Share this article

print logo

FAST JANE
WHAT A LIFE -- FONDA'S EXHAUSTING MEMOIRS RACE FROM HER TELL-ALL SEXCAPADES TO APOLOGIES FOR THE VIETNAM ESCAPADE

You get your $27 worth, that's for sure. No one could credibly claim that you don't.

In fact, the woman's autobiography is downright exhausting, truth to tell. But then so, I'm told, were her workout tapes and her anti-war harangues.

No matter how many pictures are stuffed into her book, 600 is a lot of pages, especially when packed with so much hard-won, 67-year old healing, insight, wisdom and uplift. All the healing, etc., (hereinafter referred to as HIWU, in the acronymic way an old '60s radical is used to), isn't the least generic, either.

In that sense, Jane Fonda's memoir is positively, absolutely Oprah-tific which, as anyone in the world of modern publishing will tell you, is vastly preferable to being -- oh, you know -- important, much less good.

Oh sure, she doesn't tell you who the guy is that she had an affair with while she was married to Tom Hayden (who, earlier in the book, seems on the brink of telling her that he'd shagged the nanny, only to have her take refuge in a sudden spasm of "don't ask, don't tell"). If the guy's in show business, though, you can take an A-1 guess who it is just from the affair's geographical placement in the book (take special note of who's in the following chapter). Nor does she identify the "Italian Stallion" whom she briefly dallied with to delay the relentless Ted Turner onslaught, except to say that he's 6-foot-5 and a lot younger.

Not so lucky is the late actor James Franciscus (TV's "Mr. Novak" and "Longstreet") whom Ms. Fonda identifies by name as the boy to whom she lost her virginity. Not only that, if they'd been more ready for the occasion, it would have happened earlier on the back end of the adjoining Kennedy family estate. As it was, it had to wait until she was sufficiently plied with his epic poetry in iambic pentameter. Though she's far too well-bred to say so, one gathers from her tone that he was a bit of a crashing bore but then everybody has to start someplace.

The truth is that there is nothing artificial about this book. This really is a life and a half. No one who's been as alternately reviled and revered in her life (sometimes she's been both simultaneously) has to pretend to be interesting -- especially not if they've also, in youth, accompanied Greta Garbo on one of her nude swims in the Mediterranean (Garbo was nude; Fonda was decorously encased in a swimsuit.)

Her trouble, which we know now is lifelong, is that while she sort of knows, by breeding, when to be discreet, she just doesn't know how to shut up. Hence, 600 pages of erratic narrative and exhausting HIWU.

But, bless her, the thing is jam-packed with info you won't even find on the DVD version -- the bitter debate, for instance, with Director Hal Ashby on the exact nature of the carnality depicted in the tortuously self-congratulatory "Coming Home" (for which she and Jon Voight both won Oscars).

We've even got a local angle here. It seems that Troy, her son with Tom Hayden, was conceived during a political organizing trip "somewhere near Buffalo, New York."

And lest one forget the hugely successful producer/storyteller she's been, she even has two first-rate film-worthy chapters -- a tearjerker of a chapter on her father, Katharine Hepburn and "On Golden Pond" and a hilarious chapter on being courted by Ted Turner. Let's hope that if she had a ghostwriter, she lets him take a bow. If not, her screenwriting potential has been wasted all these years.

But then you get an awful lot of Vietnam here, too, to commemorate when she was in her quasi-revolutionary phase. She's now, you should now, in her feminist/born-again Christian phase.

< In ALL phases of her life, mind you, she has been useful as well as noisy. She was Barbarella when sexual liberation seemed like a good idea and anti-war when that was a good idea. She now apologizes for her idiot lapses in judgment during her 1972 visit to Hanoi but, judged rationally, she was probably more good than bad for the anti-war cause. In fact, in her emphasis on entertaining anti-war GIs, she anticipated what finally turned out to be America's mainstream ideological resting place on Vietnam -- anti-war but adamantly pro-veteran. It was, remember, Fonda's take on paraplegic anti-war vet Ron Kovic that gave us "Coming Home" and paved the way for "Born on the Fourth of July," one of the high points in the ambitions of Tom Cruise. (We're talking major American mainstream here.)

