“You have to stay open, at any age, to finding out: How do I get better?”
The look on the face of the tourist riding down the elevator in a Beverly Hills hotel said it all. A mundane journey transformed into an “only in L.A.” moment when she glanced up and realized that one of her fellow passengers was none other than Jane Fonda.
“Oh my … God, that’s Jane Fonda,” the woman mouthed to her friend in dramatic fashion — full emphasis on an expletive unsuitable to print — titling her head toward the actress just before the elevator doors opened to the lobby.
Love her or hate her — and Fonda is fully aware there are people out there who still fall under the latter category — there’s little denying the polarizing figure continues to rouse people. Fonda, 80, hasn’t slowed down long enough not to.
Take this day as an example. She’s in the middle of a press blitz to promote the new HBO documentary that peels back the layers on her lifetime in the public eye — as the daughter of venerated actor Henry Fonda, an Oscar-winning movie star, fitness guru and enduring activist — and her journey to coming into her own later in life.
Titled “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” and premiering Monday, the film is directed by Susan Lacy, a veteran of edifying profiles of prominent figures. The film marks Lacy’s second documentary for the network — following last year’s examination of Steven Spielberg — since leaving her post at PBS, where she created the “American Masters” documentary series.
Sitting in a corner booth inside the restaurant at this Beverly Hills hotel, Fonda positions her dog, a Coton de Tulear named Tulea, beside her as she talks about the decision to participate in a documentary about her life.
“I’ve been approached numerous times,” Fonda says. “But then Susan approached me with it. I had seen the documentary she did on David Geffen, which I thought was very, very well done. And I said to her, ‘My only concern is that you don’t make a documentary focused on movies, and my career as a movie actor. Because there’s a lot more to me than that.’”
Much of the terrain the documentary covered is in Fonda’s 2005 autobiography, “My Life So Far,” but as Lacy said in a separate interview: “It’s one thing to write a book and tell these things; it’s another to talk about it with a camera, knowing millions of people are going to see you talking about the difficulty you have getting your father to tell you he loves you.”
Besides, as Lacy tells it, “I didn’t begin with the assumption that everybody knows everything about Jane. Not everybody read Jane’s book. If you haven’t, there’s a lot about her you don’t know.”
The film digs into Fonda’s personal turmoils — her complex upbringing as the daughter of a neglectful, famous dad and a troubled mother, Frances, who committed suicide when Jane was 12; as well as her own shortcomings as a parent — and her controversial moments, such as her involvement in the Vietnam-era antiwar movement that drew hatred from conservatives and resulted in the nickname “Hanoi Jane.”
But there is also focus on her illustrious film career — particularly her standout roles in movies such as “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” “Klute,” “Coming Home,” “The China Syndrome,” “9 to 5” and “On Golden Pond.”
“It’s hard for me to watch it,” Fonda says of the documentary. “But I thought [Susan] did a good job. You have to stay open, at any age, to finding out: How do I get better?’”
Lacy conducted 12 interviews — totaling more than 21 hours — with Fonda over the course of a year at various locations, including Fonda’s home in New York and on the set of her Netflix series “Grace and Frankie.” The film includes a trove of archival footage and features interviews with family and friends — former spouses Ted Turner and Tom Hayden; her son with Hayden, Troy Garity; stepdaughter Nathalie Vadim and adoptive daughter Mary Luana Williams; Robert Redford, Lily Tomlin and best friend and producer Paula Weinstein. (Fonda’s daughter, Vanessa Vadim, and her brother, Peter, declined to participate.)
“It’s such a personal film,” Lacy says, “I didn’t go after costars or that sort of thing. I wanted to focus on people with whom she has a close relationship, who could be revealing in some way.”