The Wall Street Journal: Encountering Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda talks about her life in this colorfully detailed biography.

Jane Fonda speaking at an antiwar rally in San Francisco, 1972. PHOTO: HBO

Jane Fonda speaking at an antiwar rally in San Francisco, 1972. PHOTO: HBO

By Dorothy Rabinowitz

‘I grew up in the shadow of a national monument,” the star of the extraordinary HBO documentary “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” announces early on. Her reference is of course to her father, Henry Fonda, who portrayed heroes representative of all that was brave and principled in films like “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Ox-Bow Incident” and “12 Angry Men.” These movies, with their social-justice themes, spoke for her father’s values, she says—though he never could have verbalized them himself.

It’s a high tribute. One also meticulously phrased in ways that suggest something not quite right about this talented and principled parent—it doesn’t help that he’s called a national monument. It’s an apt introduction to this story of an emotionally impoverished family life as the young Jane saw it and lived it—an experience she reports on in searing detail. She’s the historian and sole narrator of this saga (save for walk-ons by Robert Redford; Lily Tomlin; her closest friend, producer Paula Weinstein; and a few others), and it’s that fact—the unfailing strength of that presence—that‘s the making of this film.

The documentary (directed and produced by Susan Lacy)—which takes us through Ms. Fonda’s childhood, an acting career, three marriages, a substantial stint as a political radical that won her unforgettable billing as Hanoi Jane, and wildly successful best-sellerdom (“Jane Fonda’s Workout Book”), all the way to a glamorous age 80—runs to two hours and 15 minutes. It feels longer, though not for the usual reason films feel long, i.e. tiresomeness. It does so here because the candor and the complexity, the unexpected raw memory mingled with touches of savage humor, exert an unrelenting power.

Roger Vadim (left) and Jane Fonda (right) in Las Vegas on their wedding day, 1965 PHOTO: DENNIS HOPPER/HBO

Roger Vadim (left) and Jane Fonda (right) in Las Vegas on their wedding day, 1965 PHOTO: DENNIS HOPPER/HBO

In an early scene we’re shown a photograph of a family picnic, set up for some publicity purpose of her father’s. In it 11-year-old Jane and her brother, Peter, sit alongside their mother, who smiles for the camera. A picture, her daughter notes, that always makes her sad because of the anxiety evident in her mother’s eyes. But as a child she had, Ms. Fonda recalls, an aversion to her mother. “My team was the winning team,” she says. She means the male sitting on that picnic blanket with his head turned away—her father, a man preoccupied with his career and his affair with a young woman. A father even less capable of making a child feel loved than her mother, of whom it could be said, at least, that she suffered from an illness her daughter did not, at the time, understand. Her mother sat at dinner with tears streaming into her food while nobody at the table said a word, and that, too, her daughter did not understand.

But she would remember for the usual reason certain childhood memories are forever stored—-they had their impact. There were the glimpses she caught sometimes during her lone walks as a child of people sitting happily at a dinner table, laughing and talking—a sight that always created a sense of longing in her, as the adult Jane Fonda describes it.

The longing for her father’s approval was far deeper. Such men, she says, referring to Henry Fonda as a great actor devoted to his craft, “aren’t always great fathers”—one of her few politely evasive comments on her father’s treatment of her, a subject on which Ms. Fonda has otherwise held forth with scalding clarity. His disparaging comments about his daughter’s physical appearance in her youth had devastated her for much of her life.

Jane Fonda in the early ’80s PHOTO: STEVE SCHAPIRO/HBO

Jane Fonda in the early ’80s PHOTO: STEVE SCHAPIRO/HBO

Still, her brother had it much harder, Ms. Fonda asserts. Nevertheless, an entirely intact-looking Peter Fonda makes a brief appearance and delivers a brutally succinct commentary on his father. It isn’t that Henry Fonda wasn’t a loving person, he explains. It’s just that he had no character with a script that said “Henry Fonda: I love you, son.” If he had, he would have been able to handle it. Without a script he could find nothing to say.

For all its rootedness in family drama, the documentary goes rollicking on to the rest of Jane Fonda’s life, and nowhere is it more intriguing in its detail than in the chapter that sees her transformed from a political ingénue dabbling in protest marches into a hardcore activist. It had begun during her marriage to French director Roger Vadim. In Paris, with the Vietnam War raging, she met antiwar luminaries, among them the great Simone Signoret, who encouraged her. It wasn’t long before she left her not terribly political husband to concentrate on a new life as a militant—one that would find her, in 1972, being photographed sitting on the seat of a Viet Cong antiaircraft gun looking utterly absurd. It was, she says, as she has many times before, an event she will go to her grave regretting. But for her life as a political activist, antiwar activities included, she’s prepared to make no apologies.

