“What in the world is wrong with Jane Fonda?” is the opening question of Jane Fonda in Five Acts, an extraordinarily intimate and perceptive new HBO biography of the legendary actress and activist. Astonishingly, this question is posed by President Richard Nixon in 1971 on one of those notorious secret tapes from inside his White House, in the wake of her anti–Vietnam War protests that led to her being snidely labeled “Hanoi Jane” and tarnished as a traitor.
It’s a cleverly ironic way for director Susan Lacy to begin framing her portrait of Fonda: the film is structured around extensive interviews with its subject in which the 80-year-old two-time Oscar winner examines her own life story as one in which, she now understands in retrospect, she had allowed herself to be defined by men, to her detriment. In the case of Nixon’s query, of course, she could not have been aware of it at the time, but Lacy sets it up as a smart underscoring of Fonda’s grasp today of herself, one that is illustrative of the larger context in which Fonda and all women exist. Even as we may assert our independence and self-determination on a personal level, it is impossible to escape the cultural patriarchal pressure that is constantly pushing back, trying to mold us into something smaller and narrower than we should and can be.
It’s impossible not to hear echoes of the conversation and controversy around #MeToo and #TimesUp…
So the timing of Five Acts — which has clearly been a work in progress for several years, at least — is providential: it’s impossible to look at this film and not hear echoes of all the conversation and controversy around #MeToo and #TimesUp (though they are not mentioned), impossible not to hear echoes of the current President of the United States and his not-at-all-secret smackdowns of women who dare to challenge powerful men, including him. (Fonda continues her activism, anti-Trump now.) As Fonda discusses, with a lot of bittersweetness, her relationships with her father, Hollywood Golden Age icon Henry Fonda, as well as her three ex-husbands — director Roger Vadim, activist Tom Hayden, and CNN mogul Ted Turner — we are peeking into insecurities and anxieties that are achingly raw and very personal, but also familiar. Many women will see themselves in her life as she tells it, and be angry on her behalf. And for ourselves, too.
Fonda’s recollections of the infamy of her Vietnam War–era protests ring with truth for today as well: she “felt American!” for the first time when she saw her country taking a wrong road and felt a need to help put it right. The criticism she received at the time, an outpouring of mistrust about celebrities who use their privilege to try to affect change, is sadly familiar, too. The array of vintage photos and film clips that Lacy has assembled feature plenty of grim stuff as well as the fun, funky, and celebratory of Fonda’s life and work.
It’s plain that Fonda is very at ease with Lacy — the creator and executive producer of PBS’s bio-doc series American Masters, and director of six installments — and very willing to be very open with the filmmaker. It’s difficult not to see that as a function of Fonda’s new comfort in her own skin, but also part of her new awareness that, these days, she’s “most myself when I am with my women friends,” rather than with men. Would a male filmmaker have gotten Fonda to admit, “I wish I was braver” when it comes to growing old gracefully (Fonda concedes that she has had plastic surgery)? Fonda is brave, though, to say that she sees her relationship with her father, which was rocky and difficult, reflected in her own relationship with her daughter (with Vadim) Vanessa. Can her child forgive her for not being the mother she should have been? Vanessa does not appear here, suggesting some contention, though her son (with Hayden), actor Troy Garity, and her informally adopted daughter, activist Mary Luana Williams, do. (Other notables here to deepen the study of Fonda include Hayden, Turner, Lily Tomlin, and Robert Redford.)
In one terrific clip from the Vietnam War era, Fonda explains that she thinks it’s healthy for both individuals and nations to undergo “perpetual revolution, perpetual change.” What’s plainest in Five Acts is that, for all the many doubts and flaws that she admits to, Fonda has been happily and healthily embracing revolution and change for herself across her entire life. She’s a remarkable role model, perhaps in more ways than many will have realized. And her final act is far from finished yet.
‘Jane Fonda in Five Acts’ debuts on HBO on September 24th.
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