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Jane Fonda at LACMA: Barbarella Barbie

Jane Fonda as <i>Barbarella</i>, screening at LACMA on Sunday

Jane Fonda as Barbarella, screening at LACMA on Sunday

There may be no stronger evidence of the latent American longing for a monarchy than our national tendency to worship Hollywood celebrities like they're royalty. And, as with all royal families, the children of these kings and queens loom as symbols of their generations solely by virtue of their birth. Today the likes of Khloe Kardashian and Nicole Richie inherit these thrones without any compunction, sailing down red carpets and into holding cells with a blank gaze, improbably high heels and a roaring sense of entitlement.

Maybe that's why we forget that, before there were Barbarella Jane, Hanoi Jane, Workout Jane, Oscar Winner Jane, Trophy Wife Jane, Best-Selling Author Jane, Recovery Jane or Born Again Jane, there was Lady Jayne (her given name), the neglected daughter of screen legend Henry Fonda.

Unlike contemporary celebukids who seem content with being famous merely for being famous, Fonda has never been content to rest on the laurels that were her natural birthright. Although her myriad incarnations can read as a symbol of her generation's episodic evolution as easily adopted (and discarded) as Barbie's snap-on costumes, one quality has always remained consistent in Fonda: her perpetual, fervent quest for meaning. That's a far cry from today's Hollywood sons and daughters, who pursue their tautological fame with pathologies aplenty but nary a "What's it all about, Alfie?" reflex — unless you count the narcissistic compulsion for recognition that manifests in reality shows and design lines. Even Angelina Jolie seems more compelled by her urge to collect hats (be they babies or international causes) than by any true, predominant passion.

Nonetheless, along with the Barrymore and Crawford kids, Fonda is first, if not foremost, one of Hollywood's original poor little rich girls — so much so that she suffered for decades from bulimia, was rejected by her distant famous daddy until his death, and read of her mom's suicide in a movie magazine at the boarding school where she'd been stowed. (She'd been told her mother had died of heart failure.)

In LACMA's retrospective "Bright Star: Jane Fonda on Film," what emerges most is her resulting hunger to connect to something — whether it's acting teacher Lee Strasberg or the antiwar movement, her three husbands (French director Roger Vadim, Chicago Eight revolutionary Tom Hayden, magnate Ted Turner) or the temple of the body, or, most recently, Jesus.

But such raw hunger rarely rears its head gracefully. No matter the movie, Fonda has never evinced the natural insouciance of actors whose own charisma, rather than their prominent parentage, secured their fame. (To be fair, fellow star-spawn Jeff Bridges and Jane's brother, Peter Fonda, possess such charisma in spades.) Even as Barbarella, Fonda tries so damn hard to prove her worth — widening her eyes, fluttering her fake lashes and pointing her toes in order to be the very best satirical sexpot she can be — that she drains the sci-fi sex farce of any truly enjoyable camp, though it's still celebrated as a kitschy classic by many.

Her efforts can register as downright awkward. It's hard not to squirm when this ultimate shiksa gingerly utters, "You're a mensch," as a TV reporter angling for a big story in 1979's The China Syndrome. And it's almost funny when she tosses out come-ons like "I'm the best fuck in the world" in her clipped, boarding-school diction, to summon the voluptuous loneliness of a call girl in Klute (1971).

Indeed, it's the voice that often betrays her. Braying, wavering and even occasionally squawking, it's nearly always free of nuance, even wit. More than most actresses of her generation, Fonda, now 71, has changed her look many times over the last five decades, though she's always boasted the dancer's waist, Cupid's-bow mouth and tiny, flaring nostrils. But it's her voice that stands out as unmistakably Jane. Whether she's hanging with the Black Panthers, the French avant garde or the American CEO class, she's never lost the rushing, bizarrely British tones unique to Hollywood actors of the first half of the 20th century — a WASPy overenunciation delivered with a bell-clear stridency. Like Katharine Hepburn's, maybe, but with none of that grand-dame diaphragm — a disparity used to excellent effect in On Golden Pond.

In that story of an aging couple (Hepburn and Henry Fonda) struggling to make peace with their mortality as well as their grown child (Jane), the similarities and differences between the two women's voices are what make the film's case. Kate, as loose-limbed and irreverent as ever, gently teases her doting bear of a husband, while his on- and offscreen daughter shrills mightily to snare any of his attention. It's in this film that you comprehend where Jane got the voice in the first place. She is striving to be heard by a daddy who remained deaf to her until the very end. In this film, as in all of Fonda's strongest work on- and offscreen, she willingly projects a fearful, sorrowful longing that, when you think about it, has always lurked in her flashing blue eyes and, yes, in her voice. That ever-purposeful, courageous voice.

Which is why she is at her absolute finest in Hal Ashby's Coming Home, the 1978 critical and commercial hit that looked squarely in the many faces of a growing U.S. impotence. Amid a wash of Beatles, Stones, Dylan and Hendrix anthems, Fonda plays a conservative military wife who always aims to please, whether it's her rat fink of a Marine captain husband (Bruce Dern) or, eventually, the Vietnam vet (Jon Voight) who returns home an antiwar paraplegic. Here, she mines everything she's got — her rod-straight posture; her careful pronunciation; her flashing, desperate glances; her lifelong passion to be a Good Girl; her late-blooming sexuality; even her perpetually shifting allegiances and then–slightly advancing age — to convey the fading hope of an entire nation of people who no longer knew what rules to follow. She deserved the Oscar she nabbed for that role as few ever do.

Urgent and at times shockingly unstrategic — what star today would be caught dead astride an enemy anti-aircraft battery as she was in 1972? — Fonda's worst qualities are also her very best qualities. She has always been defined by that never-sated thirst for something she can believe in — an authority to which she can defer, be it a daddy or an ism or a deity. And it is that search for meaning, for authenticity, that renders her authentic. In this way, Fonda defines an American era that we didn't know to value until it had long since passed.

BRIGHT STAR: JANE FONDA ON FILM | Feb. 11-26, with Fonda in person on Feb. 14 | Bing Theater at LACMA | lacma.org

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