The most colorful aspect of her activist life, if a domesticated one, appears in the chapter the film devotes to her marriage to New Left political star Tom Hayden. It’s a compelling tale of like-minded rebels seriously in love, filled with plans for a transformed society hatched in a run-down house Jane’s father described as a shack—a chapter not to be missed if only for the hilarious description of life there delivered by Troy Garity, the son born to Hayden and Jane. The marriage did not last. Tom left for someone else—his wife had perhaps become too successful a revolutionary for him, what with that exercise book on a best-seller list for two years raking in millions.

She would survive this loss and then some.

It’s hard to overstate the pleasures of this film or, more precisely, this encounter with its subject.

Write to Dorothy Rabinowitz at [email protected]

Appeared in the September 21, 2018, print edition.


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  1. This was just beutiful and touching and lovely. Thank you so much for doing this show and all the others – your family, your friends and all the special people who made this life for you.

    It was wonderful Thank you

  2. Dorothy Rabinowitz’s piece beautifully describes the many pleasures of “Jane Fonda in Five Acts.” Having watched this remarkable film just last night, I found myself nodding enthusiastically after reading each of Rabinowitz’s observations.

    But with the news and feelings from the Kavanaugh hearings still fresh in my mind, and with the president’s attacks on facts and logic and indeed the whole notion of community as a grim backdrop, I feel compelled to offer yet another gift of the documentary: the pleasure of witnessing a person–one with so much to lose in the way of fame, employment, influence, public approval, and indeed love–being so utterly vulnerable and truthful and decent.

    The film is no puff piece. It does not hesitate to share criticism of Ms. Fonda–from vets, from journalists, from ex-husbands, and some even from her children–and in response she does something extraordinary in this age of denial and spin and gaslighting: she accepts responsibility, apologizes, and reveals the depths of her regrets. Refreshingly, she also takes credit where credit is due. The combination is as powerful as it is rare in public life: an imperfect person willing to look in the mirror, assess honestly what she sees, and get back to work because there is work to be done.

    The film and its remarkable subject are lucid, vivid reminders that truth still matters and that, in spite of constant assaults, it retains the power to move us.

    • Wow, Joseph, thanks for your generous words about the doc. This makes me very happy. xxx

      • Question, Jane, how else could one see “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” for themselves, I don’t have access to HBO; e.g., will be on DVD…?

  3. Thank you Jane. You are an amazing human being. I saw you last year speaking in L.A. I am amazed by your persistence and your diligence to fight for the ones who do not have a voice. I am sitting here watching your documentary in tears feeling full of strength especially in the times we are in now. Thank you for speaking up for us! You are a voice for the many women, men, and children who cannot speak up for themselves. Thank you. I’m sending you a big hug and positive vibes. Please speak up against Brett Kavanaugh. He is not suitable for the Supreme Court. #metoo

  4. I really enjoyed the documentary. I finally had chance to see it today. I’m so glad it focused on your activism because while I love your acting – the activism is why I admire you most. You walk the walk. It matters. Now my daughter admires you too. When she & I became involved in Standing Rock pipeline battle we are moved you came. Thank you Jane. After 2 decades of following/admiring you I wish you’d come to Milwaukee when I lived there!! I cannot get off work to go Minneapolis I could. Please do these types of events all across country. Your voice is needed.

  5. Great documentary with underlying theme…Great men you love can be Insecure assholes. Luckily my man securely supported all my dreams too. For 28 years. I’m lucky. I’ve seen my 22 year old daughter suffer twice already just because she loved insecure, controlling men. It’s painful & does immense damage. Being single is way to go vs. that! Luckily women are discovering this far earlier now. Thanks for sharing all the good but also the pain Jane. I’d love to meet you and just have coffee. My husband begrudgingly watched the Doc with me – and surprise, enjoyed it. At the end he said “I can see why you’ve always liked her, she’s authentic” (my favorite characteristic).

  6. Wish i could see some of the films mentioned in the doc…. The french one, before vadimb etc…

  7. Jane…I just got the news that you’ve cancelled your “Evening with Jane Fonda” in Milwaukee. First of all, I hope you’re ok and well. I am absolutely crushed as this was the one bright thing I had going (been suffering from Major Depressive Disorder for almost 2 years now). I know you must have a good reason but…I’m devastated. Is there any way you’re planning to reschedule there, as then I could change the date on my flights (was coming from Newfoundland, Canada) as they’re non-refundable?

