It’s not often that a Hollywood star provokes the kind of controversy that surrounds Jane Fonda. An aloof and protean character, she is derided by many liberals and reviled by conservatives. Summing her up, entertainment writer Christopher Andersen evokes a ”tangle of conflicts and contradictions.” Besides being a gifted actress, Andersen writes, Fonda ”is the tousle-haired sex symbol who went on to champion feminism; the Miss Army Recruiting of 1962 who rooted for the enemy during the Vietnam War; the chain-smoking, pill-popping bulimic who became the world’s leading health and fitness advocate; the outspoken critic of cosmetic surgery who herself underwent eye lifts and breast implants; and, most jarringly, the virulent anticapitalist who became a bottom-line-obsessed business mogul worth in excess of $60 million.”
So what is one to make of this elusive figure? What accounts for her paradoxical career? here is a subject worthy of a good biographer. Unfortunately, neither Andersen nor Bill Davidson, the author of another new book on Fonda, is a serious biographer. Both are more interested in gossip than in trying to puzzle out the inner experience of a complex personality. Still, the bare facts of Fonda’s life are undeniably dramatic — and suggestive.
Born in 1937, the first child of actor Henry Fonda, Jane grew up in the shadow of one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars. The very image of kindness and decency on-screen, in private ”Hank,” as both Andersen and Davidson stress, was a cold, short-fused, often tyrannical patriarch. ”My only major influence,” his daughter once declared, ”was my father. He had power.”
As with so much else in Fonda’s life, it would be wrong to take this statement at face value. For the central influence on her early life, one suspects, was not her father — he was rarely around — but her mother. A wealthy New York City socialite by birth and breeding, Frances Seymour (the second of Fonda’s five wives) suffered through a long series of nervous breakdowns and hospitalizations, ended by her suicide in 1950. To slit her throat, she stole razor blades from hank, who had asked for a divorce. Jane was 12. Her father told her only that her mother had died, leaving the daughter to learn the grim details by reading an article in a fan magazine a few months later. For many years afterward, Jane refused to speak of her mother’s death at all.
As both books remind us, Fonda found her demon early. As an aspiring young actress, she poured herself into her roles with stunning vehemence. ”Jane Fonda can quiver like a tuning fork,” Kenneth Tynan wrote in 1960. ”Her neurotic outbursts are as shocking as wanton, piecemeal destruction of a priceless harpsichord.”
But if throwing herself into acting made Fonda an electrifying presence, it also left her confused about the nature of her own identity. In 1967, she described to a reporter the strange sensation of watching her most recent movie in a theater: ”I was suddenly seeing myself as someone else,” she said. ”I thought, My God, that’s me. That’s what people see. The me on the screen seemed so much realer than the me in the audience.”
Though neither Andersen nor Davidson makes much of it, both offer evidence that Fonda’s belated love affair with the New Left grew out of her feeling that the movement represented a more authentic way to live, untainted by greed, ambition, or the exercise of raw power. ”When…I came in contact with the [Black] Panthers, the G.I.’s, my new friends,” Fonda gushed in 1970, ”I realized that they were treating me as a person. This was so beautiful that I began to feel uncomfortable with people who still considered me a doll.”
The Jane Fonda of these years is easy to mock. She said a lot of dumb things in public and she also foolishly broadcast antiwar appeals over Radio Hanoi.
But after finishing these books, it’s hard not to conclude that Fonda’s political declaration of independence, painfully enacted in public, coincided with a personal metamorphosis that ultimately made her into a subtler and more focused actress. And her acting, after all, is the main reason she has any claim on our attention.
It is also presumably the main reason anyone will read either of these unauthorized and undistinguished books — unless, of course, you’re the kind of fan who lusts to know whether an idol has feet of clay. If that’s your pleasure, stick with Andersen, who writes with malicious gusto, gleefully dishing out dirt, even when there’s not much dirt to dish. D