If Jane Fonda is not ladylike, then that word has no meaning. Eating a green bean salad at Harry Cipriani, a legendary high-society restaurant on New York’s Fifth Avenue, Fonda fits right in with the other lunchers, who are mostly well-dressed women of a certain age, with impeccable manners and perfect posture. Is there a contradiction between the gracious demeanor of this 74-year-old grandmother — a Manhattan society girl by birth, who was named for her distant relation Lady Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII — and the fact that Fonda was and remains the most famous and most divisive of all Hollywood activists?
I don’t see one, personally, but to put it more expansively you could argue that Fonda’s life and career have embraced the contradictions of American womanhood across parts of two centuries. She is a sexpot movie star turned feminist, an antiwar rebel and Parisian intellectual turned ladylike senior citizen (and avowed Christian). Her name remains poisonous in right-wing circles 40 years after her famous visit to North Vietnam, which was intended to further an end to the war and communicate with American POWs, not to lend aid and comfort to the enemy. Fonda has repeatedly and profusely apologized for being photographed next to an anti-aircraft gun that was presumably used to shoot at American jets, calling it “a two-minute lapse of sanity that will haunt me forever.” Contrary to conservative legend, she did not call ordinary American soldiers “war criminals” during her broadcasts from Hanoi. (She did indeed describe their political and military leaders that way, which is quite another matter.)
Fonda has returned to acting in recent years, after almost two decades away from the screen, and met me at Harry Cipriani to talk about playing a roguish, loving and thoroughly irresistible hippie grandma in “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding,” a lightweight family farce from “Driving Miss Daisy” director Bruce Beresford. Grace, Fonda’s character, has apparently lived in the counterculture enclave of Woodstock, N.Y., for at least 40 years, estranged from Diane (Catherine Keener), her embittered, conservative daughter. She has never even met her near-adult grandchildren (played by Elizabeth Olsen and Nat Wolff), until the whole breed arrive at her chicken-and-marijuana-infested country house after Diane’s abrupt separation from her husband (a brief, unfriendly part for Kyle MacLachlan).
If the movie is rather slight and loaded with overly easy hippie and New Age archetypes — not that those are difficult to find for real in Woodstock — Fonda’s performance is so rich and enjoyable, from first moment to last, that she fills it up with life. My job frequently requires me to meet famous people and play it cool, but I won’t even pretend that I wasn’t star-struck by joining Jane Fonda at her luncheon table. Most people I interview do not have stories to tell about their personal encounters with Henry Miller, Jean-Paul Sartre and the Beatles, let’s put it that way — and of course one is aware that 15 minutes with Fonda is only scratching the surface.
Unsurprisingly, Fonda was both charming and generous, asking me questions about my own upbringing in the Woodstock-cognate surroundings of Berkeley, Calif., and my experience as the son of a feminist writer and academic. She discreetly dissed her most recent ex-husband, Ted Turner, suggesting that she had to leave him in order to reject the patriarchy and embrace feminism, and revealed the improbable fact that until very recently she had never heard Jimi Hendrix’s version of the national anthem.
You’ve always been known for being selective about your movie roles, and of course you haven’t done many in recent years. What was it about this one that drew you in?
This is my fourth [since returning to the screen in 2005]. Right before this I did a movie in French, which is coming out here in September. ["... And if We All Lived Together," Fonda's first role in French since Jean-Luc Godard's "Tout Va Bien" in 1972]. It’s pretty good. It’s done very well in Europe.
This movie has a lot of themes that are important to me personally, like forgiveness and love. I have a daughter, I have grandchildren. The idea that I would not have seen my daughter in 20 years, and that I would never have met my grandchildren, one of whom is almost ready for college, makes me so sad. And the fact that when the daughter is in crisis, she comes back to Mama. That rings true to me.
I’m not all that much like Grace, but you know, I know women who are, who have almost this kind of psychic intuition. She takes one look at them and she knows what they need: They need love, besides forgiveness. And I like playing that character who brings love to people, who puts people in a place where they’re apt to encounter love. And who is lusty and robust at an advanced age! That’s something that matters a lot to me, that we change the way we view old people. So, you know, it was easy. I didn’t have to do anything — I didn’t create it, I didn’t produce it, it just fell out of the sky and it seemed right. So I called my favorite wigmaker, I cut pictures out of magazines that I wanted the hair to look like, and we did it!
The hair is amazing! Maybe you just answered this, but how much of a personal, possible connection do you feel to Grace? Is there any sense in which she’s a road not taken for Jane Fonda?
Oh, there was a moment in my life when I could have gone down that route. When was it? Sometime in the early 1960s, and I was in the middle of making “Sunday in New York,” as straight a film as you could think of. I had a week or so off and I decided I wanted to meet Henry Miller, and I learned to drive and drove to Big Sur. He wasn’t there, but I ended up staying in this place that later became Esalen, and I met my first hippies.
I had an affair with a man named Dick Price, who ended up running Esalen, and there was a point there when I was scheduled to go to France to make my first movie there, and I was torn. Do I go, or do I stay here? Because I really liked the people, and the whole thing. But I knew that I had a different destiny, and that was not me, fundamentally. And so I went the other way. I always came back and visited again, and enjoyed it. But it was not me.
I never was a hippie! I went to India, because so many friends like Mia Farrow and the Beatles were going there to discover truth. And so I went and trekked through India by myself, but instead of discovering truth, I wanted to join the Peace Corps. You know, not tune in and drop out and go to an ashram. And I became an activist. So I’m not really like Grace, although the values that she represents I like a lot. I hope I have some of that in me.
