Looking for the Light
Jane Fonda looks back on a life of light and dark in the new HBO documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts.
Jane Fonda is constantly looking for her light.
When she enters the room, she immediately identifies the chair set out for her, but she instinctively knows it's in the wrong spot. She pulls the dark wood, gold cushioned piece of furniture from one side of the area to the other, so that it faces the window, bathing her in the natural light coming through the clear panel.
"I'm sitting on this side, I need all the help I can get. Don't we all," she says with a tilt of her head, a sly smile and a quick knowing blink.
No matter what level the light, Fonda's facial expressions and body language come through clearly, reflecting the knowledge she's gained during her 81 years.
She sits beside Susan Lacy. The duo is set to discuss the two-and-a-half-hour documentary about Fonda's life titled Jane Fonda in Five Acts.
In speaking about the film, as well as in the documentary, Fonda doesn't shy away from discussing any topic – the men in her life, the time she was drunk on-screen, the struggle to connect with her father, and that controversial Vietnam photo.
Highlighted in the narrative is one of Fonda's most iconic roles, space traveler Barbarella. The 1968 film opened with the actress naked, covered only by the title graphics. "Having to get naked, it was terrifying," recalled Fonda.
She admits that vodka helped her through the ordeal, saying she was totally numb during the initial shoot.
But, a technical glitch meant that the then ingénue had to come back the next day and redo the scene. "I was hung over then, which was not good," she says, adding, "It's one thing playing a love scene in bed and you don't have clothes on, but you have sheets over you. It's another thing floating in space, only being covered by [words]."
The film was directed by her then lover (and eventual husband), Roger Vadim, whom she refers to as simply Vadim.
"I loved working with Vadim. I found it very sexy to be directed by a man that I was sleeping with," she says. "He had a habit of, you know, he filmed a lot with women he was married to, starting with [Bridgette] Bardot. He liked to have them take their clothes off with other men. And, we won't go any further with that one."
To get to numerous juicy nuggets like this, experienced documentarian Lacy (Spielberg, American Masters) says she did approximately 20 hours of interviews with Fonda over the course of two years.
Fonda detailed the process, explaining, "I'm in a chair. Susan is opposite me in a chair. We each have an apple box next to us with Kleenex and a glass of water, and it becomes this cocoon of intensity where nothing exists outside of this bubble. I tend to forget that anyone else is going to hear this. I'm talking to her, and I trust her. That's what she creates - this bubble of safety."
In addition to probing Fonda's psyche, Lacy interviewed Fonda's famous exes, including California State Senator Tom Hayden, to whom she was married for 17 years, and business mogul Ted Turner, Fonda's husband for 10 years. Hayden passed away in 2016. Also, appearing on-camera are a few of Fonda's well-known co-stars, including Lily Tomlin and Robert Redford.
One of the most influential and emotional men in Fonda's life, and featured prominently in the film, is her father, Henry Fonda, a legendary actor. The actress admits that she struggled to connect with the elder Fonda, saying, "he hated emotion."
Henry Fonda took home his only Oscar (to his daughter's two) for playing Jane's on-screen father in 1981's On Golden Pond.
According to his daughter, the elder Fonda never expressed any approval of his daughter's work during the production of the film.
After a particularly dramatic scene with Henry, Jane says that she wishes she'd gone to dinner at his house that night and that he'd said to her, "I wasn't expecting it, but that scene between us really moved me. You really moved me. I felt we were both so present." She admits that she, "longed for something like that [from him]."
Fonda is quick to remark that at this point she's lived four years longer than her father did. She says that this still surprises her.
"It's not something that I expected. And I wish, wish, wish, wish that he was still here so that we could talk about it, because I feel that I'm more capable now of being able to talk to him about Illicit things that I wasn't able to back then. Just the very fact that I'm five years older than he was when he made On Golden Pond blows my mind."
Along with the struggles with her father, Fonda faced severe backlash during her career for her anti-war activism and for visiting Hanoi in July 1972, taking an infamous photo with North Vietnamese troops as she perched on an anti-aircraft gun. This earned her the nickname "Hanoi Jane."
Her actions at the time enraged veterans and has undoubtedly altered many observers' opinions of Fonda since that time.
Not shying away from the controversy she caused, the passage of time has allowed Fonda the chance to reassess her decisions regarding Vietnam. Seeing that photo now makes her, "want to throw up. It's the most painful thing and it's because of that I can't watch the documentary. That's too hard for me to watch."
To tough out the negativity of what she did over 40 years ago, Fonda says, "I was part of a movement, but the mistake was I went to Vietnam alone, I shouldn't have done that. I knew who I was, I knew why I went. I had people who loved me and who surrounded me with support. That's how you survive the hatred. And it was pretty bad."
Still discussing that time in history, she points to Ken Burns' 10-part series about the Vietnam war and says with disgust, "I can't stand it. I am so disappointed. He did not understand the role the American anti-war movement played in the ending of the war."
Footage of Fonda was used in the film, but she was not interviewed for the documentary. "It was not good, and I totally respect him. I think Civil War is one of the greatest documentaries ever made, but I thought he missed it on the Vietnam War. He did not get it. I didn't expect to be in the movie. I didn't want to be in the movie, but he could have talked to me."
Opening up about herself on film wasn't intimidating, says Fonda. "The reason that I did it is because I felt that if I could tell the truth, that other people would be able to identify with it, especially the stuff about children and parenting and parents, things like that. And, forgiveness."
Then, Fonda, without a hint of false modesty, said, "I feel self-conscious about [the film] now, because we're facing this existential crisis. I mean our country and our world is being taken apart and here is this woman talking about herself [on-screen] for two hours."
The actress, whose career spans over a half of a century, may feel ill at ease talking about herself, but as she moves into - according to Fonda – "the beginning of her last act," she's obviously still searching for the true meaning of her life. And, for the light.
Jane Fonda in Five Acts debuts Monday, September 24th on HBO.