Icons / April 2017

The Heart Grows Fonda

She is a libertine, a political and social activist, and has an I.Q. of 183. And at the age of 79, Jane Fonda remains her gauntlet-hurling, shit-stirring, couldn’t give a damn self.

Jane Fonda, 1981. Photo by Orion/REX/Shutterstock.

Scroll through your Netflix feed and you’ll find the sitcom Grace and Frankie. One of its stars is 79-year-old Jane Fonda, and the other is Lily Tomlin. They play a pair of one-upping lifelong friends whose husbands fall in love with each other, leaving the women suddenly single. Even in 2017 it is a fairly daring premise for mainstream media, yet for Fonda it is merely an extension of a career in which she has gleefully stirred hornets’ nests and displayed a billionaire’s nous for business.

Born in 1937, her father was the noted actor Henry Fonda, a man who could portray a staggering range of emotion on screen but who was, by most accounts, colder than an Inuk’s fridge. Despite an initial reluctance, Jane joined the Actors Studio and, in 1968, announced herself to the hearts and minds of men the world over in the film Barbarella. In a silver miniskirt whose hems had sterling views of her all-American pleasure garden, she played a carnally fuelled alien whose attitudes mirrored the burgeoning sexual liberation of women around the world at the time.

A year later she was nominated for her first best actress Oscar for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and in 1971 she took home the award for Klute. Playing a prostitute with a goddess’s body and a mercenary’s ethos, the film’s seminal scene involves a man humping away on top of her as she makes the requisite moans while checking her watch. In displaying sex as a sometimes tedious chore for women, she struck a chord with her gender and gave men plenty to think about. Over the next 15 years she would score another four best actress and best supporting actress nominations, and one more win. That’s five nominations and two wins in a decade and a half: suck on that, Meryl.

Her legend was burnished with an unbridled and unapologetic sexuality that gave rise to tales both plausible — Warren Beatty apparently noted she could unhinge her jaw like a python — and apocryphal: while studying at Vassar College she was told she could not attend the daily ‘Tea in the Rose Parlor’ without wearing gloves and pearls, so was said to have returned wearing only gloves and pearls.

A story more likely based in fact is one in the autobiography of John Phillips, of The Mamas & the Papas, which spoke of a Malibu orgy featuring his then wife, Michelle Phillips, “a well-known movie director and his extremely famous movie star wife, and another single male movie star”. It is commonly believed the unnamed were Fonda, her husband, Roger Vadim, and Beatty. As with so much else in Fonda’s life, zero fucks were given. (Or in this case, plenty.)

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David Smiedt