Ms. America

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“If you want to send a message,” the film mogul Samuel Goldywn once said about political movies, “use Western Union.” Fonda’s cinematic successes of the late seventies proved, quite to the contrary, that message films could ride high at the box office. The key was subtlety and audience appeal. “You can’t propagandize,” she insisted, cognizant of her mistakes earlier in the decade. “It has to be a good, well-told story. If you don’t have that, people won’t go.” Having learned the hard way that audiences took her onscreen persona as her real one, she mastered the art of casting herself against type, playing apolitical characters onscreen and thereby confounding her reputation as a left-wing rabble-rouser. Her film roles belied her public image, enabling her to finesse her political agenda for easy, almost subliminal consumption by a mass audience. In !PC’s first feature film, Coming Home (1978), she played the politically neutral wife of a career Army officer who falls in love with a handicapped veteran who comes to oppose the war. The film’s implicit message—that an antiwar conscience actually translates into a superior masculinity—was conveyed through the two men, not through Fonda, but her performance earned her a second Oscar for Best Actress.

FONDA’S CINEMATIC SUCCESSES IN THE 1970s PROVED THAT MESSAGE FILMS COULD RIDE HIGH AT THE BOX OFFICE.

This calibration of her political and cinematic identities netted her critical acclaim and box-office success even while rehabilitating her public image. At the same time, her political concerns had a knack for shadowing, and at times even anticipating, the cultural and political permutations of the late seventies. In 1979 she co-produced The China Syndrome, cannily playing a politically apathetic, career-minded TV reporter who accidentally witnesses a meltdown while visiting a nuclear power plant. No sooner had the film opened than a real-life nuclear accident occurred in Pennsylvania, producing a bizarre convergence in which audiences went to see The China Syndrome in order to understand Three Mile Island. Fonda’s antinuke message was so effective that the “father of the H-bomb,” Edward Teller, actually blamed her for the heart attack he suffered at the time. The 1980 hit Nine to Five took on the issues of sexual harassment and women’s workplace grievances through the easily palatable formula of slapstick comedy, and Fonda cast the film’s players with the strategic care of a presidential candidate choosing a running mate. Knowing that “there are still a lot of people out there who would like to see me dead,” especially in more conservative regions of the country, she picked Dolly Parton because “Dolly gets us the South.”

By 1980, the year her political nemesis Ronald Reagan was elected President, Jane Fonda had staged a remarkable comeback: a Gallup poll ranked her among the world’s 10 most admired women. But despite the success of her films, she foresaw the diminished earning potential she could expect as an actress in her mid-forties and worried about securing new funding sources for the CED. As it turned out, the answer to her financial concerns would launch her next, and most lucrative, cultural incarnation. “This was at the height of Lyndon Larouche, and I discovered that he funded his organization through a computer business,” Fonda recalls. “So I said to Tom, ‘Let’s borrow a page from the right wing and figure out a business that we can start.’ Now, I’m about as far from a businesswoman as anybody could possibly be. But one day it just hit me: There’s one thing I understand, and that’s exercise. I know what works, and I know what it can do for a woman. Why don’t I turn it into a business?” Drawing from an exercise routine she had developed over the past twenty years that built on her early ballet training, she launched the “Workout,” an interdisciplinary regimen that incorporated calisthenics, dance, and aerobics.

 
 
 
 

Once again, Jane Fonda had tapped the spirit of the age. She opened her first Workout center in Beverly Hills, in 1979, and the concept took off. Workout centers spread to other cities, and Jane Fonda’s Workout Book sold nearly two million copies in its first year. Not only did her newest endeavor mesh with, as well as fortify, the fitness craze of the 1980s, it also helped jump-start the infant home-video industry. When the entrepreneur Stuart Karl persuaded her to release a video version of the Workout, her videocassettes quickly became bestsellers. By 1982 her fitness empire had taken in an astonishing $20 million. Like a vertically integrated corporation, the diversification of her professional identities now had a mutually reinforcing, synergistic effect. Showing off her fit, middle-aged body onscreen promoted her Workout routine; the Workout and film roles subsidized Hayden’s successful campaign for California State Assembly in 1982. At the same time, Jane Fonda the “political actress” now mutated into an emblem of the fitness-crazed, body-conscious, “say no to drugs” eighties.