No actor in the history of Hollywood has erred — and learned — as publicly as Jane Fonda.
Being a lifelong learner is such a big part of the two-time Oscar winner that it’s baked into many of her characters. In real life, Fonda matured from a barely trained starlet to an activist, fitness entrepreneur, mogul and, now, oft-arrested environmental crusader, making mistakes and apologizing for them all along the way.
That’s reflected in too many Fonda characters for it to be a coincidence: a bored war supporter who realizes what is happening to Vietnam vets in “Coming Home,” a dilettante who awakens to banking chicanery in “Rollover,” a secretary who becomes aware of her own exploitation in “9 to 5,” a glib reporter who is literally exposed to the dangers of nuclear power in “The China Syndrome,” and a carefree suburbanite affected by a recession in “Fun With Dick and Jane.” If conflict is the essence of drama, the essence of peak Fonda is a character who is ignorant about something crucial and blossoms as she learns about it over the course of two hours.
Lots of people take issue with Fonda’s activism, of course, which is undoubtedly why career achievement awards such as the Kennedy Center Honors have escaped her (she’s the only one of the three stars of “9 to 5” not to be feted). But her fans — she’s my favorite actor, and I was verklempt last year when my colleague Neal Justin brought me to her live appearance at the Ordway — can take refuge in her six decades of film work, where she’s just as comfortable in drama and comedy (the Netflix sitcom “Grace and Frankie”), on film or stage (her Broadway return in “33 Variations” was an event), in English or in French (“Les Félins,” “All Together”). She mastered the latter tongue when she moved to France to make movies and marry director Roger Vadim.
Usually, the key to a Fonda performance is her precise, smoky voice. An actor’s “instrument,” Fonda uses hers in a variety of ways in these seven great performances.
Don’t be fooled by the goofy trailer that tries to sell it as a horror movie. “Klute” is a psychological drama about a sex worker’s awakening, which Fonda has said mirrored her own. Worried about the ramifications of playing a prostitute, she consulted a friend who insisted, “If you can go deep into any human being, that is feminism.” That helped Fonda see her character, Bree Daniels, as a victim of abuse.
The Sidney Lumet-directed thriller recalls “Klute,” with Fonda playing another lost soul entangled in murder. She makes her Alex, a gravel-voiced, alcoholic, has-been actor, seem uneasy every moment except in a beautiful scene where she spots a Nancy Drew collection in the home of a new friend who’s trying to help her prove she’s innocent of killing a man. Grabbing a book, she flashes back to her childhood, when she still knew who she was.
Jack Lemmon has the showy role of a nuclear power plant honcho who spots signs of a meltdown. But Fonda, as a soft news reporter who “lucks into” a huge story during a routine tour of the plant, is the heart of the thriller. When her character does a live report from the plant, falling apart while trying to keep it together, Fonda gives a master class in simultaneously conveying multiple emotions.
This quiet drama could have won Fonda her third Oscar if it hadn’t been released a year before Hollywood decided it was OK with Netflix originals. Her subtle, intimate performance illuminates the story of a widow who reaches out to a neighbor when she realizes what she really wants is someone to sleep with her. Not make love to her. Just sleep with her.
Fonda looks and behaves nothing like playwright Lillian Hellman, which is probably OK since this “true story” was invented by Hellman to make her look like a hero in her autobiography. Still, Fonda’s intelligence and wit connect two halves: Hellman’s efforts to help a friend (Vanessa Redgrave) in the anti-Nazi resistance and her difficult relationship with writer Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards). If working with a good actor makes one better, note that both Redgrave and Robards won Oscars, and Meryl Streep, whose small role was her film debut, has credited Fonda with teaching her about movie acting.
Speaking of supporting-actor Oscars, this one earned one for St. Cloud native Gig Young. He’s the belligerent emcee of a Depression-era dance marathon, which functions as a garish metaphor for the dying of the American dream. The once-edgy stylistic flourishes may feel dated, but the cast, led by tough-talking Fonda, is outstanding.
Underrated as a comic performer, Fonda is a breath of fresh air in “Barefoot in the Park,” a brittle punchline machine in “California Suite,” and a hilariously blowzy superstar in the little-seen “Youth.” The feminist farce “9 to 5,” about vengeance-minded secretaries, feels surprisingly timely in the MeToo era, and it’s a kick to see Fonda, so often called upon to be self-possessed, play a naif.