washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Jonathan Yardley

First Person, Singular

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page C01


By Jane Fonda

Random House. 624 pp. $26.95

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Jane Fonda's autobiography is as beguiling and as maddening as Jane Fonda herself. Smart, gifted, accomplished, principled and entirely fetching, Fonda is one of the world's best-known and, in many quarters, most-admired people. But then there's the rest of her: self-absorbed, self-righteous, "strident and shrill" (her own words), breathtakingly naive. Easy to love, easy to loathe, Fonda remains, at age 67, what she was at the height of her controversy and renown in the 1970s: a beautiful bundle of contradictions.

"My Life So Far" is one of a pair of bookends, the other being her brother Peter's memoir, "Don't Tell Dad" (1998). Sandwiched between them is their late father, Henry Fonda, one of the great American actors of the 20th century and, in his private life, an almost unimaginably cold, distant and vexing husband (to five wives) and father. His daughter's book, like his son's, wrestles with him and his legacy from beginning to end, leaving no doubt that for both of his children he has been their lives' central presence: controlling, forbidding, withdrawn. For Jane and Peter, yearning for their father's love has been a lifetime's preoccupation, and having that love withheld -- or, at best, incompletely and grudgingly given -- has been a lifetime's regret. "I longed for him to love me," Jane writes, "and see me as an able grown-up."

If their father has been Jane and Peter's lifelong presence, their mother has been their lifelong absence. Frances Seymour Brokaw Fonda committed suicide in October 1950, at the sanitarium in New York state to which she had been sent because of "emotional deterioration and suicidal tendencies." Jane was 12 years old (Peter was two years younger) and simply unable to grasp what had happened. She was told that her mother had died of a heart attack -- a fiction that was maintained until, at boarding school, a fellow student asked if her mother had killed herself. Not until Jane was in her forties, she says, was she able to cry for her mother. Then the tears "came from so deep within me that I feared I wouldn't survive them, that my heart would crack open and, like Humpty-Dumpty, I'd never be able to put them back together again."

Astonishingly, "never in all the subsequent years, all the way to his own death, did Dad and I ever mention Mother." Small wonder that, child as she is of a self-destructive, mentally unstable mother and a "brooding, remote, sometimes frightening" father, Fonda has spent her entire life running away from genuine intimacy, by which she means not sex -- she says that along the way she's had "some pretty terrific fountains-of-Versailles-and fireworks sex!" -- but "an attunement between two people who, despite each other's evident flaws, open their hearts fully to each other." She has been married three times, to men she likes and respects -- Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden and Ted Turner -- and she is "grateful" that she "learned and grew" with each of them, but each marriage ultimately dissolved, in substantial measure (so at least I interpret the evidence offered here) because she could not reach far enough outside herself to inhabit an emotional as well as physical partnership.

It's just about impossible not to sympathize with her as she stumbles along from one failed marriage (or failed relationship) to another, but it's also just about impossible not to want to shake her by the shoulders and tell her to give the self-absorption a rest. Fonda has the disarming quality, not uncommon among the self-absorbed, of being severely self-critical without seeming to have a genuine understanding of her shortcomings. Though she claims to have led many disparate lives and had many different personae -- " 'sex kitten,' 'controversial activist,' 'ladylike wife on arm of corporate mogul' " -- the one that matters most is "actress." That line of work is endlessly interesting, and her accomplishments in it are as impressive as they are varied, but she can't grasp that acting -- movie acting most particularly -- is a splendid way to divorce oneself from reality, to exist in image and fantasy rather than the real world. Looking back on her career, this is as far as she can go:

"Actually it's not unusual for actors to suffer from self-doubt. Our profession feeds insecurity. Success and fame can come so fast and in this business can go just as fast. It takes stability and maturity to handle it. . . . There is no license or diploma that certifies that you are a for-real actor with the talent to bring a character to life. If you make it as an actor, suddenly there you are -- and you don't exactly know why; why you and not her?"

