The Fonda surname has been a staple of Hollywood royalty spanning decades. But when it comes to Jane Fonda, she’s been an actress, activist and undeniable icon — the figure that transcends generations of cinephiles.
To celebrate Fonda’s 85th birthday, Variety ranks her 11 best film performances of her career so far.
As a millennial who fell in love with movies at an early age, unfortunately, Fonda was one of my cinematic blind spots. I was not yet aware of the vital role that the daughter of Oscar winner Henry Fonda (“On Golden Pond”) and sister to Oscar nominee Peter Fonda (“Ulee’s Gold”) would have, not only in the industry but also in the global climate, where she demonstrated in protests and unapologetically fought for equality.
In a home where VHS cassette tapes came in and out via purchase or rentals, my mother was among the millions that owned her “Jane Fonda Workout” tapes, which started the fitness craze amidst baby boomers. I saw that million-dollar smile at varying times throughout my early childhood when my mother was inspired to do an at-home routine. While playing with G.I. Joe’s on our apartment floor, I remember intermittingly looking up and getting hypnotized by the small tube TV. Her voice’s energy and motivational tone would exude getting people on their feet.
It wasn’t long after I saw my first movie from the actress – the classic workplace comedy “9 to 5” (1980) from Colin Higgins, playing on channel 11 WPIX on a random weekend day. Fonda plays the recently divorced Judy, alongside her future “Grace and Frankie” co-star, Lily Tomlin, and country musical wonder, Dolly Parton. The trio garnered boisterous laughs and became a hallmark example of cinematic girl power for future adult millennials.
From there, Fonda was sprinkled throughout my adolescent and formative adult years. I would see the depth of her range with roles such as Dr. Martha Livingston in “Agnes of God” (1985), Jane Harper in “Fun with Dick and Jane” (1977) and the titular space traveler “Barbarella” (1968). I would discover her frequent collaborations with playwright Neil Simon: charmers like “Barefoot in the Park” (1967) and “California Suite” (1978).
When I began my deep dive into Academy Awards history, I was floored by nearly all of her seven Oscar-nominated roles, including Gloria Beatty in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969) and news reporter Kimberly Wells in “The China Syndrome” (1979). However, her two-winning turns for best actress are almost unmatched by the few who have picked up multiple statuettes – “Klute” (1971) and “Coming Home” (1978).
Fonda’s 15-year movie pause from 1990 until 2005 left many young cinephiles like me able to discover her filmography without the distraction of something contemporary. But when she did return, a new legion of followers was born, able to worship at the feet of her overbearing Viola Fields in “Monster in Law” (2005) opposite Jennifer Lopez and the diva Brenda Morel from “Youth” (2015).
But I refuse to believe that Fonda is done. She’s reuniting with Tomlin for two features — Paul Weitz’s “Moving On,” which premiered at TIFF, and the comedy “80 for Brady” alongside other legends, Sally Field and Rita Moreno. Fonda is also reprising her role in “Book Club 2 – The Next Chapter.”
Read Variety’s list of her 11 best film performances below, along with watching the clip of “the scene that proves it.”
Honorable mentions: “Fun with Dick and Jane” (1977); “Agnes of God” (1985); “Stanley & Iris” (1990); “Monster in Law” (2005)