The #MeToo movement has been about pushing society forward, but it is also, inevitably, about looking back — about reconsidering all the ways a culture that thought of itself as “advanced” continued to denigrate women, sometimes in the guise of progressive action. That makes the lively, confessional, and entertaining “Jane Fonda in Five Acts,” at this tectonic-shift moment, an unusually timely and resonant Hollywood portrait.
Directed by Susan Lacy, who made the terrific HBO documentary “Spielberg,” the movie presents Jane Fonda as an agent of change who was also rooted, to an extreme and sometimes tormented degree, in the things she was trying to cast off. Much of this was covered in Fonda’s 2005 autobiography, “My Life So Far,” but “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” is one of several documentaries at Sundance (including those on Robin Williams and Joan Jett) that demonstrate the potency of archival footage in ways only a movie can. To see these multiple visions of Fonda, achingly poised and beautiful, though not always ready for her close-up, is to revel in the power of images that can speak countless words.
Tellingly, the film divides Fonda’s life into “acts” built, for the most part, around the men who shaped and shared her destiny. On the face of it, that sounds shockingly retrograde, yet it goes right to the essence of Jane Fonda’s idiosyncratic identity. Offhand, it would be hard to name a woman of the 20th century who straddled the pre- and post-feminist worlds with her crusading ambivalence and mythological sweep.
Though born in 1937, she embraced — and shed — roles with the ferocity of a baby boomer, to the point that she often seemed to be living every step of her existence on the cultural cusp. She came up as an actress in the early ’60s, cast as a girl next door in the waning days of the studio system, then had a brief moment as a pin-up kitten of the sexual revolution, then matured into a great actress during the New Hollywood ’70s, then became the rare celebrity entertainer brave enough to disengage from the system to pursue her political passions (she was dissed for going to Hanoi, but the meaning of that crusade was debated all over the world — and if that’s not successful activism, I don’t know what is), then helped to invent the 1980s with her famously popular and influential workout video, then drew back and had comebacks, all the while using her personal odyssey — the marriages that thrived and then failed, her decades-long battle with bulimia — as a way of keeping herself out there, embedding her own struggles in the national conversation.
Yet even as Fonda never stopped pushing herself forward, her story remains rooted, to an unusual degree, in the DNA of the past. In “Jane Fonda in Five Acts,” she speaks with captivating eloquence about the choices available to her, and why she made the ones she did. She was, of course, an heiress of Hollywood royalty, and while her rocky relationship with her father, Henry Fonda, has been amply chronicled, the film explores it in touching depth. She could never get his love, not the way that she wanted, yet she remained in thrall to this patriarchal icon daddy.
The men that Fonda was drawn to all echoed Henry Fonda’s charisma and power. She’s candid about how she was swept up in the allure of the French director Roger Vadim, though when she made “Barbarella” with him, she had to get drunk on vodka to let herself shoot the nude anti-gravity opening sequence. It was in France with Vadim, in 1968, that the activist spirit of the time invaded her, and she carried it with her for years, long past the moment when she was considered a “subversive.” The documentary opens with the voice of Richard Nixon, heard on the White House Tapes, grumbling about what could have gotten into Jane Fonda. Amusingly, though, Nixon compliments her acting.
I only wish the movie did! Fonda was a likable gamine in “Barefoot in the Park” (1967), but by the time she starred in “Klute” (1971), she was a major actress, with a persona all her own: empowered yet high-strung, her taut intelligence shot through with anxiety.
“Jane Fonda in Five Acts” acknowledges some of those films, and shares a good anecdote from Fonda about how, wanting to be rid of her “Barbarella” tresses, she wound up with the “Klute” haircut: that severe shag that made her look like Joan of Arc by Sassoon. But the movie devotes hardly a moment of its 2-hour-and-13-minute running time to analyzing the special qualities that Fonda brought to the screen. The omission is surprising given that Susan Lacy, in “Spielberg,” did such a stellar job of exploring Steven Spielberg’s aesthetics. This movie is interested in Jane Fonda as a human being, and the ways that she wielded her celebrity, but it forgets that her movies are the ultimate reason we’re talking about her.
That said, “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” provides a fascinating inside portrait of her marriage to Tom Hayden (they lived as bare-bones hippies and used the proceeds from the workout video to fund their activism), and her follow-up marriage to Ted Turner (she was so in thrall to his energy that she began to realize she was leaving herself out of the equation). The last act of the movie is called “Jane” (after “Henry,” “Ted,” etc.), indicating that only in her sixties did Fonda find the strength to stop looking for her image in the reflection of a man who was a reflection of her father. That’s the Jane we see interviewed here: forceful, generous, transcendently aware. Finally able to play the role of herself.