Pretty in the Past: Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda has done more than just capture the attention of the world in one specific moment of time. She has been there for the past five decades, helping us define what they are and where we stand in them. It’s a role that transcends mere iconography.

Oct 3, 2012 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

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Many of the women profiled in this series stand out for the way they perfectly symbolize a specific time, place and style. They are icons whose faces instantly transport us to eras we either only know through artifacts or hazy childhood memories and who allow us to feel as though we actually could have been there with them, enjoying the pleasures of the pasts they so effortlessly evoke.

Jane Fonda isn’t one of these women. She’s bigger than that. Since her first appearance as a cheerleader hot for gangly basketball player Anthony Perkins in Joshua Logan’s Tall Story, she has been on a trajectory that has allowed her to symbolize not just one specific decade, but all the ones that have followed since. She has described her life as a series of three important acts, but the reality is more complex than that. For the past 52 years, if you wanted to know what was happening in America, all you had to do was check out Jane.

From the repressed naiveté of Kennedy-era Camelot, the sexual and political awakening of Vietnam, Kent State and Watergate, the narcissistic, self-obsessive drive of the Reagan era, the comfortable surrender of the 90s to the post-everything self-awareness of today, Fonda has been there—serving as an exquisitely sculpted beacon for us to either follow or denounce, depending on what side you happened to stand on during any particular zeitgeist divide.

The daughter of an acting legend, Jane started her career playing to the honey-blond sensuality she radiated onscreen. Sometimes a virgin (literally), sometimes a whore (literally), her characters projected the perfect mixture of innocence and experience the era required. This was best shown in her big breakout role as the title character in Elliot Silverstein’s 1965 western farce, Cat Ballou, in which she effortlessly made the transition from guileless school teacher in white lace dresses to death-defying outlaw in tight, form-fitting trousers.

Just three years later, Hollywood and America had changed enough that Jane didn’t have to bother pretending to be innocent anymore. Directed by her then-husband, Roger Vadim—who had famously turned his first wife, Bridgette Bardot, into an international sex symbol via And God Created Woman—Jane took on the part that sold a million posters and (as she herself has proudly proclaimed) helped many a young man help himself get through his tumescent adolescence.

As Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy Jane had yet to find the grit and strength that would later define her later performances, but the sheer visual impact of her in full sci-fi sex kitten mold was enough to make Ann-Margret blush. More than anything, it’s the utter shamelessness of Jane’s performance that has allowed the character to take on iconic status. Since the film’s release countless interviewers have tried to get her to dismiss the film as a sexist embarrassment and to her credit she has never taken the bait. Barbarella may be kinda dumb, but she’s her own woman and no one has ever looked better stripping out of a spacesuit, so what’s to be embarrassed about?

That said, the film did mark a turning point in her career. After a decade of trifles, melodramas and light comic fantasies, Jane embraced the more serious, realistic roles that became the norm following the cinematic revolution partly spurred by her brother Peter’s Easy Rider. In 1969, she stunned audiences as one of the desperate depression-era “dancers” in Sidney Pollack’s bleak They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? but it really took her role as an endangered prostitute in Alan J. Pakula’s 1971 thriller Klute to truly appreciate how great an actress she had become. She won her first Oscar for the role, which found her trading in her previous glamorous persona for one that was equally beguiling if not a little more true to life.

But by that time Jane had become famous for more than just her film roles. The idealism of the Kennedy '60s had been shattered by a series of assassinations and a draft that saw young men dying in a war that simply didn’t make any sense. Jane was not built to be a quiet observer. She joined the activist movement and came to stand out as a symbol of a generation’s distrust of power and authority. As “Hanoi Jane”, fearless denouncer of those she believed responsible for the needless death of thousands and oppression of millions, she was a hero to many and a villain to many more. As divisive as it is even today, her image as the defiant woman giving the Black Panther salute in a Cleveland police station mugshot is as powerful a statement of the time as any you’re likely to see.

Another Oscar followed, seven years later, with Coming Home. Like all of her films from that period, the politics (in this case, the treatment of wounded Vietnam veterans) mattered as much as the story. Even when she starred in (and produced) a farcical comedy like Nine To Five, she made sure its focus on the inequities caused by workplace discrimination against women couldn’t be ignored.

But by the early 80s, being a movie star would essentially become Jane’s side-gig. An interest in aerobic exercise led her to write a book and release a video, both of which played major roles in the fitness boom of the era. Millions of people forgot all about “Hanoi Jane” and instead came to think of her as the smiling instructor in legwarmers and tights who encouraged people to stay fit and lose weight to her set routines. (Speaking personally, I first became aware of her as the beautiful woman on the cover of the record album my mom and aunts exercised to in their brief mutual experiment with the phenomenon.)

Jane was now a mogul who didn’t need to act to pay the bills. By 1989 she determined that her and Hollywood weren’t right for each other anymore and announced she was retiring following the box office failure of Old Gringo. Two years later she took on the most surprising and seemingly out-of-character role of her unique life—billionaire trophy wife.

Though it seems impossible to imagine Jane as anything less than a 100% equal to CNN founder Ted Turner, it was hard for people not to feel a little let down by this turn in her road, but it seemed in keeping with an era where those who had spent the 60s and 70s fighting as hard they could had become tired and needed a decade or so to rest. Beyond the occasional fitness video, Jane’s appearances were fleeting, but never anything less than glamorous. Years of rigorous exercise had been more than kind (and a little plastic surgery here and there didn’t hurt as well).

And then a decade later, her marriage to Turner ended and Jane slowly began to reclaim the role she had left behind. Unlike other stars, whose returns to the spotlight are often met with indifference, it appeared as if everyone had been anxiously waiting for her to come back to her senses and be the Jane Fonda the world wanted her to be all along.

Since then, Jane has worked hard not to disappoint us. She returned to acting (most recently taking on the role of Nancy Reagan in a move destined to cause thousands of right-wing heads to explode), wrote her autobiography, appeared on Broadway, remained politically active and has casually obliterated any notion of what women can accomplish in their 60s and 70s.

Jane Fonda has done more than just capture the attention of the world in one specific moment of time. She has been there for the past five decades, helping us define what they are and where we stand in them. It’s a role that transcends mere iconography.

Jane Fonda is a myth who just happens to have really existed.

Picture Credit: Rex Features