    • I feel for you Smitty , perhaps you can pay a service charge to have refunded? Unfortunately, outside of Milwaukee and Madison, the once progressive state of Wisconsin, who gave us Senators Bill
      Proxmire and Gaylord Nelson, has become mostly a red state of recent.

  8. Jane, I am the kind of person that when he wants something he struggles to get it, my letter goes again with the address you gave, I cross my fingers so that it comes to you, I love you. Candita

  9. Dear Ms. Fonda: Happy anniversary on your movie “Barbarella”! I’ll lay all my cards out on the table…I work on sci -fi artwork and model kits quite frequently as a hobby. A favorite subject matter of mine is your film “Barbarella” and your portrayal of the title character, which is my favorite movie character of all. (My favorite film, though, is 2001:A space Odyssey”.) I even sent you a few photos of some of my “Barbarella” paintings, a couple of years ago which you were kind enough to autograph. Lately I made photos and photocopies of all my artwork based on the movie and placed it in a nice presentation case. I was wondering if you could give me a public business address so I could mail it to you as a gift in appreciation for all the joy you and the movie have given me over the years. I look forward to hearing from you through this blog site. Yours-Steven Vasko

  10. Jane, I just received the news too that you’ve cancelled your “Evening with Jane Fonda” in Milwaukee. I’m so disappointed as I’m sure everyone that was planning on attending is. Are you rescheduling this? I’ve watched Grace and Frankie 4 complete times and I must say I never tire of it. I was looking forward to this candid discussion in hopes to get a glimpse of the real you. Maybe you can reschedule and bring Lilly along?

    • I know, Robert. I’m so sorry. I will be doing a speech in Dallas in early July.


  12. Thought for the Day: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you WIN!” HAPPY MONDAY EVERYONE! 😀

  13. …quote above is from Mahatma Ghandi 🙂 He was SO SO wise!

  14. Dear Ms. Fonda: I just mailed off to your office my gift of my “Barbarella” art portfolio that I mentioned in my last message to your website. It should be in your Atlanta, Georgia offices in a few days after which hopefully it can get to you. I hope you enjoy it. Please try to find a way to let me know what you think about my work. Thanks! Yours-Steven Vasko

  15. Hi Jane,

    How are you? I hope you’re well. I saw the documentary and loved it. I also saw Disobedience the other night and loved that too. I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to see it yet but, if you haven’t, oh my goodness, you definitely should. It’s a beautiful film. That’s all I’m going to say about it, I don’t want to spoil anything.

  16. Dear Ms. Fonda,
    I just watched the documentary “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” and I found it extremely fascinating…and sad too. Thank you for your honesty and for sharing your life experiences. My mother and I are very close and love to watch films & documentaries together. We saw it together and both of us got so emotional & cried during the part where you discussed the On Golden Pond scene with your father.

    A comment on Ted Turner: I loved when you said he used the word “smitten” after your first date—-so sweet.

    Thank you, Ms. Fonda, for the person you were and the person you are. We love you…and always will.
    Mary Ann

  17. Dear Jane,

    I discovered your story through this remarkable documentary.
    I was very touched by your authenticity, your courage, your stength and the level of consciousness you have reached that almost borders on wisdom.

    I wish we could have more people like you to help our planet and especially people who follow your example.

    Here is the most important life lesson I have learned after seeing this documentary.
    We are all looking for the man or the woman of our lives, while some of us have a real collective mission: which is your case!
    And it is often a source of conflict on this earth, when we realize that our mission can be enough to fulfill the totality of our lives. You have handled the situation magnificently.

    A big thank you filled with admiration and gratitude!

  18. Hi Jane – I just wanted to come here and tell you that I was at the BFI talk tonight – it was an absolute privilege to finally listen to you in person and you were truly wonderful, thank you so much for doing it.

    I was with the group of people waiting afterwards, and while I didn’t get a photo, you grinned at me after I laughed at your joke “the pen is drying up – just like me”. I didn’t get to tell you what an inspiration you are (and would have felt like a twat saying it in front of all those strangers anyway) but perhaps if you remember that moment, I can use this opportunity and feel like I’m saying it in person – you are a true inspiration to little old me! 🙂

    Hopefully see you again some day…

  19. Dear Ms. Fonda: at 52 years old I have never posted anything on a blog yet I research every day online for my profession. I lived, until a year ago full time in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh and watched your biography by accident to take my mind “off” the shoooting. After, I immediately texted my 21 year old daughter and shared:

    “Wow. Remind me to tell you about the Netflix special on Jane Fonda. I really feel moved by it as a daughter, wife, woman and most of all a mom. I hope you can watch it.”

