Friday, February 12, 2021

My Life So Far by Jane Fonda

My Life So Far by Jane Fonda

I can't remember the first Jane Fonda movie I ever saw. Perhaps it was Barbarella when I was way too young to take in all the sexual overtones, and I simply thought it was a fun sci-fi adventure (and that she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen). Also, that the biting dolls freaked me out.

Or maybe it was Barefoot in the Park, which bubbled with chemistry and charm so strong it almost sizzled off the TV screen. Jane Fonda and Robert Redford made a fizzy, fantastic pairing, and I couldn't resist watching whenever it came on.

I think, though, the first was probably 9 to 5, followed by On Golden Pond, both seen on the big screen when I was in elementary school. I don't remember a lot of people taking kids to see those films, and certainly not over and over (that's just what happens when your dad manages movie theaters and the screen becomes your babysitter). 

I loved, LOVED, 9 to 5. Still do. I loved Jane and Lily and Dolly intensely. How could I not? Audiences ate that movie up, and it seems like it stayed in the theater for months. I saw it over and over, taking in the crowd reactions, amazed at how fun it was even after repeat viewings. There was a similar phenomenon with On Golden Pond. Everyone ate that up too, and crowds kept coming well into its run.

The other thing I remember about Fonda from my childhood, besides her famous workout tapes in the 1980s, was that a lot of people, including my dad, hated her for her activism against the Vietnam War. I couldn't figure out how she was both the most hated woman alive from some corners, and still clearly a huge star whose films and workout videos people supported in droves. All I knew was that I liked her, and a lot of the bile flung her way just sounded like a chance to express hate of women in general (such as from my Vietnam-vet father, who not only hated Fonda, but referred to the TV show China Beach as "China Bitch" because the show focused on female lead characters.).

In recent years, I was thrilled to see Fonda and Tomlin reunite for the sitcom Grace and Frankie on Netflix and the HBO documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts, the latter of which showed Fonda's ability to give a reflective, honest take on her own amazing life. It's excellent, and I'd recommend watching it before reading her memoir to gain an overview of her life and honest assessment of herself.

So when I picked up Fonda's memoir, My Life So Far, I did so from a place of admiration and curiosity, and it didn't disappoint.

In the book (which came out in 2005), just as in the documentary (released in 2018), Fonda went deep in reflecting on herself, opening up about the mistakes, motivations and passions of a long life that was spent under public scrutiny since day one thanks to being the daughter of one of Hollywood's biggest stars, Henry Fonda.

She doesn't shy away from voicing her mistakes, and admits to changing parts of herself and her lifestyle to fit the mold wanted by whichever man was in her life at the time. She's far from the only woman to ever do this, but it's not often discussed openly the way Fonda does here, laying herself bare on relationships and so much more.

Throughout her life, she focused on growing and learning, throwing herself fully into whatever personal cause fueled her passion (which often reflected the passions or interests of her current husband as well). But she never fully gave up all of herself and her own causes and goals, and when she cared about something, she spent significant time learning about it. She invested time reading, traveling, and talking to people who had firsthand experience on a variety of issues, working to understand those issues and what could be done to effect change. She listened to the stories and concerns of Vietnam vets, Black Panther members and Native Americans, many times over, around the country. She's been an activist for more than 50 years and still walks the walk. In 2019, at age 82, she was arrested in DC as part of a climate change march. It was far from the first time she got arrested supporting a cause.

Besides her films (many of which she helped develop to further exposure or understanding of causes close to her heart) and her workout videos, her activism is one of the most profound parts of her exceptional life. And it's the one for which she's taken the most heat.

For years, she was called "Hanoi Jane" and I've no doubt she still gets derisively called by that name, though not as much as she used to be. With this memoir, she explains her activism against the Vietnam War and the vast extent she went to in educating herself, and how the infamous photo of her on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun came to pass. She made some mistakes along the way, but she more than paid the price. 

The hate was strong against her, but it never crushed her career. And I can tell you, no way in hell were those decades of hate just about thinking she was some kind of traitor. Sure, some genuinely thought she was, but I believe misogyny was woven through the loathing flung at her. She was a safe target for venting anger and hatred of women in general, even though many who did so would deny it because they didn't realize how much they told on themselves with their words and actions.

I knew a military officer who told me about there being a urinal in a men's restroom at the Pentagon that had a photo of Jane Fonda in the bottom (this was told to me in the 2000s, though I'm not sure of the year the photo was there or how long it remained). He wasn't old enough to have been in the Pentagon back in the '70s, so I know this took place decades after the war ended. He laughingly told of men lining up to use that one urinal so they could piss on Fonda's face. To me, what he was saying but not hearing himself say: They lined up to piss on a woman's face. The men were putting on a show of hatred to an "anti-American traitor," but it was also an acceptable way to show what they thought of loud-mouthed women who didn't know their place. It was pure misogyny, cloaked in patriotism. 

That Fonda stood up to that level of hate, and has done so for nearly 50 years since the photo that started it all was first published, is an amazing testament to her strength and resolve. She carried on with her activism, making public appearances without knowing if people would show up meaning her ill due to her protests of the Vietnam War. She carried on putting herself out there in movies, often a driving force in the development of films that dealt with important issues. Issues like what many vets encountered when they returned home from war in the movie Coming Home, which Fonda conceived of, produced and starred in (and which also won her a Best Actress Oscar in 1979). Issues like workplace inequality and harassment, which she took on in 9 to 5, a film disguised as a comedy that showcased what workplaces were for many women, and what they could become (some of the innovations featured in the film still haven't come to pass at most companies 40 years later in the way of job sharing and on-site child care for employees).

Jane Fonda made mistakes and poor decisions along the journey of her life, like all of us do. Most of ours our hidden, things few know about and we ourselves have the luxury of forgetting or downplaying. You can't do that when you're in the spotlight, so it's easier to take a potshot at a celebrity and cite examples of what you consider errors in their life, all done without the fear of similar stones being thrown at you, because the world at large doesn't have the details of your life.

Fonda also raised awareness of important issues and helped effect change in many ways. Not the least of which being those workout videos, the ones that spurred a boom in ownership of VCRs, which in turn sparked a boom in home movie rentals as more people had a way to watch. She did the videos to raise money to support political causes, and has donated millions generated by those workout tapes.

The book covers her life from birth to shortly after her divorce from Ted Turner. It's thoughtful, fascinating, and honest. I own both the ebook and Audible version, switching back and forth between the two. She narrates the book beautifully, which is unsurprising for someone who's been nominated seven times for the Best Actress Oscar and won twice. I got through most of it by reading rather than listening simply because it's a very long audiobook and I don't have enough places in my day to do a long listen. Trying to do so stretched it out for months before I mostly gave up on the audio version to focus on the ebook.

If you love Fonda or just have curiosity about her life, do yourself a favor and read this book. If you hate her, also read the book. You might find there's more to her than you realized, that there's always a story behind the story. You might find reasons to reflect on your own life, where you've been, where you're going, what matters to you and how you pursue those things. 

My Life So Far is a rare find, telling of an extraordinary life that's not over yet. It's worth the journey.

If you love talking about books, please follow or friend me on Goodreads. Let's be book buddies!

No comments:

Post a Comment