Renowned for her wide range as a film actress, Jane Fonda has played similarly divergent roles offscreen. During her turbulent life, she has been an ingenue, a sex kitten, a serious performing artist, a political radical, a savvy Hollywood insider, a fitness guru, a corporate wife, and a social reformer.
Jane Seymour Fonda was born on December 21, 1937, in New York, New York. The daughter of film star Henry Fonda, she spent most of her seemingly idyllic youth in Los Angeles. Away from the public eye, however, she suffered from intense insecurities fueled by her emotionally remote father and depressed mother. When Jane was 12, her mother committed suicide. The next year, her younger brother Peter shot himself in the stomach, an incident he later described as an accident. Emerging out of her difficult childhood, Fonda attended Vassar College, before dropping out to become a fashion model. After studying at New York City’s Actors Studio, she began a career in film at 22. Most of her early movies were light comedies, most notably Cat Ballou (1965) and Barefoot in the Park (1967). Her most notorious role, however, was as the heroine of Barbarella, a science fiction satire directed by Roger Vadim, whom Fonda married in 1965. The film remains a cult favorite, largely because of Fonda’s striptease over the opening credits. Disturbed by her new sex symbol image, Fonda left Vadim and sought more serious acting roles.
She found the ideal part in They Shoot Horses, Don’t Theyfi (1969), an unrelentingly grim story of competitors in a 1930s dance marathon. Fonda was nominated for an Academy Award for Horses. Three years later, she won her first Oscar for Klute (1971), a thriller in which she played an emotionally troubled call girl with characteristic intensity. By this time, Fonda had become as well known for her politics as for her acting. Expressing her support for such radical groups as the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers, she was particularly outspoken in her opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1972, Fonda traveled to North Vietnam at the urging of Tom Hayden, leader of the Students for a Democratic Society, whom she married the next year. During her trip, she spoke out against the war on Vietnamese radio, calling American soldiers murderers. She was also photographed wearing a helmet and a smile, riding on
an antiaircraft gun that she appeared to be aiming at American warplanes. Many Americans were offended by her actions and gave her the derisive nickname “Hanoi Jane.” In 1988, Fonda apologized for her infiammatory rhetoric on a nationally broadcast special hosted by Barbara Walters. Nevertheless, some Americans, particularly Vietnam War veterans, have never forgiven Fonda for her stance during the war.
Initially, the film industry was also repelled by Fonda’s radical politics. For several years, she had difficulty finding film roles. Finally, in 1977, Fun with Dick and Jane was enough of a hit to bring her back into the Hollywood fold. She followed this frothy comedy with several distinguished films, including Julia (1977), The China Syndrome (1979), and Coming Home (1978), for which she won her second best-actress Oscar. In these popular movies, she played a somewhat sheltered woman who during the course of the film is awakened to feminist and political issues.
Fonda publicly explored her own personal life in On Golden Pond (1981). The movie cast her as the estranged daughter of a cranky, dying professor, played by her father. Onscreen, Jane and Henry Fonda appeared to come to terms with their own tense relationship. Jane was nominated for a supporting-actress Oscar, while Henry was posthumously given the award for best actor.
In the 1980s, Fonda began a new career as a pioneer of the fitness videotape. She published Jane Fonda’s Workout Book in 1981, in which she promoted exercise as her own method of keeping fit and trim. Entrepreneur Stuart Katz, encouraged by his wife, approached Fonda about turning her fitness book into a video. The resulting videotape was a sensation: It held the number-one spot on Billboard’s list of best-selling videos for 53 weeks and stayed on the chart for more than five years. Its success was the start of Fonda’s fitness empire, which eventually included some 20 more videotapes, a clothing line, and several exercise clubs. From her profits, Fonda contributed $17 million to political and social causes.
Fonda continued her movie career, although most of her films, such as The Morning After (1987), Old Gringo (1989), and Stanley and Iris (1990), failed to find an audience. Her relationship with husband Tom Hayden also began to falter. After 17 years of marriage, she and Hayden divorced in 1989. Their son Troy, as well as her daughter Vanessa from her first marriage, continued to live with Fonda.
In 1992, Fonda announced her retirement from acting after her marriage to television mogul Ted Turner. She surprised her admirers by publicly taking a back-seat to the fiamboyant Turner. Fonda particularly drew criticism by performing the “tomahawk chop” as a show of support for the Atlanta Braves, a baseball team her husband owned. Offended by this perceived belittling of Indian cultures, Native American activists were stunned by the behavior of Fonda, who in the 1970s had been among the most prominent advocates for Indian rights.
After eight years of marriage, Fonda announced her separation from Turner in 2000. She continued, however, her work with the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (G-CAPP)—an organization originally funded by the Turner Foundation. The G-CAPP is devoted to eliminating teenage pregnancy worldwide through education. In 2001, Fonda also donated $12.5 million to the Harvard Graduate School of Education to establish a gender studies center. In addition to her social activism and philanthropic work, she has hinted that she may return to acting, possibly in the theater. After six decades of reinvention, Fonda expressed enthusiasm for what she called the “third act of her life” in a 2000 magazine interview with talk show host OPRAH WINFREY, “As an actress, I know how important the third act is,” she explained. “You can have first acts that are interesting, but you don’t know what they mean. Then a good third act pulls it all together.”
Anderson, Christopher. Citizen Jane: The Turbulent Life of Jane Fonda. New York: Holt, 1990.
Collier, Peter. The Fondas: A Hollywood Dynasty. New York: Putnam, 1991.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Barbarella (1968). Paramount, VHS, 1991.
Coming Home (1978). MGM/UA, VHS, 1997.
Klute (1971). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1998.
On Golden Pond (1982). Artisan Entertainment, VHS, 1982.