    I am at a exciting and scary crossroads in life in health, personal, and professional and I feel empowered by your life, the changes you were courageous enough to make, the contributions you made to the world, the sacrifices your family made, but especially the love note you sent your daughter in such a public way.

    Thank you for reminding me I still have a spark to fan and grow and to do the same for my daughter.

    Thank you so much,

  20. Hi Jane, I don’t think you will be doing your blog until after the elections. Since I don’t know the outcomes yet this may all sound strange. I just wanted to say that I hope the surgery (whenever it happens, I thought in Nov.) goes well and that your recovery is an easy one. Hips are supposed to be easier than knees so I hope that is true. Just take care of yourself. I’m guessing you have been on quite a merry-go-round doing a gargantuan task of giving support here and everywhere you can. Time out for you, girl. Whatever the outcome of the election you did all you could do and then some. So you’ll be getting an old fashioned card and long letter from me soon. No response expected or necessary. Just wanted to say your recovery is all I hope for. your friend, Dona.

  21. Hi Jane
    Good luck with your elections.
    The world is watching.
    Much love

  22. Jane, you did it, you worked very hard and you succeeded, you are an example for everyone, never give up no matter how bad the situation is, congratulations.Love you

  23. Jane my letter is in USPS , Beverly Hills 90210 number 70162078900000333252, I know that you are very busy with importants things but maybe you can send someone to get it. I sent a little present for you too.I love you

  24. Hello my dear Jane,
    I watched your documentary on HBO Brasil yesterday and I really enjoyed it. You are an inspiring person, especially for the dark days we are living here. Today is being voted by our congress an antiterrorism law that if we pass in full we will lose our right to go to the streets to protest, as in the internet. I’m quite sad. The persecution of blacks, lgbtqi + and women increased with the election of the far right candidate. However, we will be resistance.
    With love,

  25. The post office said your zip was 90213 not 09 or 10 for your P.O. Box. I hope that is accurate since that’s where I sent my card and letter and plan to send your BD gift. It hasn’t come back yet,so I have assumed it arrived okay. Dona

  26. Hi Jane, i´ts good to be back , i have been away from the blog for a while, but always following you. i´m happy to be back.

    I just saw the Doc , and once again i´m so toched by your courege your strength and uniques . And i thank you again to be a MODEL , A REAL MODEL to me

    I´m 24 years old now, i live in Brazil and as you know we we are going through difficult times, and see your strength to fight for equality and etc conforts my heart because i know i´m in the right side.

    I really appreciate to be able to live in a age with so many STRONG WOMENS , SPEAKING THEIR MINDS. and occupying their spaces.

    And that´s what i´m trying to do , being a Lesbian , artist , a woman in love for older womens and whatever i want to be.
    because there is only one thing i can be and that it is AUTENTIC


    PS: i can´t wait to see Season 5

  27. I have been in need of wise guidance over the past few months. Today, as the summer heat sweltered outside my mountain home west of Sydney, I was absorbed by one of the most honest documentaries I’ve seen.
    Your world, my world, so different but so very similar. A universal message that resonates with Woman of the World (WOW).
    Thank you Jane for the gentle reminder that I can achieve what I believe and to not view myself as anything but authentic. Keep a check on myself in this life and live it to the fullest in harmony with my intuition and that woman’s “knowing” of what is the right path.
    My world was rocked nine years ago. I have been a single mother for 17 years. I was an international flight nurse, loving life. Then the jet slammed into the ocean, at night in a storm. Life just dissolved. I was a ghost to my kids. Physical and emotional trauma turned to fighting for justice. I did and I won, twice. An eight year trial that almost sucked my soul complete, almost.
    I have been feeling exhausted, lost and wasn’t sure if I had the energy to continue to pursue a degree in Law, specializing in aviation law, for obvious reasons.
    Then I watched your story.
    Of course I can. This is the path that has been placed in front of me due to the combination of lifes’ curve balls, lessons learnt and intuition. With the goal to be the best me I can be whilst helping others and actually participating in life again. It’s one hellova ride!

    Thanks for the kick Jane, there’s been a shift in my thinking.
    Powerful stuff.

