Jane Fonda is a compelling and complex figure. She is 80 this year, on 21st December, and I am interested in looking at her life and work, celebrating its key moments and my interests in them. She is a two-time Academy Award winner, a dedicated activist, and a singular cultural figure. This series of essays is a way for me to celebrate the work and star image of Jane Fonda. I find her life inspiring, her performances compelling, and while they offer insight to her evolution as an actress, they also reveal interesting qualities that mark her feminism and celebrity. Fonda is a fascinating woman and her star image is similarly intricate. It speaks to how women have been, and continue to be, viewed and mediated in popular culture. Her legacy runs deep and her impact endures. So I say to you:
Happy Birthday, Jane. Thank you for your work and your immeasurable contributions. Here’s to you, and your continued success. Yours, A sincere admirer, and ardent fan
Jane Fonda is a complex figure with a star image that is memorable, and yet elusive. She is at once a divisive political activist, and a ‘sex-symbol’; she is a home exercise entrepreneur, and a compelling and talented actress. This post focuses on one form of Fonda’s political activism through the lens of her two Academy Award acceptance speeches. These speeches, and the extenuating political circumstances surrounding them, reveal interesting things about how Fonda has navigated the difficult landscape of political engagement and autonomy in an industry and culture that is dismissive and sceptical.
‘Thank you, thank you very much, members of The Academy, and thank all of you who applauded. There’s a great deal to say, and I’m not going to say it tonight. I would just like to, really, thank you very much.”
This was the entirety of Jane Fonda’s speech for her Oscar winning performance in 1972’s Klute. This speech was delivered at a time when Fonda herself was a contentious and highly divisive figure. Her political activism and interventions in the landscape surrounding the Vietnam War had plunged her star persona into conflict. She was the living embodiment of the chasm between a saint and a sinner; vilified by some, praised by others. The brevity of the speech doesn’t seem to suggest such a politically alive and disruptive figure. Instead, this moment is humble and quiet, and I suggest is representative of the complexity of Jane Fonda. She is both provocative and careful, challenging and considered.
The idea of the ‘well-behaved woman’ is a pervasive and damaging trope that has stained society for centuries. Whether in the fields of politics, the arts, sports, law, or journalism (really any public or private space), women’s ability to be vocal and powerful – essentially to be fully present – has been stifled. There are of course exceptions, but this pressure to not disrupt has its hooks deeply in the fabric of cultural behaviour. We just have to look at the desire to silence Hillary Clinton during her recent book tour, contrasted with the criticism levelled at her when she fails to comment on every current affair – “shut up now!”…. “Oh wait, speak up here”. The signals are mixed, and women often find themselves in fraught territory, especially when it comes to being politically engaged and vocal.
Jane Fonda has experienced her share of misogynistic reproaches throughout the years. This moment in time however, culminating in her Oscar win for Klute, is the point I want to focus on. It provides a snapshot into how one figure negotiated her role as a politically active and autonomous woman, film star, and member of a Hollywood dynasty. The main furore surrounding Fonda at this point has been well documented. In July 1972 Fonda visited Hanoi, Vietnam. She toured bombed dikes, and during one tour she sat on top of an anti-aircraft gun, posing for photographs and singing along to the anti-war song “Da Ma Di”. Fonda clapped and cried. The photo that resulted would turn out to be damning for Fonda; in her own words it made her look like she was trying to shoot down American planes. Throughout the years Fonda has explained this moment, and recognised its contentious value. She has apologised and stated in no unclear terms that she will regret her choices on this day forever. However at the time, Fonda didn’t offer such clear reflections, hence her Oscar speech, and its brevity. There was a passionate campaign against her, many saw her as a traitor, and the media circulated false stories exaggerating her involvement in ‘anti-American’ initiatives. The French auteurs Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin produced Letter To Jane (1972), where they dissected an image from Fonda’s trip to Hanoi and framed it around points of political activism and engagement. Needless to say, her actions had vast impact. People may have expected her speech to be a political tirade in which she defended herself and blasted the specific political media climate that hounded her; instead the speech was a small but powerful gesture. Her acknowledgment of the greatness of the situation and the scale of what must be said, coupled with her choice to not go into detail at the Oscars was revealing, and has many implications. It showed Fonda as multifaceted – she is able to live in two worlds, and she understands the boundaries between them. On one hand, Fonda knew this moment could add to the drama and media frenzy surrounding her and would not develop a real dialogue and discussion around the issues she cared so deeply for. And on the other, Fonda’s activism is integral to her beliefs and indeed star image, and she could not remain wholly quiet. This was a silent acknowledgement.
The political contention surrounding Fonda didn’t impede her Hollywood success however. Six years later she won her second Oscar for her performance in 1978’s Coming Home. Fonda played Sally Hyde, the wife of a Captain in the United States Marine Corps. The film both celebrated American soldiers and cast a critical eye on the Vietnam War. Sally undergoes a transformation – emotionally and ideologically. The film didn’t shy away from exploring what it means to be both patriotic and opposed to certain conflicts. Much like her acceptance speech for Klute, Fonda’s words were tied to the political ethos that surrounded her persona. The speech was powerful and political, speaking volumes in actions, not just words. Fonda signed part of her speech, stating that: “while we were making the movie, we all became more aware of the problems of the handicapped. Over 14 million people are deaf. They are the invisible handicapped. They can’t share this evening, so this is my way of acknowledging them.” This moment confirmed that Fonda both understood the scope of the audience she has, and that of the Oscars, but more than that: it showed Fonda’s understanding of celebrity activism. Her speech elicited applause – who can disagree with her desires to honour and respect disabled people and veterans? This is not to say this moment was manipulative, rather a reflection of Fonda’s awareness of her platform and the potential therein. This further affirms Fonda’s commitment to compassionate political activism, using her voice and celebrity to illuminate issues she holds dear.
Fonda’s speech for Coming Home contrasted with her speech for Klute. It indicated a partial resolution of the conflict surrounding the perception of Fonda and her activism. While the Vietnam controversy was still a thing (and remains one still), Fonda used this opportunity to course-correct. This speech and the film’s message regarding anti-war sentiments helped to diffuse the hostility towards Fonda. Moreover, these speeches reveal a sense of resistance that seems to never be far from Fonda. To be politically active as a celebrity is a complicated thing. You can be silenced for not ‘staying in your lane’, for being naïve, or for being attention-seeking and so on. But to be politically active as an actress can be even more challenging. Alongside the opposition to what she stood for, Fonda faced misogynistic harassment and criticism based primarily on the fact she was a woman - a woman taking up space, being seen and being heard.
Regardless of one’s personal opinions on the Vietnam War, or towards war in general and on ideas of patriotism, it is clear to see that Fonda lived through a tumultuous time. She has apologised continually for actions in Hanoi, and she has spoken eloquently on her regrets, but she makes one thing clear – seen in her Oscar speeches and through her engagement with many political issues – she will not be shamed nor will she be silenced.
Words by Daniel Massie
Letter To Jane, 1972, Directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin To celebrate Jane Fonda's birthday we will be hosting a screening of Barbarella at Genesis Cinema, London on the 2nd February 2018. More information here: https://genesiscinema.co.uk/GenesisCinema.dll/WhatsOn?Film=9734590