinistic comments set the tone for Jane Fonda in Five Acts, made by HBO and written and directed by Susan Lacy. “You know, right away, that this is not a film about a movie star,” says the subject herself. “This is going to be different.”
Fonda and I meet in a hotel room in Beverly Hills, a large glass coffee table and a plate of biscuits between us. In her splashy-print top, with her perfectly coiffed blonde hair, it is almost impossible to accept that she is 80 years old. She is rail-thin and wrinkle-free, though without the terrifyingly frozen look of devotees of the surgeon’s knife. But, quite aside from her looks, it’s her energy that is tangibly youthful — she is passionate, vigorous, laser-sharp. She pounces hungrily on a chocolate-chip cookie, a delight to see after her revelations in the documentary about living on one hard-boiled egg a day when in the grips of the eating disorders that dogged her until her early 40s.
We are well used, of course, to Fonda as the mistress of reinvention. From sex symbol Fonda in the Barbarella years, to serious actress Fonda, the double Oscar-winner (for Klute and Coming Home) to activist Fonda in the 70s, workout Fonda in the 80s, and philanthropist Fonda in the 90s.
The documentary’s structure, however, slices things up differently, with each of the first four of the five “acts” named after the significant men in her life: her father, Henry (“I grew up in the shadow of a national monument,” she says in the film. “He was the face of the America that people wanted to believe in”), followed by her three husbands, French director Roger Vadim (“as soon as he walked in, I felt unsafe,” she says of their first meeting. “He felt predatory”), political activist Tom Hayden, and media mogul Ted Turner. The narrative device is that Fonda defined herself almost entirely by the men in her life, all of whom sought to control her. Until, that is, her fifth act, fittingly titled Jane.
“I didn’t have very much confidence, I didn’t take myself seriously, and I thought that if I was with those kinds of men that I could be somebody,” she tells me, thoughtfully. “They were all so brilliant, and I thought they could teach me things and take me farther than I had ever gone.
“I think I’m maybe just starting now to live up to my potential,” she adds. “I’m a late bloomer, but you know, we live 34 years longer than we used to, so it’s not so bad being a late bloomer.”
Late bloomer might be an exaggeration, but Fonda is certainly demonstrating admirable longevity. Alongside Grace and Frankie, her Netflix comedy co-starring Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, now into its fourth successful series, she stars in one of this year’s hit films, Book Club, alongside Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen.
“Older women are the fastest-growing demographic in the world. And movies and television, it’s a business,” she says, matter-of-factly.
For the revealing, sometimes raw documentary was filmed over a total of 21 hours and features contributions from her son, Troy Garity, and her adopted daughter, Mary “Lulu” Williams, her close friends Tomlin and Robert Redford, plus two of her ex-husbands, Hayden (who died in 2016) and Turner. Vadim, who is labelled a charismatic, compulsive gambler and alcoholic in the film, declined to take part. While it is a 360-degree portrait of a cultural icon, it does not focus on her achievements or successes, but instead devotes much of the almost two-and-a-half hours to Fonda’s own reflections on her vulnerabilities and missteps.
She was, she says today, surprised by the response — from men as well as women — to her 2005 autobiography My Life So Far. “A lot of people identify with the various struggles that I’ve had,” she says. “Issues with parents, issues with eating disorders, issues with men, issues with self-confidence. And so I felt that, if these things could be brought to a broader audience, that it could be informative and helpful to other people.”
Nor does the film shy away from her self-confessed regrets, including over the war that she believes was the first major turning point in her life. “Prior to my becoming an anti-war activist, I had lived an eventful life, an interesting life, but a meaningless life,” she tells me. “I was a pretty girl who made movies and was kind of hedonistic. And when I decided to throw in my lot with the anti-war movement, everything shifted. The way I looked at the world the people I was drawn to, what interested me — everything changed.”
“It took me until my mid-30s to get woke,” she says, employing the current parlance. “But I think if I’d been 20 and Trump had been elected, I would have been woke earlier.”
“I’m proud that I went to Vietnam when I did, and I’m proud that the bombing of the dikes stopped,” she says. “But I’m sorry that I was thoughtless enough to sit on that gun at that time, and the message that that sent to the guys who were there, and their families.” As she admits in the documentary: “I will go to my grave regretting that.”
Today, she is no less “woke” — a few days after we meet, she will be travelling to Michigan with Tomlin “to be a voice for tipped workers, for people who work in restaurants — we’re fighting for one fair wage”, including for fair wages for farm workers and domestic workers. “I try to use my celebrity in a good way,” she says. And this week, she went back to the swing state to work with minority voting efforts ahead of the forthcoming midterms. “The elections on November 6 are the most important elections of my lifetime,” she said last week. “So much depends on what happens.”
There is a necessarily strong feminist flavour to the film; alongside cultural moments such as the 1980 release of 9 to 5 — for which a remake is being planned starring its original cast: Fonda, Tomlin and Dolly Parton — and the unprecedented success of her workout videos (which, she reveals, she made no profits from — the money was all ploughed into the Campaign for Economic Democracy fund, run by her then-husband, Hayden), there is her revelation that leaving Turner was the second turning point in her life. “None of my marriages were democratic, because I was too focused on pleasing,” she says in the film. In spite of loving Turner, and the pair remaining close even now, as is evidenced by their fondness in the film, “I had to hide a part of me to please him,” she says. She felt, she says, that if she’d stayed with him, she would “never be authentic... never be able to be whole”. And, after leaving him, she realised for the first time, “that I didn’t need a man to make me OK”.
Fonda’s personal journey to wholeness is exemplified by her role as an executive producer on the remake of 9 to 5, as well as one of its stars — she’s currently working with writers on the script. “I’m sorry to say the situation for women in the workplace is worse today [than in 1980],” she says, reflecting on the theme of both films. “Back in the day, you were hired by the company. If you had problems, you went to the company. Today, a lot of the workforce is hired by an outside company and subcontracted. So if there’s a problem, where do you go? Who do you complain to? Who do you fight with?” she asks, rhetorically.
“Plus, with social media, the internet, the computers, all the things that we didn’t have then, you can be spied on very easily - everything you say, everything you do, everything you write, every email you send.”
Will the remake reflect those changes, and other new issues that women have tackled in the 38 years since the original, I ask. “If it doesn’t, I’m not going to be in it,” she says, firmly. “But right now, Dolly, Lily, and I are all intending to be in it.”
While she appears untroubled by issues of mortality (“I’m only 80 — there’s still a few decades to go, if I’m lucky”), she does believe that the documentary is “probably the definitive portrait of Jane Fonda — I don’t think there’s going to be another one after this”.
But she’s far less bothered about what it portrays of her than what it might do for others. “I hope it will encourage people to become active,” she says. “There’s a gangster running the country, and we need an honest, right-thinking non-gangster to lead. And it’s going to take every single person in this country to make that happen.”
Don’t miss it
Jane Fonda in Five Acts is now streaming on osnplay.com.