Visitors to Jane Fonda's loft in downtown Atlanta are presented, on arrival, with two versions of the actress: on the left-hand wall, nine huge prints of her face from the time when her hair occupied a different time zone from her body; on the right, across a loft space the size of a bowling alley, a library of theoretical texts devoted to sociology, theology and what she calls the "paradigm of hierarchical patriarchy." (To the side is a vestibule that, she will explain, she designed herself to reflect the female reproductive system.) In the middle is a wall of glass overlooking the Atlanta skyline. When Fonda walks in, it is with a tense, beady look that seems to dare one to take sides: You superficial dupe, have you come here expecting a movie star?
What to make of Jane Fonda? A woman who, for the last four decades of the 20th century, was as surely indexed with the times as hemlines and house prices; who provided an iconic image for every decade; and who meant whatever she did, and screw the consequences. For many women, the memory of her all-in-one leotard and belt combo will never be erased. Today she is in a green terrycloth gym top, hair thatched mercilessly under a tight baseball cap, which fans of "Barbarella" will see as the unwelcome stylistic intrusion of all those crusty old activists. At 67 she is luminous without makeup. She sips herbal tea. "When I start down a path that I know is the right path, I go with all of me," she says in that Fonda drawl that sounds, these days, more ironic than it is. "I have a lot of energy. I give off sparks. If it's antiwar, it's going to be very visible, and if it's an exercise video it's going to be ..."
"Exactly, the biggest seller of all time. I just do it big. I don't think about doing it big; it just becomes ... visible." After six decades of unhappiness, eating disorders, bad marriages and low confidence, her true identity has finally become apparent to her. She is, she says, now "whole," "authentic" and "good in my skin." She has become a Christian. It is a beautiful apartment, I say. "It is a good venue for fundraising," says Fonda stiffly. "You can fit 80 people in it."
Her memoir, "My Life So Far," has been seized on in pre-publicity for its chapter about her marriage to Roger Vadim, the French film director, who, she reveals, coerced her into having threesomes with prostitutes when they lived in Paris in the 1960s. It was not her intention to be salacious. The book is honest and humorous, but the memories are couched in a language you don't hear much these days. The reason she went along with Vadim's demands, she says, is that "when I met him, I was on a search for womanhood. I was terrified of being a woman because it meant being a victim and being destroyed like my mother was."
Fonda's discursive style was forged in the late '60s and early '70s, during those huge waves of activism when "paradigms of hierarchical patriarchy" were all the rage. Although she wryly observes in the book that she might have toned it down a bit -- that she made herself unlikable by banging her drum so loudly -- there is nevertheless something affecting about her refusal to soften, to flirt with neofeminism's more digestible language. When I suggest that the word "patriarchy" is an anachronism -- that while no one would deny inequality exists, lots of women would bridle at the suggestion they are victims of a patriarchal system -- she fires back: "Part of what my book delineates is how misogyny is internalized: the need to be perfect, to please, to be malleable. And that this is true for otherwise strong, successful women like me. No, Emma, patriarchy is very much alive and well, and we have to do something about that."
Fonda's career outside of Hollywood can be measured in the acronyms of the movements she is and was involved in: from the Entertainment Industry for Peace and Justice (EIPJ) to Mobe (Mobilization to End War) to Glad, the deaf charity she supported in 1979 when she accepted her Oscar for "Coming Home" in sign language, to those hastily convened and disbanded organizations hostile to her, such as the American Coalition Against Hanoi Jane. In 1995, she formed the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, to which she devotes most of her time these days. Above all else, she says, she is an activist. The acting was something she got into by default, and until she started making films with a political or feminist agenda, such as "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and "Klute," she "would've given it up in a minute. Because I didn't like how it set me apart from other people."
The feeling of isolation grew out of a childhood with cold and unresponsive parents. Fonda's mother committed suicide in a mental institution by slitting her throat with a razor. Fonda was told she died of a heart attack and only learned the truth from a celebrity magazine she got hold of at boarding school. Her father, Henry, was remote by virtue of being a legend and was, besides, what she calls a typical man of his generation -- incapable of sharing his emotions. "Bringing feelings to my dad was like bringing a dead animal and laying it at his feet -- like my cat would do to me with mice and gophers. It would elicit a look like, What do you want me to do about it? He just didn't do it."
