Patricia Bosworth tackles her subject’s myriad personae in an exhaustive biography of a woman whose personal growth so uncannily mirrored the social changes of herera and who, 50 years after her most controversial political actions, still manages to polarize.
Bosworth, the author of biographies of Diane Arbus, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, clearly feels a kinship with Fonda, with whom she crossed paths as a student at the Actors Studio in the 1960s. “We were kids then,” Bosworth writes in the book’s prologue, explaining that as she switched from acting to journalism, “Jane was refashioning herself as Barbarella.”
Given the author’s obviously warm feelings toward her subject, it’s no surprise that “Jane Fonda” is a largely sympathetic portrait. But it’s no star-struck valentine. Bosworth delivers a clear-eyed assessment of Fonda’s childhood, marked by her mother’s suicide and the emotional distance of her father, Henry. And she’s tough on Fonda’s choices when it comes to men, including French director Roger Vadim, whom Fonda sought to please by inviting women to join their bed; political activist Tom Hayden (here portrayed as a cruel control freak); and media mogul Ted Turner, who when he showed up for his first date with the actress was greeted by her kids and her brother, Peter.
Bosworth also chronicles Fonda’s lesser-known relationships, especially with Andreas Voutsinas, who in the 1960s served as Fonda’s acting coach and Svengali. Thankfully, Bosworth doesn’t psychoanalyze her subject’s tendency to gravitate toward controlling men. And when it comes to Fonda’s most disastrous decision — allowing herself to be photographed seated and smiling on a North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun mount in 1972 — she allows Fonda to take the blame for what she herself later characterized as a “two-minute lapse of sanity.”
It may surprise critics of Fonda’s Vietnam-era activism that it had its roots in her work with GIs themselves, especially soldiers involved in the network of coffee houses that played host to antiwar soldiers and veterans. And it may surprise anyone who’s followed Fonda’s protean career that, even as Vadim was molding her into the latest post-Bardot sexpot, she was happier fixing up a sprawling French farmhouse, planting gardens, surrounding herself with dogs and bonding with Vadim’s young daughter.
Still, the contradictions abound: To this nurturing tableau, Bosworth adds a chilling scene of Fonda leaving her infant daughter, Vanessa, as she embarked on a round of political actions in 1970. Later, when she formed a production company in order to plow the profits into Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy, a friend observed that she made the then-princely sum of $1 million for “California Suite” but “wasn’t keeping any of it.” (One revelation of “Jane Fonda” is what a canny producer Fonda was, having shepherded movies of the stature of “Coming Home,” “The China Syndrome,” “Nine to Five” and “On Golden Pond” to artistic and commercial success.)
As well-researched and comprehensive as “Jane Fonda” is, the author never manages to deliver the truly intimate portrait of her subject that the subtitle promises. But then, what writer could? As Bosworth writes, “Jane had always juggled roles and personas and ‘acted’ in order to survive ever since she was a little girl — to survive her mother’s suicide, to survive her father’s detachment, to survive in Hollywood, to hold on to her family, to run her fitness empire. She was unaware that the deceptiveness, the pretending, the huge need to be liked, were so much a part of her character.” As much as any book could, “Jane Fonda” provides a candid, compassionate glimpse of a woman who, by dint of artistic temperament or self-preservation, will always remain stubbornly elusive.
Hornaday is a film critic for The Washington Post.