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Review: Jane Fonda in Five Acts on HBO is a mesmerizing recollection

Jane Fonda
Jane Fonda was more than an ingenue her roles and interests veered into politics too. Pic credit: HBO

Jane Fonda in Five Acts, the second documentary by Susan Lacy to get picked up by HBO, begins tonight. Lacy interviewed Fonda 12 times, with more than 21 hours of tape, in order to bring us the story of Henry Fonda’s daughter — an Oscar-winning actress, fitness guru, and activist that has, over the decades, managed to make people either love her or hate her.

The documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts covers the broad personal segments of her life and her importance in American history and the arts. However, it did feel like some of the coverage in this series was a bit thin when it came to some parts of Fonda’s life that viewers may want more clarity on.

The film kicks off with a snippet of the famous Nixon tapes, where then-President Richard M. Nixon is heard musing over why Henry Fonda, who he described as a “nice man,” has such a problematic daughter.

Fonda’s life is so large and unreal, it feels a movie unto itself. Her legacy of amazing films and TV efforts aside, it is the emotional resonance of her accomplishments and her expressed personal regrets will stay with the viewer.

Director Susan Lacy has stitched together a fascinating ride from childhood recollections to Jane’s Golden Pond years, where regret and forgiveness now factor heavily for a woman who had a tough time fulfilling the role of both wife and mother.

Her interest and devotion to humanity and causes that affected lesser privileged peoples won that role, as Fonda’s recollections are underscored with telling photos and clips showing her progression from French-speaking sex bomb to a more serious and earnest lightning rod for “the movement.”

Fonda is a genetic marvel, incredibly focused, sharp and full of vibrancy at age 80. She is still taking on acting roles and living a large life while surrounded by good friends like Lily Tomlin whom she co-stars with in the Netflix television series, Grace and Frankie.

The documentary is divided into five acts, all headed by the key person who was driving the car Fonda was riding in at the time.

“A lot of other people were defining me, all of them men,” Fonda summarizes. Discussing her life now, Fonda seems to revel in her vitality and is passionate still about a variety of human rights topics.

The takeaway from this documentary is that life must have meaning and that it isn’t over until it truly is.

Act 1: Henry

Henry Fonda was a distant and removed parent according to Jane Fonda. Pic credit: HBO
Henry Fonda was a distant and removed parent according to Jane Fonda. Pic credit: HBO

Henry Fonda was a hero to so many people, but as Jane says, these sorts of men were rarely great fathers.

“I grew up in the shadow of a national monument…my Dad.”

This chapter takes us to Malibu and the Santa Monica mountains as we see old footage of Jane dressed like a Native American running about the hills of the mountains looking for wildlife.

This chapter touches on the sadness and mental illness her mother, once a vibrant and stunning debutante, who was suffering inside a bad marriage. Jane’s lack of insight into her mother’s reality is broached in this chapter, and we see that Henry Fonda was a distant father.

Henry’s affair and her mother’s unhappiness is discussed. “I was alone a lot,” she revealed but her brother Peter Fonda had it harder.

Growing up on the beach in Malibu, she was eventually given an ultimatum to leave by her stepmother.  Acting coach and nearby neighbor in Malibu, Lee Strasberg took her under his wing.

In this chapter, her friendship with Robert Redford, a lifelong one, is revealed, and that her French is fluent and to her dismay, the plethora of “girl next door” roles has her yearning for more of a challenge.

Act 2: Vadim

Fonda speaks fluent French and charmed Vadim, whom she later left. Pic credit: HBO
Fonda speaks fluent French and charmed Vadim, whom she later left. Pic credit: HBO

Vadim a seductive and charismatic lover. Jane was blown away by his presence and became his wife. Yet she notes: “Then there was this old shoe quality about him.”

In this chapter, she reveals Vadim was full of contradictions, and that he was an alcoholic with a gambling problem. He also was molding and creating the Jane he wanted.

Then the sci-fi sexy film Barbarella came to be. On her sexy writhing opener in the film where she was naked, Jane says: “I drank so much vodka to do that.”

These were the years her political activism was awakened and engaged, thanks to a friendship with Simone de Beauvoir. She was also pregnant with her first child, Vanessa.

Jane discusses the relationship with her own mother who was a beautiful socialite, but deeply troubled. “My father was not the person she should have ever married, he was not kind to her.”

Her mother’s suicide was hidden, as Jane was told her mother had a heart attack.

Boarding school was where she learned about bulimia (the ancient Romans vomitoriums was an inspiration). In this chapter, she reveals that Henry Fonda’s remarks about physique were emotionally scarring.

We learn how director Sydney Pollack gave her wind in her sails and confidence as an actor and respect for her opinion and worth.

