For displaying extraordinary talent and courage in the field of acting and producing, the Trustees of the American Film Institute have selected Jane Fonda — the Oscar®-winning star of KLUTE and COMING HOME and more than 40 other films — as the recipient of its 42nd Life Achievement Award.
Lady Jayne Seymour Fonda was born in New York City in 1937 to a socialite, Frances Seymour Brokaw, and an up-and-coming actor, Henry Fonda. She grew up in comfortable homes an hour’s drive from the studios on the West Coast or Broadway on the East, with swimming pools and ponies, bright sunshine and wide-open spaces, friends from famous families and always the best schools. But Fonda’s early years had their dark side. The father she worshipped could seem cold and distant, and her mother’s life ended in suicide. Fonda buried her feelings about it, as her father had in her presence, and carried on, living by the motto “make it better.”
Years after her father had remarried and become a movie icon of American grit and integrity, Fonda began — tentatively, at first — to follow in his footsteps. At 17 she appeared with him in a production of “The Country Girl” at the Omaha Playhouse, learning from his example, crying on cue and making papa proud. In the years that followed, Fonda attended Vassar College, apprenticed in summer stock at the Dennis Playhouse on Cape Cod, studied art in Paris and eventually pursued a modeling career, twice gracing the cover of Vogue.
She joined the Actors Studio in 1958, studying with Lee Strasberg in a class that included Marilyn Monroe, and thrived in its atmosphere of inquiry and exploration — turning the process of self-discovery and reinvention into a discipline and a cause, transforming a creative dialectic between daring and detachment into performance art.
For her Broadway debut in 1960, Fonda played the lead in “There Was a Little Girl.” The play flopped, but its young star’s dead-eyed interpretation of a rape victim was appreciated by the critics and she returned to the stage in “Invitation to a March” six months later. That same year, she made her film debut as a cheerleader opposite Anthony Perkins in TALL STORY (1960) directed by Joshua Logan.
Fonda’s early screen roles revealed a talent for light comedy in well-crafted adaptations of Broadway plays like PERIOD OF ADJUSTMENT (1962), SUNDAY IN NEW YORK (1963), ANY WEDNESDAY (1966) and BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1967), in which she played variations of the all-American girl. Her musical Western CAT BALLOU (1965) delighted critics like Bosley Crowther, who called her “a big-eyed, big-hearted grown-up child, a veritable Little Mary Sunshine.”
In BARBARELLA (1968), directed by husband Roger Vadim and based on a comic strip from his native France, Fonda went from light to zero gravity, becoming the sex symbol of the space age.
Fonda shed her girl-next-door persona and became fluent in French during her marriage to the Frenchman who discovered Brigitte Bardot. Her screen roles in René Clément’s LES FÉLINS (1964), Vadim’s LA RONDE (1964), LA CURÉE (1966) and HISTOIRES EXTRAORDINAIRES (1968), and Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s TOUT VA BIEN (1972) were performed in her second language and their European sensuality fit her like a second skin. At her farm outside Paris in Saint-Ouen-Marchefroy, Fonda indulged her lifelong passion for planting and transplanting trees before uprooting herself and moving back to Los Angeles.
Film critic Stanley Kauffmann was among the first to take notice of Fonda’s developing talent. “She has the kind of blunt, startling features that can be charged with passion or the cartoon of passion as she chooses,” he wrote in The New Republic. “Her tall, slim figure has thoroughbred gawky grace. Her voice is attractive and versatile. Her ear for inflection is secure. What lies ahead for this gifted, appealing young actress? With good parts in good plays and films, she could develop into a first-rate artist.”
Fortunately for movie lovers, those good parts came along. In director Sydney Pollack’s THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (1969), Fonda played a nihilistic marathon dancer caught in the grip of the Great Depression. CAT BALLOU’s “Little Mary Sunshine” was now “a Typhoid Mary of existential despair,” according to The New York Times.
Her complex portrayal of prostitute and stalking victim Bree Daniel in KLUTE (1971) earned Fonda her first Academy Award® and prompted critic Roger Ebert to ask: “What is it about Jane Fonda that makes her such a fascinating actress to watch? She has a sort of nervous intensity that keeps her so firmly locked into a film character that the character actually seems distracted by things that come up in the movie.”