    Love and Light xxx

    • Thank you so much, Karen, for sharing this with me. I’m so glad my story helped you reconnect with your strength and vision. When women tell their truths, it is universal. xxx

  28. Dear Ms. Jane,
    Greetings from the East Coast! I don’t normally comment online, but I’m a big fan and felt compelled to write. I’m new to Grace and Frankie and started watching it 3 weeks ago and just finished season 2. You and Lily Tomlin are the dynamic duo that’s been missing from my life! You two are so good on the show. I love how entertaining it is and it brings me a lot of joy to watch you ladies. I also love the character of your older daughter, the two sons of Frankie’s and Ernie Hudson’s character who is a familiar face from the Ghostbusters. I don’t know much about Ernie Hudson aside from his Ghostbuster fame, but love seeing his scenes and it’s very calming to watch him. Of course I knew of you (I’m in my early 40’s) and have watched three of your films (9 to 5, On Golden Pond, and Monster in Law), but had no idea how brilliant and wonderful you were aside from being a good actress.

    Because I liked you so much from Grace and Frankie, I watched your interviews with Lily Tomlin and you ladies are even better in real life. I wish you and Lily Tomlin would have a talk show like the ones that Seinfeld and Letterman have done on Netflix. No offense to those guys, but you two would be way better. Maybe the two of you having a meal with someone you admire or you guys giving your sage advice about life or just rehashing stuff from the past! It could even be a 15 minute recap on current events in your own words and I’d watch it! It’d be a hit!

    Through your interviews, I found out about your website and documentary. I watched the documentary last week and I weeped through its entirety. It was really moving and eye opening. How you were able to accomplish all that you have while going through everything is beyond me. You’re truly an inspiration and I’m so happy to have “discovered” you (and Lily Tomlin). Thank you for sharing so much of yourself and your world and for all the work you have done through your charities. You’re very much appreciated. I’m wishing you good health and crossing my fingers for that talk show. =)

    • What nice things to hear from you, YK. Thank you. Right now, Lily and I are deep into filming our 6th season! I can hardly believe it. I have to pinch myself sometimes to know I’m not dreaming—at my age, 81, to be in a hit show with Lily is beyond a dream. ^the 6th season is very funny, by the way. As for the show you proposed, who knows. maybe when we’re too old for G&F or when Netflix has had enough of us, we can do a show. xx Jane

  29. This is my first time on your blog, or on anyone’s blog! I’m a Grace and Frankie fan, saw the two of you goofing around for a funny joint interview online where you mentioned your blog; so here I am. You also mentioned Tom Hayden in that interview, and I wanted to thank you for saying something about this true patriot and activist, whose career I followed and admired, along with yours. It started during the Chicago riots in ’68, when a close friend of ours in rural Illinois offered Tom and Rene Davis and about 200 of their group a safe haven after the violence of Mayor Daley. I was about 10 years old, and I and my brother and our two best friends, the farmer’s daughters, hung out with them for a few days as they camped out at the farm, sleeping in the barns, to recover and nurse their wounds. Our parents were already very much of the left, but having close contact with the young Tom and Rene and the rest was really formative for us kids, and taught us something about activism (even if we didn’t wholly understand the politics at that age, and couldn’t share the whole sex and drugs and rock’n’ roll aspect of it) and about taking political responsibility for stuff you believe in. Been prodding the Man ever since, especially on environmental issues. I want to thank you and Tom and everyone in that key moment for your service, and for prodding the rest of us.

    • Claire, How happy it makes me that you’ve written. Thank you. Truth be told, Tom is very much in my heart these days. I miss his wisdom. I am very close to his wife, actor/singer/writer Barbara Williams and their son, Liam. We’ve remained one big family. Tom would want that. Just finished taping a message from Greenpeace. YES, we must face the environmental crisis with everything we’ve got. thanks for that, too. xo Jane

  30. Keep fighting the good fights Jane! I love you!
    Isabel xoxo

  31. There is finally a forum for me to express what has long been held in my heart. I have loved your work since my childhood, and, even then, felt a connection I could not quite understand. As I grew older, I learned of your activism that seldom few seemed to understand–but, on a spiritual level, your allegedly controversial behavior made sense to me. My father was born during WWI, and he, of course , would never understand. Your consciousness was at a higher level–not limited to the concept of boundaries, countries, politics, and military ideation, but for all human beings–American and Vietnamese alike. I intuitively and instinctively understood. And, I understood you ever more deeply when I read, “My Life So Far”–the wounds of childhood; similar fathers; relationships we instinctively knew we should leave that we did not–were all materials we shared in common for the deeper, healing journeys of our respective lives. And, then, I understood what I couldn’t quite grasp as a child–a connection that went far deeper than your incomparable acting ability (though that experience has a depth all its own). I understood the vulnerability I witnessed in the roles you created through the lens of your personal and painful experiences. I absolutely love all that you are, all that you stand for, and feel enormous love and compassion for your life experiences. Much love and respect–always.

    • Thank you, Katherine. Your letter is so generous and beautiful I feel a little stange even sharing it on this platform. Thank you. xx Jane

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