Jane's "Klute" haircut telegraphed her "woke" political aspirations at the time Pic credit: HBO
Jane’s “Klute” haircut telegraphed her “woke” political aspirations at the time Pic credit: HBO

Jane’s “hair epiphany” gave her the “Klute hairdo” and a new perspective on her work was forming. Director Alan J. Pakula had to talk her into staying in the role that won her great critical praise.

These were her overachiever “zealot” years that the press made hay with. Fonda admitted she ate little to nothing during these years: “I took Dexedrine which was speed, so I was speedy and I was starving …me on Dexedrine without eating…I am amazed anyone could receive what I was saying.”

Her daughter Vanessa was suffering from Jane’s absence. Her relentless activism and personal behaviors took up much of her time.

Act 3: Tom

Tom Hayden acted out in affairs as Fonda's success grew inside their marriage. Pic credit: HBO
Tom Hayden acted out in affairs as Fonda’s success grew inside their marriage. Pic credit: HBO

Back in the USA, Fonda’s activism grew. It wasn’t until she met Tom Hayden, one of the “Chicago Seven,” a California congressman and a movement hero, did her activist energy come into a powerful focus.

He charmed Jane and they eventually married. He helped galvanize Jane’s efforts in the anti-Vietnam war movement.

Much to talk show host Dick Cavett’s complete mystification (he is interviewed at length in this chapter) Jane spends two weeks in North Vietnam.

“I will go to my grave regretting that,” she said of her Hanoi Jane moment. “I’m proud of what I did and I am very sorry for some of the things I did.”

A still from news footage shown in the documentary, of Fonda in Hanoi. Pic credit: HBO
A still from news footage shown in the documentary, of Fonda in Hanoi. Pic credit: HBO

Creatively, this time led her to make the landmark film Coming Home with Jon Voight. She became pregnant with her son Troy [Garity] and lived a more financially austere and thrifty life with Tom Hayden in Santa Monica.

Jane created a goldmine to fund Hayden’s political action organization with her first workout video, which sold millions. The success and feedback from her video were so positive, she went cold turkey and quit bulimia for good.

But her success took a toll on her marriage, eating away at Hayden’s ego. As his affairs became known, their marriage soon ended.

The “Cassandra of the nuclear holocaust” was how some in the press described Jane after the film The China Syndrome paralleled real-life events at Three-Mile Island.

Then the pop culture hit movie that Jane Fonda had a hand in, 9 to 5, exploded on the scene. In this time of her life, Lulu [Mary Williams] was brought into the family fold, initially meeting at the summer camp that she and Hayden had created.

In 1981, On Golden Pond was bought and produced by Jane to star in with her father. Hayden said: “For Jane, it was the ultimate catharsis.”

Act 4: Ted

Jane Fonda and Ted Turner
“He devoured me with his eyes,” was how Fonda remembers their first date. Pic credit: HBO

Of Ted Turner, Jane said, “He’s a little boy who likes to play, and he has wild brilliance.”

Both Ted and Jane were suicide survivors, and Jane recalled her youth in the Santa Monica mountains and he [Ted] too had found solace in nature.

Fonda fondly recalled their decade together and credited Ted with giving her a macro outlook on the world, noting she had learned the most from him of all her husbands.

Their union did not last and yet they remained good friends with footage showing their reunion and visitation in Montana at one of his homes.

But Ted’s larger-than-life persona subsumed her and she rebelled, having to end their relationship. Turner delivered an emotional reveal about the end of their marriage in the documentary.

Act 5: Jane

At age 80, Jane Fonda has lived and continues to live an extraordinary life. Pic credit: HBO
At age 80, Jane Fonda has lived and continues to live an extraordinary life. Pic credit: HBO

Jane admitted her youth was squandered on unhappiness and self-doubt. “Your age is less chronological and more spiritual, I was so old at 20.”

In summation, after examining old photographs and recollections of her parents and their actions, Fonda said, “This is the beginning of my last act, and in order to go forward I had to understand where I had been.”

The realization of her life’s experience, mistakes and triumphs, and her recollections led her to a full life without a man as an anchor and this sense of confidence in this final act is evident.

The act of writing her memoirs forced Jane to reexamine exactly who her mother was and peel away the conflicting feelings and stories about her.

With the help of a lawyer, Jane obtains her medical records and finds a biography written by her mother that revealed the reasons why she was so broken mentally, relieving Jane of childhood guilt.

Jane Fonda in Five Acts premieres Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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April is an accredited entertainment writer, interviewer and television critic. She is a current member of the Television Critics Association (TCA), Gay and Lesbian Entertainment... read more
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