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WHY JANE FONDA IS A MIRROR OF THE NATION’S PAST FORTY YEARS
July/August 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 5
Strasberg’s approach to acting has often been criticized for producing a generation of mumbling, self-enclosed islands of subjectivity, Marion Brando being a chief example. Yet despite its excesses, Strasberg’s philosophy centered on the belief that actors shouldn’t play a role so much as inhabit it. As he put it in a 1956 New York Times Magazine article, “I stress the difference between the actor who thinks acting is an imitation of life and the actor who feels acting is living. Unless the actor onstage really comes alive, really lives a character, he gives a superficial interpretation.” The Method emphasized the importance of empathy, not imitation: One student who was to play a prostitute in a movie was told to go out and sleep with sailors. It was very possibly under Strasberg’s tutelage—part dramatic training and part group psychoanalysis—that Fonda mastered the two elements that would make her such an effective harbinger and exemplar of her times: empathy and exhibitionism. The technique that allowed her intuitively to appropriate someone else’s subjectivity for the purposes of a screen role would later enable her to conform to, and inhabit, the changing configurations of American culture—to “become” the culture, as it were.
From the high-minded rigor of the Actors Studio, Fonda descended in 1960 into a morass of shallow, forgettable roles, playing a cheerleader in her debut, Tall Story, and a “bad girl” in Walk on the Wild Side. Fearful of becoming just another Hollywood studio player, she made a bold career move in 1963: She accepted the director René Clément’s offer to star in a French film, Joy House, opposite Alain Delon. Although eager to work with Clément, Fonda worried about the repercussions of a cinematic identity crafted abroad. “Nobody’s ever heard of an American actress making a name for herself by taking off to Europe,” her future husband Roger Vadim recalled her saying at the time. But as it turned out, she had unwittingly located the pulse of 1960s cinema.
Fonda chose Paris, which at the time was the capital of New Wave filmmaking, the home of the avant-garde directors Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. “Hollywood had already embarked on a desperate effort to become Europeanized,” notes her biographer Thomas Kiernan. “In their attempt to recover their audiences, American films rapidly became infiltrated by the mannerisms of the French style.”
One of the masters of the “French style” was the director Roger Vadim, who had launched the career of his wife Brigitte Bardot in the 1956 film And God Created Woman. Vadim’s entire cultural mission seemed to center on provoking audiences with movies about sexual frankness. He had mastered the art of embedding risqué adult content in scenarios drawn from classic French novels, thereby coating it with a varnish of respectability. As a result, his movies gained distribution in France and the United States under the guise of “art films.” Interwoven with his film work was Vadim’s reputation as the self-described “pope of hedonism,” a reputation reinforced by his fathering children with two of France’s most famous female stars, Bardot and Catherine Deneuve. Vadim mused on his ability to attract high-profile women in his notorious autobiography Bardot Deneuve Fonda: “For some, the secret was my performance in bed; for others, I was only a vehicle for success; and for still others, I was a Svengali capable of bewitching innocent young girls and molding them as I wished.” Repulsed by and then attracted to Vadim for precisely these reasons, Jane Fonda married him in 1965—which also meant starring in his films and serving as iconographic ammunition in Vadim’s ongoing crusade against bourgeois sexual morality. “I needed someone to teach me how to be a woman,” Fonda remarks today with a laugh, “and I was stupid enough—no, I take that back—superficial enough to think that Vadim would do it. And he taught me a lot, but it’s a certain version of womanhood.”
It was during the Vadim years that Fonda became, in both France and America, a kind of shorthand signifier for hedonism, decadence, and public nudity. Although she bore no resemblance to Brigitte Bardot either physically or stylistically, the French press quickly dubbed Fonda “la BB américaine” and, fond of animal metaphors, described her as “a young wild thing, galloping too fast” and “the black panther I used to watch in the zoo.”
The films she made in France, while successfully endowing her with sought-after European cachet, also tended to reinforce her association with free-loving nudism. American critics like Judith Grist ignored the plot of Vadim’s 1966 film The Game Is Over and dwelled instead on the near-nudity, dubbing Fonda a “Miss Screen Nude of ‘67.” (Fonda later remarked that, in the United States, “if you do a Dostoyevsky film and take your bra off, you’re a sex symbol.”) The American distributors of another Vadim/Fonda movie, Circle of Love , placed an eight-story-high billboard of a nude Fonda atop a Broadway theater, an image not even drawn from the film itself. “What shocked me personally was that the poster was extremely ugly,” remarked the relentlessly casual Vadim.