Americans over the age of 40 likely associate Jane Fonda with one or two descriptors of a short list of labels. “Hollywood royalty.” “Oscar winner.” “Barbarella.” “Activist.” “Hanoi Jane.” “Traitor.” “Millionaire.” “Aerobics diva.” “Ted Turner’s ex-wife.”
HBO’s “Jane Fonda in Five Acts,” debuting Monday at 8 p.m., takes no issue with any of those labels, save of the accusations of treason and betrayal. Susan Lacy’s cinematic portrait does not blink when it comes to showing why Fonda had those pejoratives hung around her neck while also revealing, empathetically, the pride and cost that came with earning each achievements and plaudits.
From its opening moments, Lacy’s film presumes that the viewer has Fonda pegged in some way by presenting Richard Nixon’s opinion about her, shared in a short excerpt of his one of his White House Tapes, dated September 19, 1971.
“Jane Fonda. What in the world is the matter with Jane Fonda?” Nixon growls. “I feel so sorry for Henry Fonda, who’s a nice man. She’s a great actress. She looks pretty. But boy she’s often on the wrong track.”
The main truth “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” illuminates about the 80-year-old actress is that nothing Jane Fonda does in her life is without purpose. That refers to her career, still very much in bloom many decades after it began, but also to her politics, her activism, and her choice in what and how she shares about her personal life. “Jane Fonda” shows everything – her pride, self-assurance and ego, but also her mistakes, vulnerability, longing and aches.
“My attitude is, why do it if you're not going to be open? It's not going to be helpful for anybody if you don't tell the truth,” Fonda said in a recent conversation with Salon at a press event in Los Angeles. “What I found when wrote my memoir, is I know that a lot of people men and women identify have the same issues with their parents and with their children.”
Fonda’s current co-starring role in Netflix’s acclaimed comedy “Grace and Frankie” enables her to bring her comedic skills to the fore. And in our conversation, she displays a poise and ease alongside Lacy that speaks of her comfort in presenting this part of herself, along with all others, as elements of what she calls her final act.
“The heart of Jane’s story is not about being a movie star,” Lacy told Salon. “That’s kind of a product. And she's great. She's a great actress. I don’t want to short shrift that. But that isn't the biggest part of the film.”
Lacy, who directed the enlightening “Spielberg” for HBO and created “American Masters” for PBS, employs her expert skill in coaxing candid and layered testimony to inspiring ends in her latest work — although in many respects, getting Fonda to share her views about her life and the world has never been an issue.
Even so, Lacy’s portrait, the result of 21 hours of interviews with Fonda, allows the view access to emotional, private spaces previously unseen by the average person.
“I don't think you can understand someone's work without knowing who they are,” Lacy said. “And that was the whole point of the work I did with ‘American Masters,’ to explore the connection between the social and political times, the internal being and how that becomes the life and the work. And I know that sounds simplistic, but that's really hard to do.”
In doing so, “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” provides a cathartic blueprint for relaxing into maturity. As Fonda owns her accomplishments and embraces her regrets and mistakes, the film quietly invites women, and men, to walk through life with their imperfections as opposed to running from them.
This aspect of “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” feels as revolutionary in its ability to heal as its subject is emotionally unsparing about herself and her own shortcomings. But Fonda and Lacy mean this to be a portrait of what it means to live, loudly and publicly, as a woman, a child of flawed parents — including one who happened to be a living legend — and as a parent who admits to significant mistakes.
“You know, these are very universal issues and the fact that I'm famous and I'm willing to talk about these universal issues in a very specific personal way, if it’s general, it kind of doesn't resonate,” Fonda said. “It doesn't metabolize. But if you are very specific, then the audience can metabolize it and it can affect their own lives.”
In the film, Fonda candidly voices her regrets with regard to how she raised her children, particularly her oldest daughter Vanessa, her firstborn and the only child she shares with filmmaker Roger Vadim, her first husband. Fonda is very up front in her interviews about the fact that her activism and her eating disorder came before everything in the early days of her work in opposing the Vietnam War, which she prioritized above emotionally connecting with her young girl. (Vadim declined to appear in Lacy’s project.)
Lacy’s film also is an important entry in this modern chapter of feminism in the way that the film, and Fonda herself, remind those observing her life that despite her reputation for being an icon of female empowerment, she arrived late to the party.
“I desperately needed structure. I desperately needed guidance. And I had always turned to men for that,” she says of herself in “Jane Fonda in Five Acts.” This hard, honest observation must have resonated with Lacy: four out of those five acts referenced in the title are named after the male leads who starred in the various chapters of her life.
Act one is devoted to Henry, Fonda’s father and a man considered to be an icon of classic Hollywood. Fonda herself paints a different picture of the dad as cold and distant, uncaring toward Fonda’s mother (“He was not kind to her,” Fonda simply says) who struggled with bipolar disorder and eventually took her own life.
The second act is named for her first love and seduction Vadim. “Here I was trying to not be defined by men, and ended up with a man who was the ultimate definer of femininity,” she says of him, explaining: “I wanted someone to mold me. I wanted him to help me become a woman.”
Her second ex-husband Tom Hayden, the third act’s architect, steered and informed her activism and — as her son Troy Garity shares — joined Fonda in creating a tumultuous family life that including being dragged through conflict zones in Southeast Asia as well as driving to the Oscars in a station wagon.
“I’m proud of most of what I did, and I’m very sorry for some of what I did,” Fonda says in the film.
Perhaps the most lighthearted and tender romantic chronicle in Lacy’s film belongs to Fonda’s most famous ex-husband (and, as she says in the film, her favorite) Ted Turner. But as much as she loved him — and still loves him, obvious in the affection she shows towards him in their scene together — being a Hollywood legend married to a media titan had its drawbacks. “I had to hide a part of me to please him,” she admits.
“We [screened] the film in Cannes and it was a full house. When it was over I said ‘I would like to know how many people here feel that they relate to what I say about parents,’” Fonda recalled. “And practically everyone in the room raised their hand. And a lot of people had been crying.”
That, Fonda said, was fascinating — and validating, one suspects, given the presidential opinion that opened the film — which was a surprise even to Fonda. “It blew my mind,” she said. “I didn't expect it and I thought it was brilliant and funny. It's great to start this with laughter.”
And, she added, “It made it real clear that Susan was making the kind of movie that I was hoping she would. That is not going to be your usual story about a movie star.”