“When women tell their truth,” says Jane Fonda, “everything changes.”
She is sitting on a sofa in a room on the 15th floor of the Four Seasons Hotel, wearing a soft black suit with elegantly curved lines. She is noticeably, admittedly tired, having arrived from Atlanta after midnight without any clothes or shoes but for the ones she’s wearing, because the airline lost her luggage. She has done a day of interviews, no doubt with journalists eager to hear her dish about her showdowns on the set with the allegedly incorrigible Lindsay Lohan, her co-star, along with Felicity Huffman, in the new Garry Marshall film Georgia Rule. She sits straight as bamboo.
And in case you’re wondering, she’s thrilled to hear about the Mickey Avalon song “Jane Fonda,” no matter how raunchy it is.
“I’m so happy!” she says. “You know that Bob Seger song, ‘Her Strut’? About how she’s controversial, but they love to watch her strut? And her butt? I was listening to an interview with him years after the song came out, and he admitted that I was the inspiration for it. It made me so happy.”
At the age of 69, there are scores of lines around Fonda’s luminous blue eyes, but none on her delicately rouged cheeks. Her face is startling to look at, not simply because it’s so familiar and beautiful, but also because the expression on it is so raw. Before she answers a question, she inhales deeply and pauses, looks out the window at Los Angeles stretching into the hills, and searches for an answer. She is not making anything up.
Her candor is unexpected; her vulnerability, almost jarring. When I ask her what she does to stay in shape these days — despite a hip replacement last year, she looks marvelously fit — she mumbles something about weights and wanting to get back to yoga (she likes Bikram) and then suddenly brightens.
“And sex!” she says. “Lots of sex. That helps.”
She doesn’t offer a name, but there are unconfirmed reports that after the book tour for her autobiography, My Life So Far, during which a Kansas City man hawked a tobacco-laced loogie in her eye, there was another book tour, on which another man, in Texas, set his copy of her book in front of her, and asked her to skip the dedication.
“Just write your phone number in it,” he said. She did, the story goes, and the two have been dating — and evidently having mind-blowing sex — ever since.
Whether that story is true or not, Fonda is so inspired these days that now she wants to write an erotic story about a woman in her 70s, with the hope that someone will turn it into a screenplay.
“Sex,” she attests, “gets better as you get older. It does.”
In Georgia Rule, Fonda plays Georgia, a Mormon grandmother who forces soap into the mouths of anyone who uses the Lord’s name in vain, and insists meals be eaten when they’re served. When her unruly granddaughter (played by Lohan) hints that she may have been sexually abused by her stepfather, it’s Georgia who looks past her granddaughter’s antics to divine the truth, even as her daughter, the girl’s mother (Huffman), stays in denial.
“I see this woman, Georgia, as a person who lives with the pain of a dysfunctional family,” says Fonda. “She’s lonely and she’s sad, and there’s a lot of things she can’t explain, like how come her daughter hasn’t been to see her for 13 years, and why the last time she saw her granddaughter, the little girl was 5.
“The way she deals with the pain,” she continues, “is to have rules. It gives her parameters. It gives structure and foundation to her life.” It also allows her granddaughter to “heal and mend,” says Fonda, who confessed in her autobiography that all through her brutal marriage to French film director Roger Vadim, she insisted on keeping a surpassingly tidy house.
“We need structure,” she says. “And in the face of chaos, it’s good to have rules.” Fonda herself is a Christian, albeit not a dogmatic one (she claims the best bumper sticker she ever saw said “Eve Got a Bum Rap”), and one who prefers the more socially liberal Gnostic Gospels to the uptight reports of the purported disciples. She is also a person who craves boundaries.
“My character’s a little anal about it, but I understand very well where she’s coming from,” she says. “It was easy for me to play her.”
As a story about the disruptive antics of a troubled teenager, Georgia Rule also fits into Fonda’s work to reduce teen pregnancy in Georgia, where she’s lived since she married (and, in 2001, divorced) Ted Turner. “Sixty percent of the girls getting pregnant have been abused,” says Fonda, who in 1995 founded the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (G-CAPP). “And because the message that’s sent with abuse is that nothing matters except your sexuality, they tend to become promiscuous” — much like Lohan’s character, whom one man in the small Idaho town where the movie takes place describes as “dangerous.”
“I’ve studied the hearts and minds and souls of girls and boys who have been sexually abused for years,” says Fonda. “And this movie is very well rendered. It’s very, very real.”
Fonda has admitted that she wrote My Life So Far not because her life was so extraordinary, but to show that, despite her fabled family origins, she suffered like the rest of us. The childhood captured so idyllically in magazines was dominated by the suicide of her mother, Frances Seymour, when Fonda was 12. In her adolescent years, her father Henry’s ideal of perfection hounded her so relentlessly that she downed large quantities of ice cream and pastries and secretly hurled it all before it “took up residence” in her body as fat. All three of her husbands cheated on her, and she has incurred the wrath of everyone from French auteur Jean-Luc Godard to the U.S. Department of State.
Sadness tailed her even at her most successful: When she learned she had been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her 1971 performance in Klute, she was still drifting around Los Angeles, recovering from her split with Vadim by sleeping on friends’ couches. Her father lent her $40,000 so she could find a place to live with her daughter, Vanessa (now 39, a mother of two, and a producer and cinematographer). At 51, while married to politician Tom Hayden, with whom she had a son, Troy Garity (now 33 and an actor), she got breast implants because she feared men would cease to love her if her beauty faded.
You know within a minute of meeting her that she has not exaggerated any of the stories about her battered self-esteem. She does not front. She wears the canned rap of film-junket interviews uneasily. But she talks politics with gusto.
“What we have [in the administration] today,” she opines with more energy than anything that has come before, “is a bunch of male leaders who say, ‘Come and get ’em, dead or alive!’ And they’re so afraid of premature evacuation, because they’re afraid it will threaten their manhood.
“They’re almost a caricature of patriarchy,” she adds. “It’s sort of like a flailing beast, scrambling for cover. And like any beast, it’s most dangerous when it’s wounded.”
Still, it’s G-CAPP, not Capitol Hill, that occupies the bulk of her activist passions, and the May 7 premiere of Georgia Rule in Atlanta will be a benefit for the nonprofit. She also keeps a hand in the Women’s Media Center, which she helped found with feminist author and activist Gloria Steinem. She looks forward to a day when women will run the world — or, if not women, then at least thoughtful and compassionate men.
“It may be that a feminist, progressive man would do better in the White House than a ventriloquist for the patriarchy with a skirt and a vagina,” she allows, acknowledging that Hillary Clinton’s stance on the war has so far been disappointing. “Women sometimes bend the wrong way just to prove themselves to men,” she says, talking like someone who knows. “But when we learn to listen to ourselves . . .” She gazes out the window, gathering her thoughts. “That will be revolutionary.”