After at least nine other biographies, not to mention Fonda's vivid 2005 memoir, My Life So Far, is there anything left to say about one of the most polarizing pop culture figures of the past 50 years? As it turns out, yes. Patricia Bosworth's nuanced portrait of Fonda manages to feel new, even though many of its best quotes are culled from Fonda's own autobiography.
Bosworth, who brought a similar blend of toughness and sympathy to books on Montgomery Clift and Diane Arbus, has written about Fonda for decades. Nobody has done a better job of exploring the actress' privileged but painful girlhood, her alternately skittish and energetic exploration of her sexuality, her lifelong quest to win her father Henry Fonda's approval, and her years of study in 1950s New York City, rendered so definitively here that you can almost smell the cigarette smoke in the hallway outside Lee Strasberg's acting class.
After her dual breakthrough as the Roger Vadim tiger kitten of Barbarella and a pert American screen ingenue, Fonda began to dig deeper in the 1970s, and the book is equally authoritative on her milestone performance in Klute and her forays into politics. But as her identity starts to fracture into activist, workout guru, New Agey Christian, trophy wife, aging star the narrative falters. It's not easy writing about someone whose chameleonic nature makes her elusive even to herself. The most recent 30 years get short shrift. When Fonda finally returns to Broadway in 2009, Bosworth seems both relieved and regretful, writing that if she had ''devoted herself solely to her acting,'' she could have been one of the most ''interesting and challenging'' stars ever. It may seem odd to assess a two-time Oscar winner in terms of unfulfilled potential, but Bosworth makes you understand that all of those detours were taken at some cost, even as they helped make Fonda the fascinating figure that she remains. B+