A tape recorder clicks on, playing the growling voice of former President Richard Nixon. He’s talking about the Vietnam war and actress Jane Fonda, specifically. He praises her father, actor Henry Fonda, before condescendingly opining how Fonda’s daughter is going down the wrong path. “What is the problem with Jane Fonda?” he says. What is the problem with Jane Fonda, indeed. In her nearly 60 year acting career Fonda has been the source of many problems, both personally and professionally. The woman once dubbed “Hanoi Jane” has a litany of regrets and inner struggles going back to childhood, and in Susan Lacy’s HBO documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, the actress is ready to get real about the problems she’s faced and dealt with, leaving the audience to wonder that maybe the problem was our fear of the fierce woman she is.
Fonda admits that for all her attempts to avoid being shaped by men, her life and career is inextricably bound up within the masculine presences of those around her. Using that, Lacy divides the two-hour documentary into five “acts,” headlined by each of Fonda’s three husbands, her father and, finally, herself.
Lacy’s documentary puts Fonda front and center in all things, breaking down the stereotypes that have defined the actress for decades. It’s fascinating to note that for all those who still denounce Fonda for her activism, the need to speak has always been difficult for her. In her homelife, feelings and thoughts weren’t expressed. Home video footage shows a little girl running through the Santa Monica Hills, unattended, as near to orphaned as she could get, according to her son, Troy Garity. Raised by a mother with mental illness and sexual abuse in her past, and a father more focused on his public persona than being present for his children, Jane Fonda grew up wanting to speak when she thought it would please others.
None of this is new if you’ve read Fonda’s autobiography, but what Lacy focuses on is the struggle one woman went through to avoid being what men wanted her to be and, by extension, what society wanted her to be. Throughout her life, Fonda says, she was at the mercy of living up to being Henry Fonda’s daughter. Her move to Paris was an attempt to find her own acting style, but it put her in the path of hedonistic director, Roger Vadim, and her subsequent marriage to Tom Hayden is what put her on the path towards political activism. But each man will tell you – both Hayden and Fonda’s last husband, Ted Turner are interviewed – they expected something from Jane. For Fonda, Hayden reminded her she was spoiled, and Turner wanted to dominate all her time. In the end, Fonda realized she’d lost herself, and it’s amazing seeing that realization cross her face.
The film is packed with archival footage of Fonda’s upbringing, her movies, and footage of her political work. All of these act as monuments to the actress’ own becoming. One major moment involves footage from Fonda’s 1981 drama On Golden Pond, which she starred in opposite her father. The actress lays out a moment of ad-libbing meant to knock her father off balance. Lacy makes sure to include the scene; a simple touch on the arm from Jane to her father that results in Henry Fonda trying to hold back tears. As Jane herself fights back the urge to cry while recounting the story, it’s a cleansing moment of catharsis. This documentary is a testament to a daughter reconciling with a man who, she notes in her autobiography “loved me when I was little,” but could never express it to her as she grew.
Lacy creates a swift-moving portrait of a woman’s self-discovery, and how audiences reacted to it all. Fonda pulls no punches in recounting the hard facts about her life, from her mother’s suicide to her misguided attempts to bring peace to Vietnam. When presented with questions about laughing with the North Vietnamese – a moment that Dick Cavitt grilled her on – Fonda is frank; she shouldn’t have done it and “will go to my grave” feeling horrible about it. She also is unafraid about discussing her failures as a mother, particularly with her eldest daughter, Vanessa.
Yet with each failure comes a realization. When Fonda divorced Ted Turner she tells the camera candidly that she worried about how it would look. An actress divorcing a multimillionaire who was allowing her to never work again? But in doing so she realized “I don’t need a man” and that being single was okay. That’s makes Fonda such an icon today; she is the example for women everywhere that finding one’s own identity, devoid of partners and parents, is necessary and beneficial.
If you’re a fan of Fonda this is a must-see television. If you’ve condemned the actress over the years maybe it’s time to hear her side of the story. In the era of #MeToo, hearing a woman’s tale of being misunderstood and misrepresented by men is beneficial. Jane Fonda in Five Acts is an emotional rollercoaster you’ll be happy you got on.
Jane Fonda in Five Acts airs on HBO September 24th.