Jane Fonda in Five Acts September 29, 2018
2 Hrs., 13 Mins.
n Sept. 19, 1971, the actress and activist Jane Fonda was on President Richard Nixon’s mind. “What in the world is the matter with Jane Fonda?,” Nixon, captured on a White House tape, asks an unknown listening companion. “I feel so sorry for Henry Fonda, who’s a nice man.” Specifically, Nixon is bemused by Fonda’s recent transformation from Hollywood actress to left-wing advocate. He is
also bothered by the fact that Fonda has just accepted an invitation, sent by the North Vietnamese government, to visit Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.
The Hanoi sojourn, obviously, has come to be a defining moment in Fonda’s much-scrutinized life. During the trip, Fonda, ill-informed about what she was doing, was photographed sitting and laughing in an anti-aircraft gun — the kind that was used, of course, to shoot down American planes. “If I was used, I allowed it to happen,” she wrote in My Life So Far, her 2005 memoir. “It was my mistake, and I have paid and continue to pay a heavy price for it."
In the new documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts, which premiered nationwide last Friday and on HBO on the 24th, the documentarian Susan Lacy treats the incident as something of a centerpiece: a pinnacle of the extremes for which Fonda has come to be famous. The film, like last year’s season of the You Must Remember This podcast (2014-present), walks us through Fonda’s tumultuous life with assiduous attention to detail.
It is easy to prefer the You Must Remember This take on Fonda: it both lasted several episodes and astutely biographized and criticized its subject. But Five Acts is appealing, in part, because Fonda is the one relating the stories, not a well-researched writer. It's an intimate account: a retrospective that, when considering the octogenarian Fonda’s age, feels akin to the closing of a chapter.
Fonda is self-aware. She is aware that her frequent, and intense, redefinitions might appear disingenuous to some. She is also aware that her reincarnations have negatively impacted the people she loves the most. She knows, for instance, that when she essentially abandoned her daughter, Vanessa Vadim, upon divorcing the latter’s father to pursue activism in the late 1960s, that she upheld the notion of the absent mother. “I hope she can forgive me,” Fonda laments toward the end of the movie.
Most great observations in Five Acts are made by Fonda herself, anyway. When reflecting on giving birth for the first time, in 1968, she remembers being terrified. Not because the prospects of motherhood were intimidating, but because she associated the idea of being a mother with weakness. (Her mom, Frances, suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and killed herself in 1950, when Fonda was 13; her and Fonda’s fractured, maldeveloped relationship haunted the latter for most of her adult life.)
Early in Five Acts, Fonda admits that, until recently, she allowed herself, often unwittingly, to be defined by men. This, perhaps, was an effect of always trying to seek approval from her emotionally barren father.
And Fonda, who alternately battled anorexia and bulimia from her teenage years until around the time she famously set her sights on becoming a fitness guru, is open about her struggles with body image and self-confidence. She calls bulimia a “disease of denial.”
Fonda is a riveting subject. But sometimes I wondered, despite it working for most of the movie, if the film would have been as enrapturing as its person of interest if it were not so pointedly divided. The decision to separate by “era” makes sense for a personality as prone to reinvention as Fonda. But it sometimes makes Five Acts feel like a cinematic, assisted sort-of autobiography.
There is a tidiness here, braced by the orthodox combining of talking-head interviews and archival footage, that fosters a play-by-play type of presentation rather than something messier, more cerebral. Such an exhibition might have thrilled decades ago, when there was plenty about Fonda that had yet to be revealed. But so much has been written about Fonda; so much about Fonda has been criticized. Five Acts adds little to what admirers might already know. It is the active participation of the subject, then, that makes it worth a look. B