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Jane Fonda Is a Living, Breathing Rebuke of the Patriarchy

Actress Jane Fonda at the 71st international film festival in Cannes this year. (Vianney Le Caer / Invision / AP)

It was all but inevitable. On Friday morning, with the fate of his Supreme Court nominee hanging in the balance, Donald Trump took to Twitter to smear Christine Blasey Ford, a professor and psychologist who claims that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her during his days at Georgetown Prep. “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents,” tweeted the president, who has been credibly accused of sexual impropriety by more than a dozen women. “I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!”

Ultimately, Trump’s attack is just the latest salvo in an ongoing dirty war by the right to defame and discredit Kavanaugh’s accuser, a campaign that reached its nadir Thursday when Ed Whelan, a contributor to the National Review online and a close personal friend of the federal judge, floated an elaborate conspiracy theory attempting to gaslight Ford.

If this scandal has taught us anything, it’s how little has changed since Anita Hill came forward to accuse Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment—an episode, like the Kavanaugh hearings, that actress and activist Jane Fonda likely watched in horror and disgust. As director Susan Lacy tells Robert Scheer, Fonda is a living, breathing rebuke of the patriarchy that is asserting itself so forcefully today (and movements like #MeToo are attempting to topple).

Lacy’s newest film, “Jane Fonda in Five Acts,” traces the performer’s political evolution from sex goddess for the male gaze in “Barbarella” to her turn in the anti-war classic, “Coming Home,” and her controversial trip to North Vietnam. What emerges is a portrait of a woman who never shies away from using her platform to address society’s most egregious injustices, even in the face of vicious criticism.

“She saw that movies could address social issues and change people’s minds, as well as marching in the streets,” observes Lacy. “She’s very smart, she’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.”

In the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” the director explores Fonda’s estranged relationship with her father, her mother’s suicide and the failed efforts of the men in her life to mold her to their desired image and purpose. Listen to the full interview or read the transcript that follows, and watch a trailer for “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” below.

Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. My guest today is Susan Lacy, discussing her documentary, “Jane Fonda in Five Acts.” I just want to say something about the director of this movie. First of all, let me say something about Jane Fonda, who I know well as a friend, full confession. And the series is based on a notion of American originals; out of the crazy-quilt of American culture, with all our different ethnic, racial, religious backgrounds, we’ve produced an incredible cast of characters. Certainly Henry Fonda, Jane’s father, was one such character. And I say “character” not in an unflattering sense; I mean really significant human beings who made a considerable contribution. And my guest, Susan Lacy, is someone who has followed this query about what makes America tick, and all these interesting people. And she is the creator of the very famous and laudatory PBS American Masters series; she’s directed movies on Spielberg, Judy Garland, Joni Mitchell and others. So let me just open with that, why you picked Jane Fonda, how she fits into American life, American history. And what is the meaning of the title, “Jane Fonda in Five Acts”?

Susan Lacy: Well, thank you. First of all, it’s delightful to be here. The title, I actually got the clue for the title from Jane’s book, “My Life So Far,” where she basically, at the age of 60, wanted to understand her life. And she went into a five-year period of researching her family background, getting her mother’s medical records, to understand more about all of that, that had happened in her childhood. And what she said in the book is she wanted to understand, you have to understand your first two acts in order to know how to live your third. So the notion of acts was embedded there. And when I started making the film, I realized that Jane’s life really was divided into the four men who had shaped her, and by whom she wanted to be shaped, starting with her father and her three husbands: Roger Vadim, the French director of “Barbarella”; and Tom Hayden, founder of SDS, and an activist; and then Ted Turner. And the last act is Jane. For me, telling this story was the story of a woman, which I think is in many ways a lot of women’s stories, which is part of what’s interesting. Jane said she wrote the book because she thought, if all these things can happen to me—I can have difficulty with a parent, or difficulty with a child, or body image issues; she was bulimic for 30 years—unfaithful husbands, and I can come out of this alive, a lot of other people can probably be helped by my story. So the film I made was Jane’s—and I hate the use of this word, but I haven’t found a better one—Jane’s journey to herself. So that’s where the five acts come from.