True so far as it goes, but not far enough. If acting "feeds insecurity," it also feeds self-delusion. When Fonda goes off to protest the Vietnam War, to stand up for the rights of American Indians, to live the Movement life, is she being herself or playing a part? At the end of the war, she says, "because of the profound changes I'd experienced over the previous five years, I had a new sense of the possibility of personal transformation, and I wanted to use films as a catalyst for this process." This sounds suspiciously like protest as therapy and acting as therapy, and the films that followed -- most notably "Coming Home" (1978) and "The China Syndrome" (1979) -- tend to reinforce the point.

But then with Fonda -- for all her intelligence, her commitment to her ideals, her fundamental decency -- it always boils down to self. On her trip to Hanoi, made in 1972 not long after she had fallen for Tom Hayden, she sees a pregnant woman in a North Vietnamese gun installation: "Pregnant and fighting. I think, If she can have hope, so can I. Right then I determine to have a baby with Tom, as a testament to our country's future." To which the only proper response is: Get off it! Yet rather than laugh at her own narcissism and presumptuousness, she merely echoes it a few pages later: "As we lay in bed in our funky Chelsea Hotel room, I told Tom that I wanted us to have a child together as a pledge of hope for the future. We held each other and wept."

That sense of oneself as red-hot center of the universe is pretty hard to stomach, and there's a good deal of it in "My Life So Far." To her credit, Fonda acknowledges (again, disarmingly) that during the height of her political activism she talked too much -- "on and on in a frantic voice . . . humorless, talking too fast, in a voice that came from some elitist, out-in-space place, anger seething just beneath the surface" -- but that doesn't keep her from talking too much in the course of this book's more than 600 pages. Since she says in her acknowledgments that her editor "gracefully persuaded me that less is more," it seems safe to assume that the book once was even longer. Her capacity to rattle on is apparently limitless.

Still, though Fonda can be dreadfully tiresome when she mounts her soapbox, there's much to like and enjoy about "My Life So Far." When she describes her training under the celebrated (and/or notorious) acting teacher Lee Strasberg and its climactic moment -- "I see a lot of people go through here, Jane," he told her after a performance about which she'd been terrified, "but you have real talent" -- her pleasure and excitement are thoroughly contagious: "When I walked outside after the class, [New York] felt different, as if I now owned a piece of it." Though she writes surprisingly little about other actors, her brief portraits of Robert Redford ("We've made three films together, and each time I was smitten, utterly twitter-pated, couldn't wait to get to work") and Dolly Parton ("She always had a wisecrack, usually high raunch, that would break us all up") are affectionate and wholly convincing.

A much more detailed portrait is that of Ted Turner, Fonda's third and presumably final husband. The portrait is loving and funny: "The Turner loquacity was unending. My innate shyness with people I didn't know well usually made me uncomfortable, feeling I wouldn't know how to fill in the silences. With Ted, this was no problem, for there were no silences. I wondered that his brain didn't just empty out." And: "Ted is the only person I know who has had to apologize more than I have. He has apologized to Christians, Catholics, Jews, African Americans, the anti-choice people, and the pope. He's an equal opportunity offender. He can't help himself." And: "I had fallen head over heels in love with him -- still am in many ways -- and I wanted to hang in and try to make it better for this lovable, fascinating man-child, who was just enough not my father that I wanted to crawl inside his skin and know him."

Yes, her heart belongs to Daddy. "All my life I had been a father's daughter, trapped in a Greek drama, like Athena, who sprang formed from the head of her father, Zeus -- disciplined, driven. Starting in childhood, I learned that love was earned through perfection." But human perfection being impossible, love sought through the illusion of possessing it never can be real and never can last. Fonda seems finally to recognize the truth of this, but that knowledge comes too late to wipe away the frustration and disappointment that her own imperfections have inflicted on her. This is too bad, but as she says, she has had a good life, "rich with an inheritance of memories and lessons." From that life she has extracted this book, which for all its excesses -- its garrulity, its self-absorption, its preachiness -- has many good and endearing qualities. Not least of these is its smooth, highly readable prose, which, word has it, Fonda actually wrote herself.

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