THE FONDAS

A Hollywood Dynasty

By Peter Collier

Putnam. 336 pp. $22.95

BEST KNOWN for his collaborations with David Horowitz on massive American family histories -- The Rockefellers, The Kennedys, The Fords -- Peter Collier goes off on his own in this less ambitious volume to take on a less consequential subject. His account of Henry Fonda and his two famous children, Jane and Peter, does not go as far beyond common knowledge as did his explorations with Horowitz into the dark side of American royalty. Nonetheless, The Fondas: A Hollywood Dynasty is a useful accumulation of the essential lore with which this family has surrounded itself, as well as a perceptive analysis of the "unending circle of narcissism" that seems to be among its principal characteristics.

This is, obviously, a pejorative judgment, but it is one that Collier reaches fairly and honestly. His vantage point is clinical but sympathetic. At one point in his narrative, after describing the wedding reception in which Jane Fonda prattled about the "revolutionary family" she intended to make with her radical-chic bridegroom, Tom Hayden, he writes:

"As Jane said the word 'family,' some guests glanced involuntarily at Henry and Peter. The Fondas were not a revolutionary family, at least not in the way Jane was using the word. But they had never been a typical 'nuclear' family either. They had always been sui generis, one of those families Tolstoy had in mind when he said that all unhappy families were unhappy in their own distinctive way. Yet despite their noisy squabbles over the years, the bonds among them had proved to be surprisingly durable, if always imperfect."

The chief instrument of their unhappiness, in Collier's judgment, was the suicide of Frances Seymour Fonda, the second of Henry's five wives and the mother of Jane and Peter. This took place in the spring of 1950, when Jane was 10 and Peter 8. "In years to come," Collier writes, no doubt accurately if somewhat melodramatically, "this death would be one of those things not to be discussed around the Fondas. Yet it was always a defining point in their lives -- the event that, even more than Henry's celebrity, made them different from other people; the dagger at the heart of their relationship which each of them would, at various times, twist sadistically and ineffectually try to withdraw."

One need be no more than amateurishly expert in psychology to conjure up the effects of this terrible event on a family given both to theatricality, if of the subdued variety favored by Henry, and to studied melancholy. Henry, never confident in his relationships with women, stumbled along into three more marriages, only the last of them successful, even as he drifted away from the children who puzzled and at moments offended him. Jane and Peter, at the same time, found themselves deprived not merely of their mother but also of the California place, "Tigertail," that for a brief time had been for them everything that "home" implies; it is hardly surprising that in these circumstances the latent performer in each of them came to the fore, parading on stage in hopes of attention, applause and love.

It's a variation on an old story, but this in no way diminishes its inherent power. At its center, after all, stands the actor of whom Orson Welles once said, "I look at Henry Fonda and I see the face of America." To his right is Jane, child of contradiction: queen of a multimillion-dollar exercise videotape empire on the one hand, "Hanoi Jane" on the other, sex goddess by night and prim revolutionary by day. To the left, somewhat in the shadows, is Peter, for a few brief moments "the first real cult figure in American film since Brando and Dean," now lingering on as "Peter Pan -- not willing to grow up, insisting on maintaining a dual citizenship, in the past and the present," yet also in a curious way the keeper of both the family's flame and its conscience.

"When it came down to it," Collier writes, "in film as in life, there were Henry and Jane, and Peter was still odd man out." This may be true -- certainly it is reflected in the scanty treatment Peter receives from Collier -- yet it is also an injustice. In a family of performers, where acting has been used both (by Henry) as an alternative to unpleasant reality and (by Jane) as the only reality, Peter alone seems to have possessed some earthbound sense of where he should stand, if often an inability to set himself down there. Even at the worst of his druggy period, he seems to have been struggling toward a self-awareness -- self-knowledge, if you will -- that Henry found too distasteful to contemplate and was simply beyond Jane's ken.

They're sad figures all of them, proof that, as Collier warns us early on, there can be as much unhappiness in having everything one wants as in having all of it. Rising from solid if unprepossessing roots in Nebraska, all of them in their different ways traded upon their quintessentially American qualities to win much fame and modest fortune, yet none of them seems to have gotten much pleasure from these rewards. One could scarcely ask for a more poignantly revealing picture than that of Jane, on an Aspen ski vacation with her family, turning to her daughter and snapping, "Look, we're here to ski, not to have fun!" As a friend says a few pages later:

"She acts all the time. She doesn't want to but can't help herself. She conceals it pretty well, which I suppose is a tribute to exactly how good an actress she is. But you begin to notice after you've seen all the repeat performances. You recognize the Compassionate Friend who puts on the same long face, the same sympathetic eyes with a hint of tears welling up, the same heartfelt quaver in the voice. Then there's the 'I'm happy for you' Jane with the dazzling smile and twinkly eyes and the lilt in her voice."

This friend seems to understand, as Collier does as well, that for Jane Fonda this is not merely "an act" but her only reality. Collier calls this quality "lack of self," which may be a devastating judgment but also is a keen summary of the make-believe culture of Hollywood and, by extension, of late-20th-century America. In different ways each of the Fondas embodies and exemplifies that culture; what their story says is that at the very heart of it, there is little except emptiness.