The joys of the Jane Fonda junket

Lady Jane kicks some Lohan-Hilton ass and sits on Stephen Colbert's lap!

Published May 11, 2007 10:30PM (EDT)

You know when it's a good week? When Jane Fonda is doing a press tour.

It's true that I may be biased, guilty of an abiding and lifelong love of the looniness of Lady Jane. But I don't think that many people (save perhaps my boss!) would disagree that this week, the diva who has pretty much lived out every iteration of American femininity available to privileged white women in the past 70 years (from sex kitten to political firebrand to exercise queen to Stepford wife! Tally-ho!) performed a rare celebrity triple axel.

In the course of the assembly-line stop-and-shill tour of red carpets, talk shows and USA Today interviews that inevitably precede the release of a Hollywood movie -- in this case, "Georgia Rule," costarring Lindsay Lohan and Felicity Huffman -- La Fonda nimbly managed a little speak-truth-to-Hollywood-power routine elegantly and hilariously. It was like a press-junket trifecta!

First, she smacked down Dina Lohan.

For reasons best understood by executives at "Entertainment Tonight" and the devil with whom she made her original deal, Lindsay Lohan's mother was hired to be an on-air reporter at the red-carpet premiere of her addled daughter's new movie.

But Dina Lohan made a critical intellectual error when she approached Fonda with the microphone. During the controversy over Lindsay's flaccid work ethic while filming "Georgia Rule," Fonda had told reporters that she felt for the younger Lohan because she is "so young and she's so alone out there in the world in terms of structure ... [and] people to nurture her." Perhaps Mama Lohan had failed to grasp the criticism implicit in those earlier comments, because she took her on-screen moment with Fonda as an opportunity to ask, "So, what was it like working with my daughter?"

When the actress did not respond, Lohan gamboled stupidly forward: "It's so hard for young stars today with the paparazzi and press. Do you have any advice for my daughter?" Fonda then walloped Dina, the vampiric stage-mother intent on sucking every bit of her troubled daughter's ebbing life force, by replying, "It's not a dress rehearsal. This is it. You screw it up now, you don't get another chance. Nobody's number one forever, so you've got to have stuff in your life beyond celebrity." According to Page Six, Fonda then "turned on her heel and walked off." Chomp. Burp!

Fonda's appetite for vapid celebrity comeuppance was unslaked by this tasty snack. And so...

She smacked down Paris Hilton.

On Wednesday's "Larry King Live," King asked the 69-year-old Fonda about the prison sentence faced by drunken-driving Hilton.

"I'm glad she's being sentenced," Fonda replied. "I'm glad she is going to do the time. If she were black, if she were poor, she would have done it much sooner -- maybe the first time that she had an offense."

Fonda continued, noting that she was lucky to have had a father with values who passed them on, and observing that kids need structure. "Especially if you're rich and spoiled and you are made into a celebrity. Somebody is going to give you your comeuppance, and hopefully these young people are smart enough to learn from it."

Perhaps we should get Jane a "Nanny 911"-style show on which she sternly bats baby celebrities on the head with her big gentle paw until they learn to wear underpants!

And she wasn't done. Because next...

She destabilized Stephen Colbert.

This wasn't so much a victory for the common people, since the common people I know love Stephen Colbert (some, um, more than others *cough* Joan Walsh *cough*). I do agree with my editor in chief that there was something discomfiting about watching Fonda get into Colbert's lap. And I did cringe a bit, watching her sex it up in the name of power. Sure. Of course. That's weird and sort of troubling.

And yet? It was flat-out great television and really fun to watch, despite all the sympathetic embarrassment for everyone involved. Why? Because it completely reversed the dynamic on a show that's great because it twists the celebrity-host power structure to begin with. What Colbert does so well is catch guests in uncomfortable, early-Lettermanesque webs of dripping satire, making it difficult for any of them to do the thing they're supposed to be doing -- shilling a movie or book or political agenda -- slickly. And that's the point: Colbert undermines the whole publicity-driven fakery that is the talk show dog-and-pony show.

Fonda had been on "Colbert" months earlier, pimping her women's radio network with Gloria Steinem, in a segment called "Cooking with Feminists." Colbert had wittily asked the women to bake apple pie, and as he does in most of his interviews, he had the upper hand, simultaneously sending up the ludicrous conventions of femininity and talk shows and preventing the women from talking seriously about their project. Fine. It was clear that everyone involved had agreed to the segment and was prepared for the discomfort of the setup.

But when Fonda returned this week, it was clear she had a mission: Any awkwardness suffered was going to be at her hands and according to her "rules," as she repeatedly told her host, after climbing into his lap and, amazingly, staying there for the entirety of her interview.

It was wonderful -- much as we love our Colbert -- to see him truly undone. He handled his discombobulation with relative grace and aplomb. But he was nervous. He didn't know where to look. And who could blame him? A beautiful bona fide movie star about whom he has admitted having fantasies was sitting on his lap ... and making out with him! It was fun to see him stutter and stammer, to hear his voice break and tremble.

Others before her had taken this route, unhinging the dominant and vaguely lascivious (though we know, Stephen, it's just a joke!) male talk show host. Think Drew Barrymore and Courtney Love flashing Dave. But as it turns out, it's thrilling every time. And even the good guys deserve to get rocked in their socks once in a while, especially when their whole shtick is based on their ability to embarrass and unnerve.

And so what I'm saying is: Thanks, Jane, for a great week. I wish we could bring you in every couple of months to shake things up, kick a little ass, take a few names, and make our talk show hosts quiver in their sports coats.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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