For January’s Dame in the Game, we look at a slightly more contemporary figure with strong roots in classic Hollywood. Jane Fonda, daughter of iconic actor Henry Fonda, made her screen debut in 1960. Through a series of indelible screen roles, a lifetime of activism, and an outspoken commitment to feminism, she defined herself as an icon, inspiration, and true “Dame in the Game.”
Fonda came to acting via experiences with her father, and ultimately, joined the legendary Actors Studio under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg in 1958. She made her screen debut in 1960 in Tall Story, establishing a girl-next-door persona that would dominate her early career. Still, she made occasional departures, turning the Western genre on its head as a female outlaw in Cat Ballou (1965) and displaying the ennui of young married women in Barefoot in the Park, a reprise of her Broadway role. Fonda rose to international prominence as a sex symbol when she took on the role of Barbarella (1968).
Shortly after this her screen work would take a more serious, nuanced turn, dovetailing with her rising involvement in political activism. With her first Oscar-winning role, Bree Daniel in Klute (1971), Fonda took the stock female role of a prostitute and showed us the complex inner life and psyche of a female character.
Beginning in the 1960s, Fonda became a passionate activist, fighting for civil rights and in opposition to the Vietnam War. Many of Fonda’s actions were controversial, including supporting the revolutionary Black Panther Party. Fonda co-formed the FTA (Free the Army) tour, with fellow activist Fred Gardner and actor Donald Sutherland, with whom she toured West Coast military towns to speak to soldiers about upcoming deployments to Vietnam.
In 1970, Fonda spoke out against the war at a rally organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and was named Honorary National Coordinator for her efforts. She then commenced a national tour of college campuses, speaking out against the Vietnam War and raising money for VVAW.
In 1972, Fonda made her ill-fated trip to Hanoi in North Vietnam that many veterans still resent her for today. Fonda was there to survey the damage of U.S. military action and to interact with American P.O.W.s, but the already controversial trip was marred when Fonda was photographed sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery. The photograph made her appear as if she was supporting North Vietnamese action against American troops and earned her the nickname “Hanoi Jane.” Fonda has since apologized repeatedly for the photograph, calling her actions “thoughtless.” Fonda maintains her belief in her other activism, including live radio broadcasts she made throughout the Hanoi trip.
After her anti-war activism, Fonda became a passionate and dedicated supporter of numerous causes, fighting injustice and for peace in many corners of the world, including for Native American rights and environmentalism.
In 1972, Fonda helped found the Indochina Peace Campaign, which continued to support and mobilize antiwar activists through the end of the war. Fonda carried these efforts into her Hollywood career. Following the “Hanoi Jane” incident, Fonda saw her career decline, noting that she was essentially “gray-listed.”
In response, she co-founded her own production company, which she named IPC films, after the Indochina Peace Campaign. With IPC, Fonda set out to make socially relevant films and pledged that all of her acting work, with or without IPC, would be exclusively in films dealing with important issues. Her booming career in the late 1970s reflected this commitment, with films such as IPC film’s The China Syndrome that shed a light on the dangers of nuclear power and started a conversation about corporate greed and the responsibility of journalists.
With IPC films, Fonda produced and starred in Coming Home, which won her a second Oscar. The film highlighted the difficulty of disabled Vietnam veterans’ re-entry into civilian life, and it was inspired by Fonda’s own interactions with veterans through the VVAW. Fonda had become close friends with veteran Ron Kovic, who became paralyzed during his service as a Marine in Vietnam. Kovic was an outspoken anti-war protestor during the 1970s, leading hunger strikes and rallies, and writer of the 1976 book Born on the Fourth of July, detailing the true nature of the war in Vietnam. Fonda said numerous times that Coming Home was inspired by Kovic’s story, and he recently honored her for the film when she received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 2014.
Fonda also produced 9 to 5 (1980) through IPC Films, addressing harassment and gender bias in the workplace head-on in the iconic tongue-in-cheek comedy. 9 to 5 is just one of the many iterations of Fonda’s feminism. She is a chairperson of “V-Day,” a movement to stop violence against women, which includes annual rallies and benefit performances of The Vagina Monologues. In 2001, she founded the Jane Fonda Center at Emory University, which focuses on preventing adolescent pregnancy through providing adequate education and information.
She has also tackled gender bias in the media, co-founding the Women’s Media Center with Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem in 2005. The WMC aims to combat the lack of female visibility and representation in the media to make women’s voices heard. According to their website, they do this through: “media advocacy campaigns, media monitoring for sexism, creating original content, training women and girls to participate in media, and promoting media experienced women experts.”
In addition to her career as an actress, activist, and producer, Fonda built herself an empire as a fitness guru with her 1980s exercise videos, beginning with Jane Fonda’s Workout. It would become the highest-selling video of all time and launch a fitness craze amongst baby-boomers. Fonda would ultimately release 23 workout videos in total, and in 2010, released two new DVDs targeted at older audiences. With her fitness DVDs and her second memoir Prime Time, examining how to live and age well, Fonda has also been outspoken against ageism and a proponent of living life to the fullest at any age.
After a fifteen-year retirement from acting from 1990-2005, Fonda is now a steadily working actress, with credits such as The Newsroom, Grace and Frankie, and most recently, a supporting role in Youth earning her Oscar buzz. She began a blog in 2009 to chronicle her return to Broadway and has since kept it regularly updated and expanded to an online community on her website, including message boards and an active social media presence.
At seventy-eight, Fonda is still acting and agitating. A businesswoman with a deep-seated passion for social justice, Fonda shows no signs of slowing down, which makes her a “Dame in the Game” of both classic Hollywood and our present moment.
Jane Fonda has written two autobiographies, “My Life So Far” and “Prime Time,” as well as maintaining an active presence on www.janefonda.com. This article owes a great debt to the content highlighted in the 42nd AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony honoring Jane Fonda.
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