This made the scenes they played together in "On Golden Pond" poignant and peculiar. It was the biggest-grossing film of 1981, in which Fonda and Fonda played out a weird proxy of their own relationship on-screen, with Katharine Hepburn as the mother. Didn't her dad find it bizarre that there they were speaking lines about the failure of a father-daughter relationship when they couldn't do it in real life? "I don't know!" says Fonda, throwing up her arms. "Because he would never talk to me about it. I could never get him to tell me! I mean, he was a smart and sensitive man, so he must have known. But I think if he had really allowed himself to talk about it, he would have become emotional and cried, and he couldn't stand emotions. This is what patriarchy has done to our men. They think the only thing their sons and daughters want are their balls; but what we really want are their hearts."
Although a good Cold War liberal, Henry Fonda disapproved of his daughter's activism; it was too brash, too disrespectful. But it was seeing him play noble, anti-establishment roles such as Tom Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath" and the young Abe Lincoln that, his daughter says, sowed the seeds of her activism. "He didn't talk much; he never spoke about values or anything. But he played these characters that I knew were what he wanted to be like. And those values entered my DNA. But we had a lot of conflict about [my own activism], because I was going beyond his comfort zone and inviting him to come with me. And he couldn't do it."
She was so far outside the comfort zone after her trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War that effigies of Fonda were hung from trees, and a 20,000-page dossier was compiled on her by U.S. intelligence agencies. Her house was ransacked, and on one occasion, she says, "I looked up out of the window and saw this guy with a gun in his hand; he turned and ran back up the hill. We were followed. There was a feeling of danger, yeah."
During the hate campaign, did she ever think of throwing it in? "No! No! God! They would've won! No! You can't do that. No, no, no, no, I wasn't going to allow that to happen."
Fonda was married at the time to fellow activist Tom Hayden, with whom she had a son (she also has a daughter by Vadim) and who, when asked in an interview in 1973 what brought them together, said, "The degree to which Jane had changed and the mutual strategic outlook was exactly right." The po-facedness of the movement is something Fonda can't quite shake, although she has occasional flashes of irritation with it. When Hayden sneered that the empire she built on the exercise business -- which she views in the light of bringing empowerment to women in their own living rooms -- she waspishly pointed out that the $17 million it had raised for his political activities was not exactly trivial.
"There's nothing like committing yourself heart, soul, body and mind to something beyond yourself, that you're willing to die for, alongside the man you love and with a host of friends. There was something very beautiful about that. And when it ended, we had our son, but we never quite had the same connection after that."
I ask if she has any affection for the term Hanoi Jane. She looks horrified. "No, I hate it. I hate it. It has become way bigger than me. I'm just like this little pawn in this huge myth that has been created by people who need the myth to flog their right-wing, narrow worldview. And they will do everything they can to keep it alive. When my book comes out, they'll probably use it to flog the myth again. But I feel sorry for them. I really do."
She continues to campaign against George W. Bush and the Iraq war, and to urge other celebrities not to be cowed by the lie that speaking out against the government a) is unpatriotic and b) will ruin their careers. "It didn't ruin mine," she says. She has just made her first film in years, a light comedy with Jennifer Lopez called "Monster-in-Law." It is the sort of fluff she would, in the depths of the '70s, have looked down on for being trivial. "But I had a good time on it," she says. She still sees her third ex-husband, Ted Turner, who lives in Atlanta and whom she characterizes as a lovable nutter, as someone who "should be like Rupert Murdoch. But he's one of the good guys." "He knows he's screwed up," she says fondly. They split in large part because while good at talking about himself, he's not so great at listening to others -- "and he wants to do better, he really does, bless his heart, but it's just very hard."
She allows herself a wry smile. I tell her I winced at the bit in the book where she calls herself an inadequate mother. "Well," she says, "my daughter wouldn't have allowed me not to say it. You just have to own your mistakes and fess up. I've been close to too many people who think the world is full of assholes except for them. You know what I mean?"
After all of this, one has forgotten about the other Jane Fonda, the one on the wall in huge glamorous prints. I point at them and ask if her friends make fun of her for devoting a whole wall to her own image. She looks blank. "They're by Andy Warhol," she says. "He was a friend of mine." Of course.
I get up to leave. "I'll show you out a different way," she says. We walk through an atrium painted in pale pink, with huge silver doors leading out of her flat. "I designed it myself," she says. "It represents the womb. The doors are the labia, and this" -- she points to the corridor -- "is the birth canal."
I stare at her. Are you serious?
"Yes," she says. "I'm serious."