Jane Fonda — My Life So Far

I can't possibly be objective about Jane Fonda because I saw Cat Ballou when I was 13 years old.
I can't possibly be objective about Jane Fonda because I saw Cat Ballou when I was 13 years old.

While I was doing research for my trip to Squam Lake, aka Golden Pond, I picked up Jane Fonda’s book My Life So Far and Henry Fonda’s autobiography as told to somebody or other.

Jane’s autobiography is a fascinating read — and amazing insight into that era by someone who played a key role and who, to this day, is still paying a price for standing up for what she believed. I’d like to set aside her opposition to the Vietnam War for another blog entry and just focus on the book.

I have to confess I couldn’t possibly be objective about this book because I saw “Cat Ballou” when I was 13 years old, and from that day to this I have had strong feelings about Jane Fonda. These feelings grew more complicated when at last I was old enough to see “Klute,” but they were still of the kind that preclude any objective judgement.

I was never allowed to see “Barabella,” but the publicity stills were enough to make a lasting impression on a young man.

You might think that Jane Fonda had an easy life as a child of privilege in California and Connecticut, but you’d be very wrong. Her mother died when she was 13, of a heart attack she was told. And all the girls at Emma Willard were sworn not to tell her the truth, which she later learned from a movie magazine: her mother  cut her own throat with a razor shortly after her father asked for a divorce.

There are fascinating bits about working with Lee Marvin, having an affair with James Franciscus, and marriage to Roger Vadim, who also married Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve. Seems he was a bum  who drank too much and gambled too much and philandered, which sort of confirms the theory that beautiful women love bums, but at the same time all these women gave as good as they got, so who’s to say?

I loved the section about On Golden Pond. The first thing Katharine Hepburn says to Jane is, “I don’t like you.” But surely Hepburn could see that this movie had to be made. She had broken her shoulder a while before and said she couldn’t do it, but of course she did.

One time during the filming Jane just went blank and completely lost her bearings. She asked her father, “Has that ever happened to you?” and he said, “No.” Big help he was.

She spoke to Hepburn about it, and when they came to shoot the scene, Hepburn was in the background, off camera, waving her arms and cheering Jane on the way a mother would, if she had had one. Hepburn was in character even though she was off-camera. Brilliant. They say she could cry out of her downstage eye, and I believe it.

Here’s a tidbit you can see in the movie. In one of the scenes, Chelsea Thayer is talking to her father Norman about the relationship they’ve never had. When they filmed the scene, Jane reached out and touched her father’s arm, something she had never done in rehearsals. Henry teared up and it was recorded for the ages.

There’s also a bit of badinage between Katharine Hepburn and Jane Fonda. Jane had planned to have a stunt double do the famous backflip. But Hepburn asked her if she was going to do her own stunts, and Jane had to say “Of course.” So she spent the summer practicing backflips off a dock in Squam Lake. The backflip is symbolic of Chelsea’s desire to please her father.

 Jane, in fact, had broken her back diving as a teenager, so it was yet another gutsy thing to do.

Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, and Ernest Thompson, who wrote the original play and the screenplay, were all nominated for Academy Awards. At that point, Hepburn had three, so if Jane had won, she might have tied her.

Jane lost out to Maureen Stapleton, while her father, Hepburn and Thompson all won Oscars. When was the last time Best Actor and Best Actress were chosen from the same movie?

That made the score four to two. Hepburn’s comment to Jane was, “You’ll never catch me now!”

But surely this comment was tinged with gratitude. It was Jane who bought the rights to the play and produced the film that gave these two great actors the chance to work together for the first time, and to play these magnificent roles that seem to be written with them in mind.

Don’t take my word for it; watch the movie. Top grossing movie of 1980. No special effects. Just acting.