RS: Let me just say something about this. I really loved the documentary, and I think you captured her. I have two quibbles with it. I don’t think any man ever shaped Jane Fonda.

SL: [Laughs]

RS: And I know her really quite well; in fact, I was at her house for dinner recently, where she—I was with my wife, and we were there, and other people. And she said, oh, I’ve had it with men, and no more men, I’m free, independent, blah blah blah. And I said, Jane, you always were independent. I don’t care who you were with. And yes, obviously, well, she didn’t pick her father, and he was obviously strong and complex. But the reality is—and your film shows it—this was someone who was independent when she was 1 or 2, you know, trying to ride a tricycle at 3 or something. And you mentioned about her mother, and the whole question of her female role model. She had a distant father, great actor, Henry Fonda, and a mother who committed suicide.

SL: Yeah.

RS: And that’s an experience she never got over. And why don’t we just begin with that? I mean, this was a real rough way to enter the world.

SL: Well she was, I think, 11 when this happened. She did not have a happy childhood. Her mother was in and out of institutions; Jane did not know why, or what they were; she was too young, she just thought her mother was sick all the time. And not there. And her father wasn’t there a lot of the time; he was off making movies, or doing “Mr. Roberts” on Broadway. And she was really raised by governesses and her grandmother. So when her mother came home one day from the institution with a keeper, Jane was upstairs with Peter playing a game, and her mother said, where are my children? I want to see my children!

RS: Peter Fonda, her brother, and a great actor in his own right, yeah.

SL: Peter Fonda, excuse me, her brother. And Jane said, “I’m not going down. I’m not going—you go, Peter. I’ll let you win if you go. I don’t want to go, I’m mad at her. We should be mad at her.” So she didn’t go down. And that’s the day her mother went back to the institution and slit her throat with a razor blade. That is hard to get over. I don’t think you really ever do get over that. And I think Jane’s exploration of her mother, to really try to find out who her mother was, was revelatory for her. She found out that this woman, who she had always thought of as a sick woman, had been the life of the party. I mean, men loved her; the family adored her; everybody wanted to be with her. And she was like, my mother? Really? I had no idea. And then she got hold of her mother’s medical records from the institution. And her mother had written a little story about her life story, and Jane learned things about her mother there.

RS: How old was she when she was reading all this about her mother?

SL: She was in her 60s. When she went to visit her mother’s grave, and allowed me to go with her, it was the first time she had ever visited her mother’s grave. Sixty-two years or something, you know; it’s a long time to wait to visit your mother’s grave. And it was a very touching moment for her, I think, and for me.

RS: You know, the interesting thing is, you’re telling this story basically through these strong men, but they all were disappointing, as people will be when you idolize people, male or female; they’ll be disappointing. But it was startling how disappointing they all were, because they presented as matinee idols, as people who had it all together. And indeed, what is questioned in the movie is the whole idealized version of the American family, and American life. And that’s how Henry Fonda was seen by the world, and you have wonderful scenes in your movie where he’s given an award for being a great father, and all that stuff. And Jane and her brother, who ends up being quite a social critic himself, they see the other side of it. They see a distant father, they see a very uncertain father, insecure in many ways; a mother who is basically hurt by the father’s indifference. And so Jane always has to reinvent herself when she leaves these men. That’s another Jane. And basically, this is a tale of one woman’s liberation, constantly.

