We had a Jane Fonda moment last month. We don’t seem to have a lot of them, or at least I don’t. On those rare occasions when she enters my consciousness I find myself thinking something like, “Oh, yeah – her. Is she still around?” Indeed she is, but in the world I inhabit she spends a lot of time under the radar before occasionally resurfacing in a burst of publicity and/or controversy.
Jane Fonda’s legacy is complicated and unique. Born to Hollywood royalty and devastatingly beautiful, she has managed to–in the eyes of some–both squander her considerable gifts and achieve a level of notoriety she will never completely outrun, not even in death.
Fonda is an octogenarian now. She recently turned 80. And whatever golden years she might have been enjoying have been jolted by a feud with NBC news anchor Megyn Kelly that apparently began over interview questions about Fonda and plastic surgery and advanced to the point where Kelly, a product of the Fox News propaganda machine, realigned with the conservative right by attacking Fonda’s long-ago actions in opposition to the Vietnam War. Kelly took the very Fox step of claiming Fonda has never apologized for those actions–one in particular–when, in fact, she has said a number of times that she regrets her actions.
So what, exactly, did Jane Fonda do all those years ago? Well, in 1972 she accepted an invitation to tour North Vietnam, where she made several radio announcements urging US pilots to stop their bombing runs and then posed for a picture that still enrages veterans and the right-wing – she was photographed with an antiaircraft gun that would have been used to shoot down American planes. And with that, the legend of “Hanoi Jane” was born.
The animosity for Fonda was visceral, and it still is. A common reaction is a stated refusal to watch any movie or TV show featuring her, which–if true–is fascinating but hardly fair. The list of objectors to the Vietnam War is, of course, overwhelmingly long. Millions of Americans lined up against it. Young men moved to Canada to avoid the draft. Some guy named Trump stayed out of it with a highly dubious claim of bone spurs.
Celebrities like Paul Newman and Warren Beatty supported anti-war Democratic challengers to a Republican president (Nixon) pursuing and defending the actions in Vietnam. News broadcaster Walter Cronkite, perhaps the most trusted man in America at the time, came out against the war.
Meryl Streep, a leading Hollywood liberal, forged her political consciousness in the Vietnam era and has set herself up squarely as an enemy of the modern right-wing. Yet Streep is the most celebrated actor of this and many other generations, the star of films no doubt seen by a large number of the same people treating Jane Fonda like a pariah.
To be clear, as an actor Fonda is no Streep, but she has enjoyed a long and distinguished career–49 movies–and peaked in the 70s with two Academy Awards for best actress, for Klute and Coming Home. Yet she has always seemed to play Jane Fonda rather than inhabit a role. Her highly cultivated speaking voice tends to typecast her in a manner similar to Katherine Hepburn or Lauren Bacall, or Humphrey Bogart. The voice overpowers everything. She perhaps would have been better suited to an earlier era when stars were always glamorous on-screen; the era of her father. For those reasons I have never been much of a fan. The only movie I can regularly identify with her is The China Syndrome, where she does a passable job portraying a TV reporter who stumbles onto the story of a lifetime. The film rocketed to fame in 1979 when its fictional near-meltdown at a nuclear power plant preceded an actual near-meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island a short time later.
Fonda’s life has taken some other intriguing turns, starting with her three marriages. In her 20s she married French director Roger Vadim, who directed her in several films portraying her as a sex kitten, including 1968’s Barbarella, which led to a wild, infamous cover for Penthouse magazine. Fonda’s next marriage went in a dramatically different direction. Her husband was Tom Hayden, a civil rights and anti-war activist who became a California state senator. And the final union went someplace different still – she married media mogul Ted Turner, who owned the Atlanta Braves. The liberal Fonda was there during the Braves’ 90s heyday, attending postseason games at Fulton County Stadium and joining in the controversial Tomahawk Chop before she honored the concerns of Native Americans and stopped.
In addition to all that Fonda found time to develop a sideline career as an aerobics entrepreneur. She was in her mid-40s then and looked pretty damn good in a leotard and tights. She produced Jane Fonda’s Workout Book, which spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list, and then helped pioneer workout videos with a VHS series–starring her–that continued well into the 21st century (progressing to DVDs) and sold hundreds of thousands of copies to people–mainly women–who didn’t seem to care much about the Hanoi Jane thing.
There can be no question that Jane Fonda has led an extraordinary, albeit privileged life; touching movies, politics and popular culture. To write her off following her activities during the Vietnam War amounts to nothing less than short-sighted cultural retardation. Love her or not, Fonda is an authentic American icon who should be celebrated, warts and all.