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'Jane Fonda in Five Acts' is a More an Offstage Look at the Actress
September 23, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Considering her eventful life, which now spans more than 80 years, it’s not surprising Jane Fonda has a lot to say about Jane Fonda.

She gets to say a good deal of it over the two and a quarter hours of Jane Fonda In Five Acts, a documentary that premieres Monday at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

It’s worth the time, both for those who admire Fonda and for those who will never forgive a couple of the things she did and said while campaigning against the Vietnam War in the early 1970s.

Over the last 50 years, she has become a wonderful actress, one of the best of our time, skilled at both intense drama and light comedy. She has achieved the near-impossible goal of becoming as accomplished in her field as her father, Henry.

She has also become a polarizing figure, ever since she took a trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War and posed, smiling, behind one of the anti-aircraft guns that were shooting down American bombers.

Fonda has apologized repeatedly over the years for the insensitivity of that moment. She does so again here while explaining again that she considers herself a patriot, someone who was trying to convince America to correct its course.

The purpose of that trip to North Vietnam, she reiterates, was to show Americans what their bombing campaign was doing to the non-combatant population of North Vietnam – and more specifically, that President Richard Nixon’s hope of bombing the country’s dikes would have drowned up to a million civilians.

Her then-husband, Tom Hayden (below, with Fonda), says Fonda’s visit was a primary reason why the dikes were never bombed. But what the visit earned her more prominently was the tag Hanoi Jane, which will be one of the lead items on Fonda’s obituary someday. She seems to accept that.

Five Acts also explores the other 79-plus years of her life, and those years have their own fascinations.

Some of the narrative comes from home movies, vintage interviews, and comments from friends like Robert Redford. Most of it comes from Fonda herself, filmed for this production, and it’s clear she’s been thinking about her life for a long time.

She speaks like someone who has become acutely self-aware, analyzing every remembered moment of her life and trying to put all the pieces together in a way that makes sense.

Like most of us, she’s found that impossible. She can only explain some of the pieces by acknowledging that no one is perfect.

She explains why she married each of her three husbands – film director Roger Vadim, activist Hayden, and media mogul Ted Turner – by analyzing why she needed them at the time. Vadim was a charismatic star in a field she wanted to conquer. Hayden embodied the social commitment she wanted to make a centerpiece of her new life. Turner offered security and freedom.

In each case, she says, she evolved into a different person, and it torpedoed the marriage. Vadim couldn’t accept her activism. Hayden turned to other women as Fonda started to combine her social commitment with a return to film. With Turner, she decided she could never find herself if she remained in the shadow of a powerful man.

Hayden and Turner (right, with Fonda) both speak warmly of her, and she has no harsh words for them. There’s a hint of circumspection in some of her reflections on people in her life, however, which becomes more acute when she alludes to the strain in her relationship with her daughter Vanessa Vadim.

She regrets “not being a better parent,” Fonda says, and she hopes Vanessa “will forgive me.”

Her son with Hayden, Troy Garity, says his upbringing was bizarre, but he has only kind words for his mother.

Fonda occasionally shows a hint of emotion when she’s speaking about her early life. She remembers it as lonely, with a distant father and a troubled, unhappy mother who eventually committed suicide. Even there, however, her tone most often seems calm and analytic, as if this kind of reflection is simply part of her everyday thought process.

She talks about how satisfying it was to finally make a movie with her father, On Golden Pond, in which the strained father-daughter relationship eerily paralleled the one between Fonda and her own father.

She laughs when she recalls how her megahit workout videos were conceived as a way to raise money for activist causes. She says she wishes she were “brave” enough to have gone into her later years without plastic surgery.

Interesting, in their absence, are references to colleagues, friends, influences and other actors. Her introduction to activism from Simone Signoret stands out as an exception.

Nor does she talk much about acting. She reflects on a couple of her major films, including They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Klute, and 9 To 5, but the focus here falls far more on what was going on her personal life at those times.

Jane Fonda In Five Acts could be subtitled Jane Fonda In Her Own Words, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s not the definitive portrait since the harshest criticism from any of the interviewees here is that she occasionally didn’t think before she acted.

But it’s a valuable part of the record, and besides, purely as drama, her life is hard to resist.

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