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'HANOI JANE' REPACKAGES HERSELF

Six of us were sitting at a table with Jane Fonda. The name of the movie she was publicizing was "Agnes of God." Under ordinary circumstances, what a journalist gets from these celebrity, Q&A mini-performances is a teaspoon of identity. You have to figure out for yourself what the whole gallon jug is like. But then, that's the job.

It's not easy, usually -- except in this case.

Jane Fonda was, in life 20 years ago, mind-bogglingly beautiful. She was also fiercely intelligent, intense, articulate, and, as the godawful modern cliche goes, very much "in touch with her feelings." My guess is that she'd been through enough therapy for all of the rest of us combined. But then my other guess is that she probably needed it.

After 45 minutes of listening to Jane Fonda, I immediately understood her escapades as "Hanoi Jane," the deeply foolish comic strip villainess who will probably be unforgiven by some Vietnam veterans and right-wing idealogues until the day she dies. There is a certain kind of stupidity of which only wildly intelligent people are capable -- just as there are certain kinds of bad movies and bad books that can only be created by truly great filmmakers and truly great writers (for the most obvious example of the latter, see the last 25 years of Norman Mailer in print).

Jane Fonda has all -- and I do mean all -- the requisite gifts of a truly great film actress. And every single one of them is inimical, by its very nature, to those of a sensible political thinker. The idea that in our society any old Arnie or Jane is automatically of political or intellectual interest is one of the more idiotic delusions we live by. (Not, mind you, that show business celebrity -- or any other renown for that matter -- ought to disqualify anyone from the privileges of democratic citizenship. But then who's to say that Kid Rock's political opinions, say, are any less cogent than the more famous blunderbusses of talk radio?)

Jane Fonda is back, a one-woman publicity wave. Her jolly dumb-down comedy with Jennifer Lopez "Monster-In-Law" will be released May 13. And her book, "My Life So Far" (Random House, 624 pages, $26.95) is officially being published today, with a nice big swatch all bought and paid for in the current Time Magazine.

On "60 Minutes" Sunday, Lesley Stahl asked a lot of the same political questions I asked 20 years ago. (I was a wee bit friendlier and less prosecutorial but then I wasn't posing as a tough interviewer for the "60 Minutes" cameras.)

She's politically astute enough in a W world to admit to "betryal" and "the largest lapse in judgment I can imagine" when she gigglingly sat on a Viet Cong anti-aircraft gun turret. (Lots of people go to J-Lo movies in red states.)

What I didn't ask about were her threesomes with first husband Roger Vadim and whoever else was on the menu on any given night. She now says she actively solicited extra bed company to satiate Vadim's sexual needs. (Or maybe they were just social needs. Some people wear fewer clothes at their parties than others.)

At 67, Fonda copped to having a "disease to please" -- not with women but with men. If I connect the dots properly from Stahl's "60 Minutes" interview, she seemed to blame all of this on a cold, loveless childhood (not touched on by Stahl was her mother's suicide when Fonda was 13).

What we got from Stahl, frankly, wasn't even a good teaspoon. It was more like the contents of an eyedropper. But then her decidedly secular revelations were occupying the same hour as the pope's death. All Fonda really wanted was to "rebrand" herself in a modern moviegoing world which doesn't know her from Susan Strasberg.)

On the other hand, the whole thing was worth it just to hear her admit that "shlepping clothes to the laundromat" (in Stahl's words) while married to Tom Hayden "made my teeth grate, to tell you the truth." (Well, of course it did. She's Jane Fonda, for God's sake.)

She still seems just as much a neurotic mess as ever -- only a couple decades older.

And that's the good news. It helped make her one of the greatest of all film actresses once. Maybe it will again, now that she's ever-so-carefully rebranded herself.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com