SL: Exactly, exactly. And it’s not a tale—the movie isn’t told through their stories. I divided it into acts because in each—well, Henry, of course, is just a pervasive influence. But each man she married represented a different point in her life’s journey, so to speak. And she did, in fact, she became who they wanted her to be; that doesn’t mean she lost herself completely. But I don’t think she was encouraged to be who she was. I mean, when she tells the story of Sydney Pollack asking her opinion on a script, in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” this was the first time anybody had ever asked her opinion about anything. Troy sort of says, her son Troy later in the film says that she was, you know, not exactly an orphan but came pretty close. She did not have those kind of strong roots that you get from parents who are there for you, who support you, who tell you how wonderful you are. Little Girl Blue is the person I saw in the telling of this story. Doesn’t mean that she’s stuck there, doesn’t mean that she hasn’t gotten past that. But she didn’t have what, the foundation, I think, that is what people need in their childhood. She didn’t have that. So she was ready to be molded by somebody who was going to love her. And she said she thought she had to be perfect in order to be loved. And “perfect” meant that she had to be who they wanted her to be. Now, I agree with you; I think Jane was always in there. But she didn’t know it. And I think finally the realization that that was there all the time, is part of the story.

RS: OK, but she got a very early education that a lot of the great American family, happiness, success, celebrity, was hollow.

SL: Yes.

RS: And contradictory. And she could see that from day one. And I remember one time, I don’t know, there’s a story that Josh Logan was a family friend, and she was sent to Josh Logan to—

SL: Who was a great producer.

RS: —yeah, and to launch her career. And he looked at her and talked and everything. And he said the first thing we have to do is break your jaw. Wait a minute! Yeah, you can’t be an actress if you don’t have the jaw that Hollywood is looking for. So a woman can’t have a strong jaw, she can’t suggest some other attitudes. And when you look at your movie, it’s really a movie about the failure of men—the men who made the Vietnam War, the men who run the country, on every issue. Health, fitness, eating disorders, and all that. It comes out of, basically, a male-dominated society, a need to please men.

SL: Mm-hmm.

RS: Right? And then there’s this woman in your movie who just comes through it. And comes through it stronger. In that sense, it’s a very positive role model of story. I want to get more into the detail of the movie. But I was thinking of the flashpoint of this movie, and controversy, is when Jane goes to Hanoi and sits on a—

SL: Aircraft, anti-aircraft—

RS: —anti-aircraft thing, and also has meetings with POWs and so forth, and this is the great controversy of her life. Which is unfortunate in one respect, because as you look through your movie, she was a woman of social conscience and commitment and concern, whether it was to Native Americans very early on, to farm workers and Cesar Chavez; you could go through the whole list. She was there for women’s confidence with her exercises, you go down the list. But in an odd way, she is made by the society to feel embarrassed, ashamed, apologetic, over what I think is the most heroic thing, and incredible thing, she did. Which is to dare do what Jesus asked us to do in the tale of the Good Samaritan: think of the other.

SL: I’m 10 years younger than Jane, but I was also very involved in the antiwar movement; she was a kind of hero to me. She was late in coming to this; I mean, she had—the life she lived with Roger Vadim was not a political life, it was a, she said a very superficial, hedonistic life. And her eyes were opened living in France watching television and seeing what was going on in her own country, and being educated by Simone Signoret and these French intellectuals, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who were very political. And she wanted to come back to this country and get involved in that. And then from that moment on, she was a sort of boots on the ground activist. And this was before Tom Hayden; I think she got more deeply involved because of that marriage. But she doesn’t apologize for going to Vietnam. I think she’s very proud of the fact that she was calling Nixon and those guys out on the fact that they were going to bomb the dikes.

RS: Yeah, we should mention, the movie opens with the Nixon tapes, and Nixon is saying, this woman, her father is such a marvelous—

SL: “I feel sorry for Henry,” is what he said.

RS: Yeah, that’s right, “I feel sorry”—

SL: “What are we going to do about Jane Fonda? I feel so sorry for Henry.” It’s so condescending.

RS: Well, but think about—as a great American story, going back to your American Masters, you can’t have the pieces better. Here is Richard Nixon, who clearly worships Henry Fonda, you know, and the movie image of Henry Fonda, perplexed, genuinely perplexed that a daughter of Henry Fonda would be causing misery for Richard Nixon. [Laughter] Ignoring the fact, by the way, that Henry Fonda got famous playing rebels. I mean, the movies that young Jane as a child watched, right—“Grapes of Wrath? It’s about—

SL: “12 Angry Men.”

