Just before her 60th birthday, Jane Fonda decided to make a short video of her life to help her "piece together the puzzle of her identity." When she asked her daughter, Vanessa, for help with it, Vanessa remarked, "Why don't you just get a chameleon and let it crawl across the screen?"
Point well taken. Of course, every great actor is something of a chameleon, blending into a range of characters on stage and screen. But although Fonda is a serious actor and Oscar winner ("Klute," "Coming Home"), she is best known for her real-life transformations from Brigitte Bardot-style sex kitten to Hanoi Jane to workout queen to trophy wife of Ted Turner. She has been one of the most admired women in America and one of the most hated.
So what triggered all these transformations? In "Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman," by Patricia Bosworth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 596 pages, $30), the connecting thread is a deep, primal insecurity arising from one source: Henry Fonda, the man in Jane's life. Although this is a biography of Jane, Henry's shadow falls on just about every page, aloof, demanding, contemptuous of emotional display. Jane idealized her father, "longed to connect with him, and blamed herself when she couldn't" -- a pattern common to her mother and several stepmothers. As a child, Jane witnessed her mother, Frances, desperate to win back Henry's affection by dyeing her hair, wandering naked in front of him, even crawling on her hands and knees, "begging him to say something, anything." Henry was "a cold, self-absorbed person, a complete narcissist," according to Frances' doctor.
Jane did not get much maternal warmth, either. Frances Fonda suffered from bouts of depression and irrational behavior. To Jane, Frances' illness felt like abandonment. Henry's lack of sympathy for his wife's illness only compounded the problem. Perhaps this is why, when Frances Fonda died, the 12 year-old Jane could not cry.
Thus it was that Jane Fonda, rich, privileged, talented and beautiful, was also bulimic for decades, consuming "three roast chickens, a couple of Sara Lee cheesecakes, and a loaf of cheap white bread," then ramming her knuckles down her throat so hard it tore the skin off. And thus it was that she was repeatedly drawn to men who wanted to shape her and control her: She was so unsure of her own identity that she was like a liquid ready to be poured into whatever container was offered.
So she procured young women, sometimes prostitutes, for threesomes with her husband Roger Vadim. Confiding that she found "Barbarella" misogynistic, she nevertheless unquestioningly accepted "Vadim's right to use and abuse her psychologically." She repeated the pattern with her other husbands, bending herself into whatever shape they demanded -- or she thought they demanded -- of her. As she recounts it, even the infamous photo of herself in North Vietnam atop an anti-aircraft gun -- the photo that played the most powerful role in her demonization as Hanoi Jane -- came about because of a desire to please her hosts, though she felt remorse immediately afterward: "That two-minute lapse of sanity will haunt me until I die."
Bosworth creates a 360-degree portrait from interviews with friends, relatives, former lovers, directors, co-stars, ex-husbands and acquaintances. "Jane Fonda" is a heavily detailed (weighing in at a hefty 608 pages), juicy (Fonda knew absolutely everyone in Hollywood) biography of a brave, sad, often irritating and oddly magnetic American icon.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.