Far weightier distractions came up in life — among them, war, poverty and injustice. Controversy surrounded Fonda during the early 1970s when she became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and traveled to Hanoi. Fonda lent her support to a range of progressive causes with second husband Tom Hayden, including those of Native Americans, migrant workers and feminists. In standing up for what she believed, no matter the cost, she resembled the idealists her father had made famous on screen.
Those turbulent times coincided with a period of artistic achievement for Fonda whose stirring performances in JULIA (1977), COMING HOME (1978) and THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979) won praise from the nation’s film critics and raised Fonda’s profile as America’s messenger of social change. Fonda’s films from this period demand that we re-examine established relationships — friendships between women, the bonds of matrimony, the trust we place as citizens in journalists and corporate spokesmen.
Fonda’s portrayal of playwright Lillian Hellman in JULIA, smuggling funds into Nazi Germany for a girlhood friend, earned her an Oscar® nomination. “Miss Fonda and Miss Redgrave are marvelous and true,” declared The New York Times. COMING HOME, with its rock soundtrack, reflected America’s struggle to make sense of the war and heal its hidden scars. Fonda’s Sally Hyde achieved emotional intimacy with a paralyzed veteran, calling into question her marriage to a marine at the same time the country had begun to question the war itself. THE CHINA SYNDROME triggered the debate over nuclear safety, arriving in theaters 12 days before Three Mile Island added “meltdown” to the national lexicon. The film shows Fonda at her subtle best, combining a TV news reporter’s ambition with a dose of pure existential dread. “Her performance is not that of an actress in a star’s role, but that of an actress creating a character that happens to be major within the film,” wrote Vincent Canby. “She keeps getting better and better.”
As she had done with unemployment in the subversive comedy FUN WITH DICK AND JANE (1977), Fonda proved she could treat important issues — this time, gender bias in the workplace — with a light comic touch in 9 TO 5 (1980), a critical and box-office success.
In the 1980s, in order to fund causes like Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy, Fonda defied expectations and took self-definition to the muscular level, writing “Jane Fonda’s Workout Book” and creating “Jane Fonda’s Workout Video.” The phenomenal bestsellers sparked a national exercise craze among baby boomers. In all, Fonda released more than two dozen fitness videos, virtually creating an industry from scratch, not to mention seven books and 13 audiotapes.
Fonda’s major acting triumph of this decade was the film adaptation of Ernest Thompson’s play, ON GOLDEN POND (1982), in which she appeared on film with her father for the first and last time. Henry Fonda’s performance earned him his only Academy Award® for Best Actor, which Jane Fonda accepted on his behalf and hand-delivered later that evening, surrounded by family.
After turns as a psychiatrist in AGNES OF GOD (1985) and a widowed factory worker in STANLEY & IRIS (1989), Fonda announced her retirement. She married Ted Turner in 1991, and spent the next 15 years principally engaged in philanthropy, fly-fishing and fitness as she moved among the mogul’s many homes. Fonda’s life experience and deepening connection to her Christian faith led her to embrace the cause of teenage girls. Preventing teen pregnancy, sheltering the victims of abuse and fighting eating disorders became the focus of her charitable work.
In the new millennium, Fonda resumed her acting career, instantly extending her ageless appeal to a new generation of movie fans with MONSTER-IN-LAW (2005) and GEORGIA RULE (2007) before making her triumphant return to the Broadway stage in Moisés Kaufman’s “33 Variations.” She added luster to television’s second Golden Age as network powerhouse Leona Lansing in the HBO series, THE NEWSROOM, and up-ended politics for art by appearing as Nancy Reagan in LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER.
Today, in what Fonda considers her Third Act, she is a breast cancer survivor who lives, as she always has, at the forefront of her time. Her memoir “My Life So Far” and self-help book “Prime Time” have topped the best-seller lists and allowed her to reflect on past struggles and current causes.
By constantly seeking an answer to the actor’s question — “Who am I going to be?” — Jane Fonda has continued to transform herself and her country, making both more worldly, more self-aware and, therefore, more just. Having made her life her own, Fonda has realized her early life motto by making everything and everyone she touches better and better.