RS: Yeah. It’s about rebellion against power. And yet Nixon didn’t make that connection. But it’s a powerful way to begin the movie.

SL: I wanted to signal right off the bat that this wasn’t a film about a movie star. That it was going to be a different kind of film than that. And not that her movies aren’t mentioned in my film, but that’s not the heart of Jane. But I want to go back to that, because I agree; I don’t think she has to—she apologized for sitting on an anti-aircraft gun, because of the perception that that would cause. She was naive, she completely admits it; she was young, she was alone; she went alone to Vietnam, to North Vietnam. Had she had any kind of a person with her, a handler, it probably wouldn’t have happened. She was kind of manipulated into sitting on that gun. That doesn’t mean she excuses herself for it; she said she’ll take her regret to her grave, that she did that. But she does not apologize for going to Vietnam. I think she’s proud of what she did there.

RS: Yeah, I mean, let me just, you know, this is very difficult for me to so-called objectively look at this. I also went to Vietnam, but I went to South Vietnam very early, in ‘64 and ‘65 and so forth. But I also went to the North, and I saw the effect of the bombing, and the leveling of whole villages and bridges and everything, you know. So, were we the good Germans? I mean, what are we talking about? When do you rebel against your own government? [omission for station break] So, even though we’ve now gone halfway through our discussion, I’d like to go back to the beginning. You talked about her time in Paris. And I think that’s where her feminist consciousness developed, because she was Barbarella; she was married to this hotshot director, Roger Vadim; she could have gone totally for this crazy, sexist, wild life that was Paris of a certain set. My own sense of that period is, she felt she was thrust into a pose as Barbarella; she was supposed to be the sex object, she was supposed to be the twit. And she always had a big brain, and a questioning mind.

SL: Yeah. She did go to Vassar.

RS: Yeah.

SL: She left, she didn’t graduate, but she did go to Vassar, and she speaks incredibly beautiful French.

RS: Yeah. And so she gravitated to people on the other side of that spectrum, as you mention. So when she came back from France, she was Barbarella informed, first of all, about sexism and trivialization of women, which never left her. On the other hand she was aware, you know, after all, the French had been in Vietnam before the U.S.; what we had done is picked up on the French, it was French colonialism that the whole war was originally about. And she was conversant. When you say she was this naive—yeah, no, I would say that when Jane came back from France, she knew a lot more about the history of the war, the French role. Because they were the great critics, now, of what the U.S. was doing; their writer Jean Lacouture, “Nouvel Observateur,” all these people. And I think she knew a lot more than members of Congress.

SL: Oh, she did. One of my favorite stories and images is that the person who taught her, who opened her eyes, was the French actress Simone Signoret, who she got to know, who was a very famous French actress, probably not known to young people at all today. She was married to Yves Montand. Jane was watching television, very confused about what was going on in her own country; she’d been Miss Army Recruiter of 1954, she was a solid American, believed, you know, we could do no wrong. And now she’s watching, what’s going on? And she’s confused. And she went to Simone’s farmhouse, and Simone opened the door and said, I’ve been waiting for you. And she taught her. She told her, she gave her the whole history. So I think you’re absolutely right, that Jane was much more informed, and much more aware of why this was an unwinnable war. I do have to say this, and I don’t think that Jane would have said this if it wasn’t true. Yes, I think—I think she understood the trivialization of women, and the objectification of women through the movie “Barbarella,” which is really just a kind of camp, cult movie now. But she admits that she came to feminism very late in her life. She thought it was a distraction, the women’s movement she thought was a distraction from the real issues, and the real issues were antiwar, economic equality—which of course now really is a woman’s issue. But she didn’t see it that way. She actually says she thought of it as a distraction. And it was while she was married to Ted Turner that she became a real feminist. And that was late in coming.

RS: OK. I’m going to bow to your expertise, and—

SL: I’m just saying, that’s what Jane tells me.

