The Turbulent Life of Jane Fonda
By Christopher Andersen
Holt. 389 pp. $19.95.
An Intimate Biography
By Bill Davidson
Dutton. 276 pp. $18.95
JANE FONDA has disturbed the sleep of more people than any other actress of our time. A compulsive attention seeker with a lust for exhortation, she is also a talented screen artist who projects, in the words of movie critic Pauline Kael, "a special kind of smartness that takes the form of speed." After a meteoric rise two decades ago with memorable, offbeat performances in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and "Klute," she had the staying power to become one of Hollywood's most reliably bankable names, a box-office draw in "Julia," "Coming Home," "The China Syndrome" and "On Golden Pond," some of which she had a hand in producing.
Offscreen, Fonda's publicized accelerations, sudden reversals and remarkable capacity to reinvent herself to suit the times have made her a target of ridicule in certain circles, and a lightning rod for right-wing hate. People are seldom neutral about Fonda -- her volatile, know-it-all intensity demands an emotional response -- but only the meanspirited or the fatally envious can fail to appreciate her ability to rise phoenix-like from the ashes.
Christopher Andersen, the more exhaustive and audacious of her two unauthorized biographers this season, sums up in Citizen Jane: "She is the tousle-haired sex symbol who went on to champion feminism; the Miss Army Recruiting of 1962 who rooted for the enemy during the Vietnam War; the chain-smoking, pill-popping bulimic who became the world's leading health and fitness advocate; the outspoken critic of cosmetic surgery who herself underwent eye lifts and breast implants, and, most jarringly, the virulent anticapitalist who became a bottom-line obsessed business mogul worth in excess of $60 million."
Along the way she apprenticed herself through marriage and babies to a couple of unlikely, disparate mentors: Roger Vadim, a French filmmaker of frothy, suggestive comedies, and Tom Hayden, a New Left strategist and organizer. Neither husband was a conventional choice for matrimonial stability; each served according to his lights as a prime enabler of her ongoing self-improvement and ambitions.
Vadim, who gave the world Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve, facilitated Fonda's unexpected climb from Henry Fonda's coltish, jut-jawed daughter into a nude sex kitten in leather boots via "Barbarella." Hayden, who rose to prominence as one of the Chicago Seven, was to become her political guru during her radical phase.
It is Andersen's contention, and the contention of Bill Davidson, Fonda's second biographer this season, that the Jane Fonda story should be read as an epic drama of a Hollywood brat driven to move heaven and earth to win the attention of her distant, much-married father. This is as good a scenario as any, and it comes with a slam-bang emotional climax: Fonda's gift to her father, just before his death, of the starring role in "On Golden Pond," one of the juiciest parts in his career.
Henry Fonda's estranged daughter returned to Hollywood with her French husband and baby at a particular moment in history when the youth culture set loose by Vietnam was blowing hot winds of change. Paul Newman, Donald Sutherland, Shirley MacLaine and Warren Beatty, among others, were lending their names and giving time and money to various liberal-left causes. Over in England, Vanessa Redgrave, another famous actor's daughter, was marching with Trotskyites between theatrical engagements. Used to being a rebel and a ringleader, Jane Fonda felt out of step, older than her 32 years. Her radicalization was swift. She took to the hustings on behalf of American Indians, militant Black Panthers and disaffected GIs with a zealotry the film community hadn't witnessed since the days of the Popular Front.
Barely pausing to pick up her Oscar for "Klute," she flew to Hanoi on a self-styled peace mission, meeting with some American POWs whose presence at her side seems not to have been altogether voluntary. Totally immersed in the part, she addressed U.S. troops over Radio Hanoi and posed for photographs on a North Vietnamese cannon.
Her high-octane leap into radical tourism set the stage for her second marriage, a political partnership that defied skeptics of all stripes to last 17 years. Midway Fonda restyled Hayden as a liberal Democrat and replaced her passion for rhetoric with a leotard. Awed by those fabulous Fonda genes, legions of sweating women followed her new exhortation to "Go for the burn." The Jane Fonda Workout empire -- videotapes, exercise books and salons -- bankrolled Hayden into the California state assembly.
For some of her enemies, the image of a helmeted Fonda consorting with the Vietcong has never faded. Oddly, the most serious backlash occurred two years ago, when a veterans' organization tried to prevent her from filming in Waterbury, Conn. Their "I'm not Fonda Hanoi Jane" boycott fizzled after she performed an act of contrition with Barbara Walters.
Biographer Andersen pursues his quarry with the vehemence of a rejected suitor, making full use of old newspaper clips, Fonda's ex-employees, her husbands' memoirs and her FBI file. Biographer Davidson suffers from a generation gap; his heart in Jane Fonda: An Intimate Biography belongs to Henry. Both books are already dated as Jane Fonda speeds on.
Susan Brownmiller's books include "Against Our Will" and "Waverly Place."