Jane Fonda’s ‘My Life So Far’

Juliet Mitchell
19 June 2005

Most reviewers of Jane Fonda’s autobiography My Life So Far have mentioned a telling anecdote. When the iconic American actress asked her daughter, Vanessa Vadim, if she would make a documentary film for her mother’s 60th birthday, Vanessa replied: just let a chameleon walk across the screen.

The comment hurts, but Fonda accepts it is justified. Reflecting on her political activities she writes:

“Was there a big picture – a unifying narrative – that I could embrace as a woman? Not knowing the answer, I took shelter in Tom’s narrative, which was compelling and enlightening. It would take me thirty years and then some to discover my own, gender-grounded narrative.”

(The Tom in question is her second husband, the radical American politician Tom Hayden.) In this script, Jane the chameleon always takes on the colour of the men in her life. A woman’s fate, yes, but also the necessary condition of the actress.

Several years ago I invited Jane Fonda to participate in an unofficial programme of gender studies, under the auspices of Cambridge University and the local arts cinema, that showed and discussed changing images of femininity and gender from the 1960s to today. What more perfect place to start than Barbarella?

She said yes – though by the time she had finished My Life So Far, the importance of her autobiography had made both of us nearly forget the original film project. And it is striking that the book makes little of the films. Jane Fonda doesn’t seem to register how important and interesting an actress and how serious a filmmaker she is, and that is at least as much an aspect of the feminine predicament as taking on the colours of men. But it is a more distinctive one: not everyone is as charismatic, superbly talented, thoughtful, decent and dedicated-to-life-and-people.

A common humanity …

All the way through reading My Life So Far I was haunted by a dotty internal refrain: Jane Fonda undersells herself. A crazy thought, given that her exercise video sold more than any video ever, and then there are the films, and this book … Jane Fonda’s career suggests that we need a new equivalent to “the Midas touch”; not gold but success. Yet I couldn’t rid myself of the thought that she undersells herself. It is part of her attractiveness.

On Golden Pond was made to help her father get an Oscar – and to reach out to a cold, neglecting parent. As she puts it, Henry Fonda was the parts he played: courageous, just, a person of integrity. Had he played villains would he have meant more to his daughter (and us) than the unloving father he was? Only, I believe, if his acting had shown the common humanity behind some villainy (Macbeth’s self-reflections) or the terrifying implications of its absence from the evil deeds.

A great actor, by becoming the part played (the hero or the villain) and yet staying her or himself (the common humanity), offers both, simultaneously: through the art the common humanity occupies new spaces. Jane Fonda can be said to undersell herself because the greatness of the prostitute (Klute), the housewife (Coming Home), the aviatrix (Barbarella), the thief (Walk on the Wild Side), the failed would-be star (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? ), the intimidating mother-in-law (Monster-in-Law) are also manifestations of her own greatness.

“Hanoi Jane”, the other much-cited persona, is also an underselling. Fonda has apologised for sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun during the 1960s war against the United States. The apology should be related to the level of the offence: Fonda did not pose for a photograph, she sat down and was snapped. I have heard arguments that she should have opposed the war only at home; but she went to get photographic evidence that in planning to bomb dykes America was hellbent on destroying a civilian population.

What Fonda was pilloried for was an offence against the kind of mindless patriotism that is truly the last refuge of scoundrels. Coming Home, the first film by the production company she set up, was about American veterans of the Vietnam war. It was a testimony to the people and country she loves and did not want to see destroyed along with the Vietnamese they bombed. As an actress, a filmmaker, a person, she grasped a common humanity to demonstrate the effects of unlimited violence on both sides.

… in and beyond gender

A common humanity is both gendered and transcends gender – so does an actor/actress. In Shakespeare’s England the male actor who plays Cleopatra contemplates her humiliation at being paraded by her conquerors in Rome by reminding her audience of her maleness at a point when they might have forgotten it: she will not see “some squeaking Cleopatra boy [her] greatness in the posture of a whore”. In the late 20th century, Fiona Shaw played Hamlet. The part is gendered; the actor is not – except as a chameleon.

My Life So Far is a moving tribute to the importance of understanding and of being an activist around the gendering of humanity. Virginia Woolf, whose mother died, as did Fonda’s, at the high point of her daughter’s puberty, enjoined women to “think back through their mothers”.

Through most of history, womanhood has been defined in relation to motherhood. Woolf set out to find her dead mother through her autobiographical fiction, To the Lighthouse; Fonda has done the same through My Life So Far. But there has always been a neglected tradition of gendering: sisterhood. Jane Fonda has reached out to inhabit her gendered humanity through her sisters – Carol Gilligan, Eve Ensler, Gloria Steiner, Robin Morgan – to whom she pays tribute with the same generosity she shows towards her ex-husbands. (Generosity is the expression of “common humanity”, and surely the defining requirement of even the meanest great actor.)

Woolf’s mother would seem to have died from the lesser evil common to woman: emotional overwork. Abused in her gender, Fonda’s mother killed herself violently. These traumas probably made mothering (actual for Fonda, a much regretted absence for Woolf) unnerving for these loving artists.

Preoccupied with mothers, Woolf lived for and through her siblings; until Monster-in-Law Fonda had not acted mothers. Both women are testimony to the dialectic between these dimensions of femininity. In themselves, both mothers and sisters are potentially strong and positive places in which to find oneself; the rub comes in relation to the other gender. It is here that women so often have to play a part (as men do too).

For women, that part (at least in the west) is the dependent one of a sexy, childlike daughter while still carrying the heavy-duty, responsible work of mothers and heroic struggling sisters. Fonda’s film roles are not notorious sexpot icons; they reveal that such parts are parts. Like her lifework, their common humanity embraces both women and men in their relationship to each other. Her courageous and fun-loving life movingly depicted in this autobiography and in her serious and witty films take on the irony of this gender dilemma.

Further Links:

Jane Fonda official site

Gender Studies department, Cambridge University

Juliet Mitchell

Gilbert Adair - Hollywood and Vietnam



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