ACTS OF FONDA
Dionne Christian talks to Jane Fonda about feminism and why she refuses to be despondent about life
I’m not sure why, in 1980, my mother took her pre-teen daughters to see 9 To 5, the movie (with some very adult themes) in which Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton play working women wanting to move ahead but whose boss won’t seem to let them. They plot revenge against their “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” of an employer.
Maybe Mum wanted to give us a window into her world — “this is the sort of crap I deal with to put food on the table” — or warn us that if you don’t finish school and get those all-important qualifications, you’ll never be mistress of your own destiny. Maybe she just liked Parton’s Grammy award-winning theme song and felt like a night out at the movies but couldn’t afford a babysitter.
It seems even more surreal, 38 years later, to be interviewing Jane Fonda — Jane Fonda! — by phone and talking about many of the same things the movie did. It reminds me of the 2017 Women’s March, where some carried protest signs that read, “I can’t believe we’re still protesting this shit.”
Fonda probably wouldn’t put it that way. At 80, she seems calm and measured. The mythical wisdom with age? Fonda thinks so.
“I’m not capable of cynicism for some reason,” she says, in a strong and reassuring tone. “I guess that gene just wasn’t passed on to me and, you know, it helps to be older because you have a long view and I have a long, 80-year view of all the problems and crises that have happened before and we survived.”
She even refuses to be despondent about the political situation in the United States — indeed, the Western world — although she describes it as one of the biggest crises in democracy we’ve experienced.
“I won’t name names but it’s very, very dangerous. I think we do just have to keep reminding ourselves that we have prevailed before and this has been huge. I mean the one gift that we were given in November 2016 was the gift of being awakened. We’re woke!”
Fonda’s solution is to ensure as many people are registered to vote in the US mid-term elections but first there’s the speaking tour to Australia and New Zealand.
“I’m going to talk about the things that I’ve done that have the most effect on me, have been the most important to me — writing my memoir [2005’s My Life So Far] was one of them and I’ll explain why that was most important and then I hope there will be a lot of time for questions and answers because that’s always my favourite part,” she says.
Cynics might say such public speaking engagements are a nice little earner, but she really doesn’t need the work. Fonda is as busy as ever.
Her latest movie, The Book Club, was released in New Zealand this month; she’s just finished filming season five of the Netflix comedy Grace and
Frankie alongside her old friend Tomlin and then, of course, there’s activism.
We get on to the subject of women and work less than three minutes into a 20-minute interview. What is she most proud of and what does she most regret? She admits she wishes she’d been a better
parent to her three grown children, Mary Luana Williams, Vanessa Vadim and Troy Garity. Fonda says that parenting didn’t come naturally to her.
“I’ve studied parenting now, I actually studied it, and I know what was supposed to happen. I didn’t know when I was younger,” she says. “I have learned that you have to really show up 100 per cent and pay close attention and let your children know that you love them unconditionally; you may not love everything they do but they, as human beings, are very deserving of love.
“I’m trying to make up for it now, doing the things that I just said. It’s never too late; that’s the message, it’s never too late, and I have grandchildren and I try to do that with them.”
Fonda’s mother, Frances Seymour Fonda, committed suicide when Jane was just 12 years old. Father Henry remarried later that year, aged 45, to socialite Susan Blanchard, who was just nine years older than his daughter.
“I come from a long line of depressed people and, you know, when I was in my 40s, I would wake up and it was 12 negative thoughts I would have. I was definitely a glass-half-empty kind of person, you know, and I just wasn’t happy that I was that way so I started to work on myself and it made a lot of difference.”
“I DON’T know about New Zealand but here, women can’t afford to pay for childcare and then very often the childcare is like warehousing instead of playing that role of a village,” she says. “I’m hoping that the #timesup and #metoo movements will help that; I think they will.
“I’ve just spent a week in Washington DC with farm-working women and domestic workers — all women — trying to get overtime, more protection and paid what they deserve. You know, people want to see — it’s not even so much about the money, well it is a lot about the money — but it’s also about wanting to feel that they’re respected; that they are professionals and they are paid as respected professionals. That’s what the women want — not to be treated like chattels.”
And when they go to work no one’s going to harass them or make lewd remarks?
“Yes, exactly. Like now in the United States, Title VII in the Civil Rights Act protects people from sexual harassment and abuse but it only applies to businesses with 15 employees or more. One of the things that we were trying to do in Washington was to expand that so it covers all businesses, even if there’s only one employee because this is the future. With robots and the gig economy, people are not going to be working in the way they were before so everyone has to be protected.”
Fonda’s wide-ranging activism is almost as famous — or infamous — as her acting but as a young woman, it was no means certain she would do either. For a while, she taught dance in New York before attending Vassar College but dropped out to spend six months studying art in Paris. Barely out of her teens, she returned to the US, drifting into modelling, gracing the cover of Vogue and starting her film career.
In 1968, her husband, French film-maker Roger Vadim, cast her in the sci-fi spoof Barbarella as a young woman who travels from planet to planet, experiencing a whole range of erotic adventures. JANE FONDA, sex symbol, had arrived and there she could have stayed had she not made some shrewd choices. A year later, she earned her first Academy Award nomination for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? In 1971, she took home the Best Actress Oscar for her role as a prostitute in the murder mystery, Klute.
By then a mother, Fonda was developing a strong social conscience, encouraged by experiences in France, where she and Vadim socialised with left-leaning intellectuals. She’d long been opposed to the Vietnam War when, in 1972, travelled to Hanoi where she was photographed sitting atop a North Vietnamese Army anti-aircraft gun. The photo — Fonda claimed it was a set-up — caused outrage; she was dubbed “Hanoi Jane” and an entire generation of Americans never forgave her for what they saw as traitorous behaviour.
It didn’t kill her career; Fonda continued to make critically acclaimed film after critically acclaimed film, earning a second Oscar and a string of other award nominations. But, by then married to her second husband, political activist Tom Hayden, she was not happy.
Her life has been anything but 9-to-5. In the 1980s, she built a second empire as a fitness guru, releasing exercise videos and books. It’s even been said that she fuelled the growth of the home VCR with Americans rushing out to buy their own machines so they could watch and work out to Fonda’s videos. In 1990, she divorced Hayden and announced her retirement from acting.
A year later, Fonda married CNN founder Ted Turner. She says she’ll talk about her relationships with men, including her marriage to Turner, which was a “turning point” and ended in divorce after 10 years.
Fonda likes to refer to having lived her life in three acts and now she’s revelling in Act III. The achievement she’s most proud of?
“That I’ve managed to make the whole greater than its parts; I’ve worked very hard to take the different parts of my life and make them into something that has meaning. It’s not something I thought I would ever be able to do when I was younger; I never even thought about doing it but I am 80 now and I feel that I’m still under construction but things are pretty much in place and I am feeling good.”
Left: Jane Fonda with close friend Lily Tomlin and below, in 1980’s Nine to Five.
Michael Sarrazin and Fonda in a scene from 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?