RS: No, I understand. But—actually, I knew her at that time, when she had come back. And she was making, I think it was “Steelyard Blues,” in Oakland. And you could not be in the Bay Area, San Francisco, and not be aware of the women’s movement at that time. And she was working with actors that had been at the committee, this great acting group, and others. I forget all their names; Alan Myerson was the director, I think, of the movie. And it just was so much in the air, that this was the failing of the ’60s. It was sexist, and yeah, it was great for the guys, but what about the women. Jane was always a tough cookie. I just resist the word naive.

SL: Mm-hmm.

RS: Think, OK, you know, she does that and she says that, and all that. But she always thought she could take these strong men and wrestle them to the ground.

SL: [Laughs]

RS: That’s my view.

SL: Yeah, yeah. Well, you knew her during that time, so you’re probably right. I mean, she’s certainly not a shrinking violet by any means. But she was insecure. I mean she, it took her a long time to—

RS: Well, that’s what the culture does to women. And that actually is the basis of the feminist movement, and it’s the basis of Jane, is the recognition that our culture was not a healthy culture for women.

SL: Mm-hmm, I think you’re absolutely right.

RS: It was a male-dominated, exploitive culture, even if you were a celebrity, even if you were famous, even if you were wealthy; you were a woman, you were marginalized. She worked with very—you have Paula Weinstein in your movie, a very tough woman—

SL: Yeah. Her best friend.

RS: —and Paula’s mother was a very tough woman in Hollywood. There was the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee. People like Barbra Streisand worked with, and Marilyn Bergman, who won three or four Academy Awards with her husband, Alan. There were strong women around. I think she found these men interesting. They were complex, they had energy, they were not boring. But I never thought for a second that she thought they could run over her. And it was interesting, I had a discussion with her quite recently about the #MeToo movement. And there were some people at this dinner party who were younger in Hollywood, and they were saying yes, it’s been terrible and blah blah blah. And Jane said, you know, but in all honesty, she had not been attacked in this way by men. And I think she gave off an air of “don’t mess with me” that was always there. Ted Turner knew it from day one; Tom Hayden knew it from day one; Roger Vadim knew it from day one. That no, this woman will fight back. And it didn’t have a label, it didn’t have a name. But you know, if you look at the exercise, the whole thing of the exercise—I remember when she was doing that—was to empower women. You can control your body. And yes, there were contradictions in that, because there’s a Hollywood standard, a common standard of how you have to look, and what your breast size should be, and what your nose should look like, and everything. But basically, fitness was an answer to that for Jane. Eat right, exercise, control your body. That was the healthier answer than mutilation.

SL: And she was one of the first to do that.

RS: Yes, yes. You in your movie say she invented the video business—

SL: Well, she was given an award for—she was the only woman in the Home Video Hall of Fame, and they credited her with inventing the video business. Because up ‘til then it had been, rent the movie, return it the next day, or two days later; people wanted to hold on to these tapes, so—because they wanted to use them every day. That was the first instance where people really wanted to own it. It’s still, to this day, the biggest-selling home video of all time.

RS: Yeah. And the interesting thing, we haven’t, we’ve talked about the war, and we’ve talked about feminism and so forth. We could talk about Native Americans; she was very active in Alcatraz, and so forth. But there’s one thing here that, in the movie, that reminded me, that I tend to forget. The proceeds of her exercise movie went to the Campaign for Economic Democracy.

SL: Exactly.

RS: This was way before the Great Recession, way before all the housing meltdown and everything, that Jane Fonda devoted this enormous amount of money—it’s the most successful videos in the history of, what, self-help videos, or—

SL: Well, people aren’t buying videos anymore, but I think it sold close to 20 million videos. If you think about that for a moment, it’s a lot of money.

RS: Yeah. And all of the money went to something for a Campaign for Economic Democracy, which is a hot issue right now. People should remember that, and here I will give Tom Hayden credit for being involved in this. She did the exercise tapes as a way of making money to support a Campaign for Economic Democracy, which is as up-to-the-moment as Bernie Sanders and some of these younger people running for Congress.

