- Historic Sites
WHY JANE FONDA IS A MIRROR OF THE NATION’S PAST FORTY YEARS
July/August 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 5
Another example of the almost subliminal association made between Jane Fonda and the new morality was Newsweek’s decision to feature a barebacked photo of the actress for a cover story titled “The Permissive Society,” evoking her as the child of Eros even though the article barely mentioned her. Questioned by the press about whether she had exhibitionist tendencies, Fonda spontaneously realized that she had been Method living—applying Method acting to the entirety of her life. “I do in life exactly what I do when I act,” she admitted, “talking like the character, and so on- as an experiment.” The fact that the American public and media conflated her with her vixenish film roles, that she tended to “become” her onscreen self in real life, and that her films reflected the sexual libertinism of the sixties, produced a unique synergy in which Jane Fonda the actress, the person, and the cultural phenomenon all melded into one entity. This fusion of self, image, and culture took hold at the very moment Barbarella was released, in 1968.
Barbarella, the kitschy sci-fi hit about a sexually uninhibited space woman, emblazoned her sex-symbol image forever after in the public mind. While Barbarella wasn’t a “movement movie” like Bonnie and Clyde, its free-love ethic implicated it in the cultural revolt sweeping the United States in the form of the hippie counterculture. Looking back on his Barbarella-era theories of sexual revolution from the vantage point of the 1980s, Vadim recalled the “aura of intoxication” of the late sixties, where “ancestral rules were on shaky ground,” and concluded, “Jane and I were guinea pigs of an unstable era, and we did not know it.” As it turned out, it was this very instability that would separate Fonda from Vadim and launch her into the most controversial phase of her life/career.
She had spent several years justifying American foreign policy to Vadim and his French friends, all of whom relentlessly criticized America’s intervention in Vietnam. Indeed, she had once been bestowed the title of “Miss Army Recruiting of 1962,” whereupon she gave an animated acceptance speech on America’s need for a strong military. “I was very defensive,” she recalls. “My father had fought in World War II, and I really believed that if our flag was flying somewhere, what we were doing in the name of the flag must be noble.” But gradually she came to oppose the Vietnam war. In 1968, pregnant with her first child, Vanessa, during the near-collapse of the de Gaulle government in France, she underwent an epiphany: “In the streets there was revolution, and then there was my own revolution—which childbirth is. I was seeing people in the United States putting their lives on the line to try to end the war, and I realized I wanted to be there.” Taking her newborn child with her, she abruptly terminated the French phase of her life, returning to a Hollywood brimming with radical activism.
Nineteen sixty-nine was the year of the radical celebrity in Hollywood. Fonda’s brother, Peter, starred in Easy Rider, the youth-culture hit that expressed hippie fears of a silent-but-deadly majority, while actors like Marion Brando and Paul Newman lent support to groups ranging from the Black Panthers to antiwar activists and Native Americans. Fonda landed on U.S. soil and dove headfirst into radical politics, holding press conferences for Huey Newton, visiting Native Americans who had seized Alcatraz, and devoting particular attention to the G.I. Coffeehouse movement, which was attempting to instill antiwar sentiment in U.S. soldiers. This abrupt shift in personas was replicated onscreen. At her most campy and frivolous in Barbarella , her next part was that of misanthropic, suicidal Gloria in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, perhaps the most brutally realistic role of her film career. In a prescient commentary, the film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “Jane Fonda stands a good chance of personifying American tensions and dominating our movies in the seventies as Bette Davis did in the thirties.” Nominated Best Actress for her harrowing performance, Fonda flashed a Black Panther fist-salute as she strode into the Oscars.