Pounds were lost, tummies firmed and glutes were hardened by her workout tapes. Let's not even talk about what they all did for the burgeoning video business.

I have no doubt that those readers in need of a self-esteem workout and a no-nonsense, soft-edged feminist talking-to will benefit immensely from all the HIWU in "My Life So Far," no matter how much eye-rolling it may inspire elsewhere.

Relentless, she is, as well as exhausting, but damned if she hasn't been useful for 40 years, to friends and foes alike. There are far worse things you could say about people.

The trouble is that her utility and her greatest gifts have been at lifelong war.

If you were writing a science fiction tale about the ideal eugenic manufacturer and education of a great film actress during movies' second Golden Age, you couldn't concoct a better nature and nurture than Jane Fonda's.

The woman was an unholy mess and still seems to be. And, from the perspective of a film actress, that's the good news.

She was born to Hollywood royalty and blessed with all those great Fonda facial genes. From the minute she was born, she was ready for her close-up.

Add to that, though, a cold, angry, undemonstrative father who yanked her arm when it was broken and told her she was fat when she wasn't; and a troubled mother who finally slit her throat when her daughter was 12; and a brother who subsequently almost killed himself with a gunshot wound to the stomach.

Now comes the fun. Throw in a fancy-schmancy education (Emma Willard and Vassar, where she learned to "experiment among the passions"). And intimate contact with some of the great figures of her time -- especially Method acting guru Lee Strasberg as her acting teacher and her Dad's old buddy Josh Logan as early shepherd. Never mind that he wanted her jaw broken and re-set for a more camera-ready jawline. She resisted. No matter how much she claims a lifelong suffering from what her pal Oprah calls "the disease to please," she was far from dumb and lacking in self-assertion when it really counted.

Throw in some odd but decidedly eye-opening marriages: to film director Roger Vadim, who liked gambling and threesomes; to activist Tom Hayden, who liked the money she could bring his causes; and billionaire Ted Turner, who treated her, in maturity, to "Versailles" sex and a small village of houses dispersed on some of the most beautiful land in the continental United States.

You couldn't ask for better film actress material: smart, patrician, beautiful, Hollywood down to her DNA and hopelessly damaged. Who better to pretend to be other people?

That, if you ask me, is the essence of the Jane Fonda problem -- to the degree that there is one.

It's one thing to fill the permanent hole within with well-chosen and brilliantly performed film roles. It's another to fill it with life roles one flails away at with hammer and tongs. All that hammering makes for a noisy but decidedly, uhhhh, imprecise life.

Her new-found late-life feminism is all well and good. It will hearten all manner of readers to know that after getting post-Hayden breast implants, she took them out. Nor is she a bingeing and purging bulimic anymore, she says.

But at just the life moment when her truest gifts were needed most in her profession, she gave it all up to go fly-fishing and fry-up buffalo steaks for Ted Turner.

She says that acting became increas ingly hard for her. And that Turner asked her not to work -- "disease to please" and all that.

Maybe so. But her own movie judgment began failing her, too. The film world went one way, she went another and made a lot of bad films with good people ("Stanley and Iris," "Rollover"). A great actress who, henceforth, hung in there when the going got REALLY tough could have done more for her true nature and her true profession than a colorful billionaire's trophy wife.

But, hey, it's never too late.

Her dumb-down comedy "Monster-in-Law" opens May 13. And with "My Life So Far" we've all been put on notice that she's either a) a spottily gifted writer with a surprisingly large library or b) a woman with very good taste in ghost writers and a good strategy for collaborating.

She's still noisy enough to be fatiguing.

But, bless her, arthritic hip and all, she's still nothing if not useful.

Great to have her back, if you ask me.

My Life So Far
By Jane Fonda
Random House, 660 pages, $26.95

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com