As Jane Fonda’s Netflix series, ‘Grace and Frankie,’ begins its fourth season, an HBO doc on her life and multifaceted career bows at Sundance.
Near the beginning of Jane Fonda in Five Acts, Fonda and Lily Tomlin indulge in a bit of kitchen-table kibitzing about Hollywood hierarchy as perceived by Vanity Fair. The moment stands out in Susan Lacy’s compelling, fluidly constructed documentary, not just for its off-the-cuff irreverence but because it’s banter. Otherwise, notwithstanding the talking-head commentary of friends, colleagues and exes, this is very much a first-person story, taking its narrative cues from Fonda’s self-searching 2005 autobiography.
Anyone who read My Life So Far won’t find anything earth-shattering in this psychological portrait, and more unguarded exchanges like the one with Tomlin would have been welcome, but when you get right down to it, Fonda is exceedingly good company. She’s a commanding storyteller who’s still, at 80, thoroughly engaged in not just her screen work and social causes but the essential business of sorting out a legacy of pain from a childhood of gothic horror.
The doc is drawn from 21 hours of interviews and a startlingly rich selection of home movies, film clips and stills. As with her recent portrait of Steven Spielberg, American Masters creator Lacy expertly balances her subject’s big-picture cultural significance with the personal trajectory of emotional struggles, creative drive and self-invention. Set to air later this year on HBO, the film will introduce a great American actor to a generation of younger viewers while making clear how truly iconic her metamorphosis from ingenue to bombshell to movie star to political activist was for many 20th century women. Not to mention how her subsequent incarnations — fitness mogul, billionaire’s wife, Hollywood comeback kid after a 15-year hiatus — have continued to defy expectations.
The film’s first four acts each bear the name of a key male figure in Fonda’s life, beginning with her famous father, Henry, and on to her three famous husbands: Vadim, Tom, Ted. It might not be a fashionable way of organizing the material, but it’s honest, inspired by Fonda’s sexagenarian awakening, in the fallout of her marriage to Ted Turner, as she grappled to understand the ways she’d shaped her life and identity around men.
With deft editing by Benjamin Gray, Lacy weaves the outwardly blessed but exceptionally traumatic formative years throughout the film: the cold cruelty of a father who embodied heroic American idealism to moviegoers, the terrible silence surrounding her mother’s mental illness and suicide. In a searing scene, Fonda studies a family photograph that had been staged for a magazine and dissects the lies and terrible sadness beneath the sunny surface. By contrast, there are moments that are arranged for the documentary camera, if not exactly staged — a return to the boarding school she loved, and where her eating disorders began; a visit to her mother’s snow-covered grave — that haven’t a fraction of the impact of her wrenching, clear-eyed assessment of that publicity photo.
As for the husbands, Fonda has a knack for distilling her initial attraction to the men in her life to a few well-chosen words and meaningful glances, delivered with perfect comic timing. Lacy’s film doesn’t delve into the painful details of each relationship, and while Fonda’s best friend, Paula Weinstein, recalls how hurtful Tom Hayden could be, Fonda now seems to regard all her marital troubles as water under the bridge. Interviewed for the film, the late Hayden speaks admiringly of her, and during Fonda’s endearingly awkward visit to Turner at the Montana ranch they once shared, he’s still clearly smitten.
Lacy does, however, scrutinize Fonda’s political activism — variously revered and reviled — and how Miss Army Recruiter of 1959 became a leading figure in the antiwar movement of the ’70s. The director offers evidence of Fonda’s earnest commitment as well as examples of the comments and behavior that enraged many on the right. The film looks head-on at the infamous trip to Hanoi, for which some have never forgiven Fonda, despite her many apologies, a number of which are heard in the documentary. There’s a whiff of condescension in the present-day comments of Dick Cavett, who wasn’t easy on her when she appeared on his show during that period.
But while acknowledging her stumbles and missteps, the film shows too how Fonda walked the walk. Troy Garity, her son with Hayden, vividly recalls their life in a working-class neighborhood and wryly acknowledges the childhood trips to conflict zones and fundraiser birthday parties. (Her stepdaughter Nathalie Vadim and adopted daughter Mary “Lulu” Williams also offer reminiscences, while the nonparticipation of Fonda’s firstborn, Vanessa Vadim, is indirectly addressed; knowing what her father did wrong didn’t immunize Fonda from making her own mistakes as a parent.)
In terms of Fonda’s screen work, the film is less interested in a critical assessment than in her personal development as an artist. It devotes deserved time and weight to her breakthrough work in Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (for which she won her first Oscar) — landmarks not just in her career but in American cinema (a snippet from Monster-in-Law serves as a no-comment-necessary comparison). Until then, her most famous performance had been in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, an ordeal for her to make but a movie that she says she can now enjoy as a “camp romp.”
Pollack discerned “a serious actress buried inside this glamour-puss,” and Pakula wanted no one but her to play the fiercely independent prostitute Bree Daniels in his crime thriller. Among the qualities and talents she’s brought to her great performances is something that’s evident in her interviews for the film: It’s the one-of-kind combination of her voice’s supple strength and the flashes of vulnerability in her eyes, whether she’s recalling proud accomplishments or her father’s heartless put-downs.
The final chapter of Lacy’s film, titled “Jane,” struggles a bit to wrap things up on the numerous fronts of a still-busy life. By comparison, the doc’s brilliant opening salvo, selected from its superbly curated archival material, speaks volumes about Fonda’s fame and infamy and her long-secret emotional inheritance. It’s an excerpt from the notorious White House tapes of Richard Nixon, whose military policy in Vietnam the antiwar movement sought to end. Nixon acknowledges Jane Fonda’s talent and beauty but can’t understand how she could be so “off-track” politically. “I feel so sorry,” Nixon says, “for Henry Fonda.”
Distributor: HBO Documentary Films
Production company: Pentimento Productions
With: Jane Fonda, Troy Garity, Tom Hayden, Ted Turner, Nathalie Vadim, Robert Redford, Paula Weinstein, Lily Tomlin, Mary “Lulu” Williams, Dick Cavett, Sam Waterston
Director: Susan Lacy
Producers: Susan Lacy, Jessica Levin, Emma Pildes
Director of photography: Sam Painter
Editor: Benjamin Gray
Composer: Paul Cantelon
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)