“What in the world is the matter with Jane Fonda?”
That question, posed by President Richard M. Nixon in 1971, opens a new HBO documentary about the actress and activist. It’s safe to say that the answer, nearly 50 years later, is: Nothing.
Resplendent in a subtle animal print, a mop of blonde curls and still-electrifying blue eyes, Fonda submits to one of myriad interviews about the film with the aplomb, humor and magnetic physical beauty that have made her a sex symbol — again — at 80. The woman who has seemed to be inside our heads her entire lifetime is relaxed and direct, asking a reporter about her toenail polish before getting down to business.
“Is that Malaga Wine?” she inquires in her distinctively silky-husky voice. “Because that’s what I use, too.”
The immediate temptation is to go all girly on Fonda, to get all the tea about diets, exercise regimens, the name of her plastic surgeon. If “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” is any indication, she wouldn’t hesitate to share. Directed with sensitivity and ingenuity by Susan Lacy, the documentary, which begins airing Monday, transcends the usual celebrity biopic, eschewing a then-that-happened chronology and Wiki-esque factoids to deliver a disarmingly candid, emotionally profound portrait of a woman whose private and public lives have uncannily chimed with America’s. If there are indeed several acts in any well-lived life, Fonda’s fifth (surely not final) has been a bracing example of newfound autonomy and self-possession. Single after being married three times, steadily working after vowing she was done, she’s finally “moved back into my own skin,” she says, becoming “who I was supposed to be.”
Which makes it surprising that four of the five chapters of Lacy’s film are named “Henry,” “Vadim,” “Tom” and “Ted” — in reference to her famous father and three husbands.
“I thought it was great!” Fonda says of the conceit. “I’ve always thought of my life . . . in terms of different acts. . . . I was always searching for myself, but I was always defined by these men. Because of the template that was created when I was young with my dad — ‘Oh, Dad, please love me.’ ” The arc that Lacy captured, she says, “is a gender journey.”
One of the recurring motifs in “Five Acts” is film footage of a young Jane dressed as Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s stoic sidekick, scouting the countryside outside the home where she grew up in the Santa Monica Mountains with her movie star father, Henry Fonda. The most heartbreaking memories in the film convey how isolated she was, with an emotionally distant father and a mother suffering from severe bipolar disorder. (Frances Seymour Fonda committed suicide when her daughter was 12.) In one scene, Jane Fonda examines a family photo clearly staged for publicity purposes. Her image was one of the girl next door, she says, but “a lot of it was simply myth.”
The basic brushstrokes of Fonda’s life are by now familiar: her beginnings as a Hollywood ingénue; her marriage to director Roger Vadim, who crafted her “Barbarella” sex symbol persona; her 1960s and ’70s political activism; her transformation into a serious actress with films such as “Klute” and “Coming Home”; her second marriage to student activist turned politician Tom Hayden; the wildly successful aerobics workout video empire; the third marriage, to media mogul Ted Turner, that prompted a retirement from acting; and her recent return to the business with such of-the-moment cable and streaming series as “The Newsroom” and “Grace and Frankie.”
It’s a biography less defined by seamless continuity than a progression of serial identities.
“There was a time in my life, I think when I turned 60, that I did feel like it was a serial,” she says. “But by the time I finished writing my memoir, in 2006, then I [saw that there had been] different manifestations, but there’s a through line that’s steady. I didn’t always see that before. I was trying to figure out who I was, and then I discovered, ‘Oh, I’ve always been brave. I’ve always been curious. I’ve never really wanted to settle.’ ”
The discovery of those through lines, she adds, “is really why my marriage to Ted ended, and [why] I’m not going to get married anymore. It’s like, I deserve respect. I do, and I deserve to be loved. And if somebody can’t quite do that, then I’m sorry, I’m not going to hang around.”
(It should be noted that Turner and Fonda are still “very, very, very close,” as she puts it; their scenes together in the documentary are among the most tender and touching.)
“Five Acts,” though, does leave a few questions unanswered, especially about Fonda’s craft as an actor. She recalls the breakthrough of reaching new depths, and darkness, for “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” But the technique behind her greatness — what “Klute” cinematographer Gordon Willis described as her ability to simply think and have it show up on her face — goes largely unplumbed.
“You know, it’s funny,” she says. “I can talk easily about a lot of things. It’s very hard for me to talk about acting. It’s kind of mysterious — I don’t know. And in some ways, I feel like I’m just beginning to understand it now. I take it much more seriously than I did — isn’t that funny? Maybe it’s because I don’t have that much time left? But when I have a new part now, I work with a coach.”
She just finished reading Sally Field’s “fantastic” memoir, she says, “and acting means so much more to her than it ever did to me. She talks about being broken, broken, broken and then how acting healed her. It’s never been kind of the front of my life for me. Acting has never been what’s healed me. Activism has, but not acting.”
And as an activist, Fonda is still, well, active: She and Lily Tomlin just raised $200,000 in San Francisco for One Fair Wage, an advocacy organization for restaurant workers. She has sent contributions to Democrats Beto O’Rourke and Andrew Gillum but will spend the midterms going door to door for labor and voting rights issues, not candidates. She has connected young members of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements with such veteran organizers as Karen Nussbaum and Saru Jayaraman.
She’s working on a sequel to her 1980 comedy “9 to 5,” which brought issues such as sexual harassment and pay equity into pop culture vernacular. Today, Fonda says, “there’s all these new things, like how easy it is to spy on workers. . . . [And] so many of the workers now are contract workers. . . . So if there’s wage theft or a woman is fired because she’s pregnant or assaulted, where do they go? They’re not even employed by their boss. Women who work in these offices today have to work more than one job, and they have no health care. If you’re a single mom, and you’re working two jobs, and your child has a precondition, what the hell do you do? These women deserve crowns. They’re heroes.”
Fonda is still acutely aware of the pain she caused when she visited Hanoi in 1972 to criticize the U.S. prosecution of the war and was filmed laughing and clapping atop a North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun. She has apologized repeatedly for the episode and does so again in the documentary. She is all too aware that she never would have survived such an incident in today’s call-out culture. Seen through another lens, she modeled the nuances of public apology decades before it would become a ritual of viral social media.
In fact, she apologizes several times over the course of “Five Acts” — not just to Vietnam veterans but to her mother and daughter Vanessa, who often felt abandoned when Fonda took off on a new artistic or political adventure.
“If you don’t take responsibility for your mistakes, you never grow up,” she says simply. “You never learn. . . . Taking responsibility and forgiving yourself and others are two of the critical things about getting old.”
Spoken like the girl next door for a generation perpetually in the throes of reflection and self-reinvention — whose mirror image throws back a lifetime’s worth of missteps and regrets but just as many risks and rewards, as well.