It would have been easy to make Grace into a caricature, just overplay the pot and the crystals and the boyfriends and the whole thing. What impressed me is that you’re very calm and collected, while playing a larger-than-life character.
I don’t know, that wasn’t a considered choice. It’s just how I did it. I’m sure that when the reviews come out some people will say I overacted. I don’t think I did. It just was real easy, it was very smooth. It was very joyful for me to play her, and I think that the joy that I felt being her comes across. I think it’s why people like her.
You know, it’s kind of funny. Here’s this very gentle, friendly film in which this 70-year-old woman is dealing pot and the movie makes no judgment about that. Maybe you could have gotten away with that in the ’60s and ’70s, and maybe you can get away with that now. But there was a 30-year period, maybe, when a movie meant for a mainstream audience couldn’t really have gone there.
And it’s not something I completely approve of. Frankly, I had a hard time with the scene when I’m smoking pot and introducing my grandkids to pot. I do say, you know, “Smoking a little weed now and then is OK, but nothing brown, nothing up the nose, no needles,” and all that. But I would never do that with my grandkids. But that’s Grace! I would have given them the lecture about sex, though! In fact, I’m writing two books about sex right now, for middle school and high school kids!
I can’t wait to read those! I have two kids who are almost ready for that, but not quite. Part of the appeal of “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” must have been the opportunity to work with two generations of younger actors, especially Catherine Keener and Elizabeth Olsen.
Absolutely. They’re so talented, both of them. I had wanted to get to know Keener for a long time. I’d been stalking her! And we did develop a friendship, before we had ever worked together. And this part [the conservative lawyer] is a pretty big departure for her. She’s the real hippie, you know! She had to tell me about all those things, the music, the Woodstock festival. There’s a line in the movie about how my water broke when Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. I had absolutely no idea! She played it for me and I thought, my God! No wonder my water broke. That’s the most amazing performance I’ve ever heard.
That’s so funny! People probably assume that you were either at Woodstock or at least knew all about it. But you weren’t even living in the U.S. at that time, right?
That’s right. I was in Paris, having discussions about the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy with Simone Signoret and Jean-Paul Sartre. I was probably pretty judgmental about Woodstock, actually.
Because it was decadent and hedonistic? And insufficiently political?
Yes. You know, I wasn’t a hippie and I wasn’t even a bohemian. I was extremely earnest and serious. It was very strange: I was dubbing “Barbarella” in Paris, doing post-production dialogue. So those were my work days, and that was when Simone Signoret got in touch with me and introduced me to Sartre and a lot of other people, and I became an activist. And that eventually led me to decide to come home. Ultimately it didn’t feel right protesting the war in another country.
You haven’t been much involved in political activism in the intervening decades, I would say for understandable reasons. But I’m sure you’ve been following the Occupy movement.
Yes, of course, and I think it’s wonderful. It’s so encouraging to see something like that. And I think people who say, “Oh, they don’t have a program, they don’t have a list of demands,” are just wrong. Or they don’t understand how different the world is today, with Twitter and Facebook and all the forms of social media. The entire situation is so much different. I think it’s very complicated, but it’s an exciting time.
Personally, my activism has gone in a different direction. I’m working with girls and young women, as much as I can, to empower them sexually and empower them in terms of reproductive choice. [Fonda is the founder of a center for adolescent reproductive health at Emory University, and the co-founder of the Women's Media Center, with Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem.] That comes in large part from having lived in Georgia for 20 years, which is a very poor state. When you’re talking about young single women and unplanned pregnancies, you’re talking about the transmission of poverty from generation to generation. It’s such an important issue, one that’s so fundamental to many other issues in our society.
Some people are surprised that the Republicans are waging a war on women, or that they voted against equal pay for women. I’m not surprised at all. In some ways it may be a good thing. They’re defending the patriarchy, which is a wounded beast! And wounded beasts are always dangerous. They’re showing their true colors, and women will not mistake that.
You know, thinking back to “Barbarella,” which became a sort of feminist flashpoint, and thinking through all the changes you’ve lived through since then, what have been the biggest breakthroughs for women in those years? And the biggest disappointments?
[Extended pause.] Well, the big breakthrough is that so many women, whether they call themselves feminist or not, have grown up surrounded by the victories of feminism, and it has made an immense difference in their lives. It has made an enormous difference in my own life, and it took me a long time to understand that. When I wrote my autobiography [published in 2005], I included an entry I made in my journal, many years earlier, from a time when I encountered thousands of women marching for reproductive freedom and I had the reaction: Oh, this is a distraction, this is irrelevant. I mean, that was what I thought! It took me a long time to come to terms with feminism and embrace it. That can happen when you’re in a relationship that doesn’t fully allow you to express your authentic self. I had to become a single woman again, at the age of 60-whatever, to finally reach that level of understanding.
And then the major disappointment, of course, is that we still have such a long way to go.
Things have changed a lot for men, too, and I wonder how you see that. Feminism obviously hasn’t just changed the lives of women. Generations of young men have grown up in a situation that is, let’s say, much closer to equality than it used to be. Where they will have female co-workers and female professors and female bosses, and what is expected of men in relationships and marriages and family life is different than it used to be.
Oh yes, absolutely. Feminism is not just about women; it’s about letting all people lead fuller lives. I see many more men who are feminist, or at least who have learned about life in the context of feminism. We have a long way to go to reach full equality, for sure. But men spend much more time with their children, for example, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. It isn’t only women who supply love and nurture, it’s men too. That’s good for children and it’s good for men, as well as being good for women. It’s good for our society.
“Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” is now playing in theaters, and will be available June 15 on VOD from many cable and satellite providers.