Jane Fonda: On Golden Fonda

Over the last 30 years she has tried on a dozen identities, from sex kitten, to Oscar winner, to political radical, to exercise fanatic. And now, at 51, Jane Fonda describes herself as "an idea person who happens to act."


As she would be the first to admit, Jane Fonda does not have the most dynamic, complex or pivotal role in Old Gringo. In this epic romance adapted from Carlos Fuentes's novel, she plays a New England spinster who journeys to Mexico in 1913 and comes under the spell of two strong men--a fiery general in Pancho Villa's revolutionary army (Jimmy Smits) and a world-weary American writer (Gregory Peck). Harriet Winslow recalls Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby or Stingo in Sophie's Choice--the observer who records the exploits of far more fascinating tragic characters. But like those other narrators, Fonda's character is the figure who survives, the one who lives on to tell the tale. It is far from the most interesting part Fonda has ever played, but it's an apt one. Offscreen as well, Jane Fonda is the quintessential survivor. Over the last 30 years she has tried on a dozen identities, from sex kitten to political activist to fitness guru. She has been mocked, vilified, revered and neglected. Yet she has somehow landed on her feet after every setback.

A chameleon who seems infinitely adaptable to changes in the political and cultural climate, Fonda has also been propelled by a ferocious tenacity. When she started acting, critics dismissed her as a featherweight talent riding her famous father's coattails. Determined to prove that she owed her career to something more substantial than her pedigree, Jane took off for France, where she hoped that she could develop a cachet she lacked at home. Instead she forged a professional and personal alliance with director Roger Vadim, who directed her image as a voluptuous but vacuous screen siren. Still, the Vadim connection (which was formalized in marriage in 1965) did help to make Fonda an international star, and she demonstrated her amazing growth as an actress when she starred in a pair of powerful dramas, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Klute.

By the time Klute (which won her the first of two Academy Awards) opened in 1971, Fonda had embarked on a whole new odyssey. She divorced Vadim and plunged into an affair with Donald Sutherland, her Klute co-star. Sutherland also became her comrade on the barricades during the antiwar movement. Suddenly the actress who had been best known, just a few years earlier, for her striptease in Barbarella was one of the country's most visible radicals, seizing every forum to harangue her audience on behalf of the Black Panthers or the Viet Cong. Fonda's career took a nosedive as her political enemies multiplied. At the 1972 Republican convention in Miami, the Young Americans for Freedom circulated a petition demanding that she be tried for treason. The following year, after she denounced returning POWs as "hypocrites and liars," Connecticut Republican Congressman Robert Steele declared on the floor of the House of Representatives, "I would like to nominate Academy Award-winning actress Jane Fonda for a new award: the rottenest, most miserable performance by any one individual American in the history of our country."

A few years later "Hanoi Jane" underwent still another metamorphosis. She decided to play a more conciliatory role, at the encouragement of her second husband, former SDS leader Tom Hayden, who was by then seeking his own power base in the mainstream. Fonda came back to Hollywood in a giddy comedy, Fun With Dick and Jane, which was designed to prove that she could still be sexy and funny and boffo at the box office. Then her career went into high gear with a string of gripping dramas--Julia, Coming Home, and The China Syndrome. Although some of her public statements continued to spark controversy, Fonda was once again an unmistakable superstar. The success of her Workout salons, exercise videos and handbooks established the onetime radical as a capitalist-come-lately and did a great deal to turn her into a beloved American heroine, an inspiration to millions of women.

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