SL: Absolutely. Totally prescient.

RS: You know, I don’t think Jane gets enough credit for her smarts. The movie—here’s my only, really only criticism of the movie. I think Jane always had a terrific sense of humor. I always felt that way. Ah, she had—

SL: But it comes across in the film, she’s very funny.

RS: It does, but, you know—

SL: But she’s also very serious.

RS: She’s very serious. But in her most serious moments, she had a deep sense of irony, of comedy, of the other side. And every time I would talk to people, they’d say oh, Jane, she’s always so grim, blah blah blah, and scolding. That wasn’t her at all. And you do capture it in your film, because you have her with her fellow actresses, right, in that—

SL: Oh, that wonderful scene with Lily Tomlin. [Laughs]

RS: Yes, and it’s fabulous. And that is, I think, the real Jane. Sarcastic, sees the other side, can make fun of herself. And a lot of what, this insecurity, is also realistic. She had a sense of, don’t put us on a pedestal. And I think Jane grew up with that. Her father was not the man on the screen, she was not going to be the woman, she wasn’t the woman being pictured. There’s a realism to this woman that informed her life. That in an odd way, she didn’t take herself too seriously. She was kind of an anti-celebrity celebrity.

SL: But she also understood the power of celebrity. And I think it’s one of the reasons that she went to Vietnam. At one point, she was going to give up movies. And just, she was just about going t-o–this was long before she actually did give up movies for 15 years. And I can’t remember who it was who said to her, no, Jane, we’ve got plenty of people activists, but we don’t have a lot of celebrities; you’ve got to keep making movies so we can use the power of your celebrity, it will be very helpful. And let’s also not forget that she became a producer of movies. She produced “9 to 5”; she produced “The China Syndrome.” She saw that movies could address social issues and change people’s minds, as well as marching in the streets. She’s very smart, she’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. And she studies hard. She doesn’t wing it; she really gets to know the issues, and reads the papers, and you know, studies the—she’s quite amazing.

RS: None of this came easy. Whether it was her acting, her involvement with different causes, and so forth. What comes through is that she needed the, I forget the line from a Bob Dylan song, know your song well before you start singing. Practice, practice, practice. Maybe she got it from her father; know your script, know your lines. But I do want to end on mentioning one movie that you just mentioned, “9 to 5.” That movie was a pioneering movie in dealing with women as members of the workforce, as providers for a family, issues of discrimination and harassment on the job. I went back and looked at it quite recently—

SL: She produced it.

RS: She produced it. And so, and she shaped it, it wasn’t just her name on it–

SL: Yeah, very much so. She’s the one who—she picked Lily, she picked Dolly, she knew who she wanted in that cast. You know, she’s—

RS: What a profound choice, to have Dolly Parton be in a movie talking about—

SL: Wasn’t that, isn’t that brilliant?

RS: —ordinary women in the workplace being harassed, and trying to get ahead. OK, that’s a—

SL: And there’s going to be a remake of “9 to 5.”

RS: Well, that’s another thing. Let’s end on that note. She—here’s Jane, still out there doing it all, right? I mean, this is not a farewell—

SL: I mean, it’s a [sequel]—it’s not a remake, it’s a—I think it’s—maybe it’s a remake.

RS: Yeah, but the point you made about when she said, I’m on my last chapter—but this is quite an exciting chapter of her life.

SL: Well, let’s also remember that Jane says she’s still a work in progress.

RS: Well, that’s a good point on which to end. I’ve been talking to Susan Lacy, who has received multiple Emmy and PGA awards. She created the PBS American Masters, and she’s made a number of important movies. But this one is a terrific one on Jane Fonda, done for HBO. Our producers are Joshua Scheer and Isabel Carreon. Our engineers here at KCRW are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. I’m Robert Scheer and I’ll see you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

Robert Scheer
Editor in Chief
Robert Scheer, editor in chief of Truthdig, has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his 30 years as a journalist. His columns appear in newspapers across the country, and his…
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