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Jane Fonda turns 85: from Hollywood star to activist

Born to Henry Fonda, the actress was destined for success. In a new HBO Max documentary, the activist for women’s rights says she used to let the men in her life shape her into whatever they wanted from her

Jane Fonda giving a speech on the climate emergency on December 2, 2022, in Washington.Photo: JACQUELYN MARTIN (AP)

In the documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts (HBO Max), the actress recounts that in order to film the first scene of the movie Barbarella (1968), in which she appears during an acrobatic striptease in outer space, she had to first get drunk on vodka. She also recalls that, as the first take didn’t work, the shoot left her with a terrible hangover. Barbarella was directed by her then-husband Roger Vadim, with whom she had just had her first daughter. Fonda never wanted to do the film. She didn’t feel comfortable with the character’s sexuality, and she didn’t care for science fiction, but she gave in to her husband who, unlike her, was greatly interested in both sex and science fiction. At that time, as she confesses in the documentary, Jane Fonda did not know who she was. She would take some time to find out. That’s why, the now-fervent activist for women’s rights recognizes, she let the men in her life shape her into whatever they wanted from her.

Born in 1937, daughter of the actor Henry Fonda, she grew up in a privileged environment, though her home was far from the American dream. Her mother, Frances Ford Seymour, died by suicide in a psychiatric hospital. Jane Fonda and her brother, Peter Fonda, were told that Seymour had suffered a heart attack. She discovered the truth in a magazine. From then on, she knew she would become the opposite of what her maternal figure represented.

Jane Fonda became the perfect daughter. She repressed her emotions and tried her best to play the role of a good girl, getting good grades and avoiding trouble. With time, she became the perfect woman. She studied acting under Lee Strasberg, who taught stars like Marilyn Monroe and Paul Newman. She became an actress almost by accident: it was expected of her. The next step, after being a good daughter and the sweet-eyed star of romantic comedies, was to become a wife and mother. But she discovered activism, and with it, she discovered herself.

From Jane Fonda to Jane of Arc

Mugshot of Jane Fonda after her arrest for confronting a police officer in Cleveland, November 3, 1970.
Mugshot of Jane Fonda after her arrest for confronting a police officer in Cleveland, November 3, 1970. Kypros (Kypros via Getty Images)

“What in the world is the matter with Jane Fonda? I feel so sorry for Henry Fonda. She’s a great actress, she looks pretty, but boy, she’s often on the wrong track,” commented Richard Nixon in a tape in the White House in the early 1970s. The good girl had been arrested for protesting against the war in Vietnam.

Between 1971 and 1973, Jane Fonda lived through a series of events that changed the course of her life. She won an Oscar for the film Klute, in which she played a prostitute. Her preparation for the character had sparked her interest in feminism, whose second wave was emerging. For the role, she changed her characteristic blonde mane for a dark cut with bangs. That new look marked a rupture with her past life: she became a new Jane Fonda. She also divorced her first husband, Roger Vadim, who, mocking her growing interest in politics and activism —encouraged by her French friends, which included the actress Simone Signoret, part of the circle of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre— began referring to her as Joan of Arc. And, finally, she returned to the United States and got involved with the social movements shaking the country’s foundations: the opposition to the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement. Feeling guilty for her previous inaction, she immersed herself in the causes.

“Any healthy country, like any healthy individual, should be in perpetual revolution, perpetual change,” Fonda said in a television interview at the time. She was discovering who she was. Fighting for a cause filled the void that she had felt throughout her life. That new role, so far from the good-girl mold, also brought a long list of enemies. She found herself included on Hollywood’s blacklist, and she spent more than one night in jail. At that time, the new Jane Fonda had wed her second husband, Tom Hayden, a social activist and politician. They led a humble life, far from the lights of Hollywood, where her activism made it difficult for her to land new projects. But, at the same time, they needed to make money for the causes they supported, and they decided to start a business.

Jane Fonda holding her first Oscar, which she won for the film ‘Klute,’ in the 1972 ceremony.
Jane Fonda holding her first Oscar, which she won for the film ‘Klute,’ in the 1972 ceremony. Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)

They opened their first gym in Beverly Hills in 1976. At first, Jane herself gave classes to raise money to support solar energy and environmental issues. By 1981, her methods had become so famous that she published a book on fitness, Jane Fonda’s Workout Book, which spent two years on the New York Times’ bestseller list. The undertaking was a success. In the 80s, she had a resurgence as a health and fitness icon.

Now, at 85 years old, Fonda continues playing the role of activist with excellence. In 2015, while promoting the Paolo Sorrentino film Youth, she only wanted to speak about the Black Lives Matter movement. That year, she took the Me Too movement a step further: to Congress, in order to defend vulnerable workers including domestic employees and farm workers. In 2019, the actress was arrested every Friday for protesting against climate change in Washington. In 2020, she started to organize protests herself. That year, she once again donned her unmistakable aerobic tights to call for votes against Donald Trump.

She continues working out, now with less intensity, despite being in chemotherapy treatment for a “very treatable” cancer, as she announced in September. Just six days ago, the actress shared that her oncologist had confirmed that her illness was in remission. “Best birthday present ever!!!,” the actress wrote on her blog. At 85 years old, Fonda knows herself and her purpose: movement, change, evolution, a mantra as physical as it is political.

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