Calamity Jane

The incoherent life (so far) of Jane Fonda

Sorry, but I can't help it: I keep thinking we might all be better off if Jane Fonda had married Dan Rather. Imagine the meeting that could have spared us these two experts in banana-peel celebrity. Texas, 1965: On the sweltering, gamy set of Arthur Penn's unforgettable epic The Chase, a coltish actress moodily watches a pickup truck solidify the baked horizon's shimmer. This is her first Lillian Hellman script—yet she feels mysteriously empty inside. As luck would have it, she looks mysteriously empty outside, too, at least to the hardy but troubled young newsman behind the truck's wheel. While his upcoming network assignment to the green jungle hell of Indochina could be the making of him, a strange hunch that he'll never be as beloved as Walter Cronkite has him as poleaxed as a crawfish in Jell-O.

Their eyes lock. "My name is Dan," he says. "My name is Jane," she answers, noticing how his hairline mimics the virile contour of his jaw. The rest is scrapbooks. She gives up acting; he bails on CBS. Today they're an elderly husband-and-wife team of veterinarians in Lubbock, renowned halfway to El Paso for their unique sensitivity to the posteriors of horses. Otherwise, no one on God's earth has any idea who they are.

What makes this daydream tempting isn't only that right-wingers would have been denied decades of fun with Dan and Jane, who certainly have done more for Rush Limbaugh than they ever did for liberalism. The real reason they belong together is the magnificence of their delusional self-images. Convinced that he's America's cracker-barrel uncle, Rather will never grasp how often his idea of folksiness on the CBS Evening News resembled a mad Klingon taking over for Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight! No less doggedly, Fonda believes that her life is, above all, instructive—sort of like Saint Augustine's, with a bit of Dorothy Day tossed in. Since their lack of humor about themselves is sterling—virginal, you want to say—neither of them could tolerate realizing that they're two of the most hilarious figures of the twentieth century.

That's why no matter what your preconceptions are, Fonda's My Life So Far is never boring. It's clear we're in for no minor feast of fatuity as soon as she explains that her purpose in looking back is to give her life, a hurricane in a pawnshop if ever there was one, unity: "Call me a control freak, but I don't want to be like Christopher Columbus, who didn't know where he was headed when he left, didn't know where he was when he got there, and didn't know where he'd been when he got back." As sunset nears, it's time to name those purple mountain majesties, and you have to admit that hubris this innocent has its charm.

However, we'd better understand that the endeavor has its useful, socially productive side. According to Fonda, she couldn't have written My Life So Far unless a key insight had (c'mon, guess) "liberated" her to do so: "Coming to see my various individual struggles within a broader societal context enabled me to understand that much of my journey was a universal one for women—played out in different ways and with different outcomes, perhaps, but with common core experiences." It's also played out with different incomes—and how much sweeter it is to be universal when you're traveling first class. Yet if nothing else, her predictably ludicrous but unexpectedly endearing determination to play schoolmarm during her celebrity striptease is enough to settle any remaining doubts about the validity of this woman's U.S. passport. That Fonda can still be an unconscious narcissist after all these years is triumphant proof that she's as American as smart bombs and Bozo.

Honestly, how can you hate someone whose idea of a mea culpa is "Change always holds an element of self-interest, and mine was quite simply that I wanted to be a better person"? She's not entirely lacking in shrewdness, though, since she knows that to some extent her best shot at revising our perceptions of her is to accede to them. "A persistent assumption about me is that I am a puppet, ready for a new man to pull my strings," she writes. "There was some truth to this." Her first and best string-puller, of course, was her celebrated father, who notoriously saved his warmth for his movies; offscreen, Henry Fonda was a fjord, not a Lincoln. Just how effective his stony emotional withdrawal was in making him the parent to please is in no doubt. Even the trauma of her mother's suicide, soon after Henry asked for a divorce, drove the twelve-year-old Jane to shut down—Dad's ideal—instead of acting out, her more vulnerable brother Peter's reaction.

As Fonda grows, we get a litany of adolescent troubles, including the bulimia she didn't overcome until her forties—this book's major (trite) revelation—along with delayed menstruation and much sexual anxiety about her apparently malfunctioning "down there." (While I have every intention of sparing you the sentence that begins "I write about my vagina and vagina-related fears because … ," its motives are so virtuous as to make you nostalgic for Cora Pearl.) Tragically, she goes to Vassar; starts modeling for Vogue; studies acting with Lee Strasberg, even as her Barbie-doll debut in Joshua Logan's Tall Story makes her doubt her calling (working for Logan might have made Olivier doubt his calling). Dad stays remote. To fans of the immortal movie version of Herman Wouk's Youngblood Hawke, it's touching to learn that she lost her virginity to actor James Franciscus, known to Jane as "Goey" and to us, of course, as "Bloody." Dad, by now on his fourth wife, whose name Fonda can barely bring herself to print—she's "the Italian" for some time—still stays remote.

Jane skips to Paris, an innocent abroad. Through her friends Yves Montand and Simone Signoret she discovers "France's intellectual Left, which included the other Simone (de Beauvoir), and her longtime companion, Jean-Paul Sartre, and of course Albert Camus, who had died in 1960." Although presumably inadvertent, the Weekend at Bernie's suggestion of a mummified Camus at the Café de Flore is charming; but the ripeness is all, and Fonda isn't yet ripe for politics. Enter Roger Vadim, the Hugh Hefner of the Nouvelle Vague.

Fond of Rogering his leading ladies (Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve among them), and also prone to choosing film locales for their proximity to casinos, Vadim is such an engaging satyr that describing him warms our autobiographer briefly into her least typical mode: frank enjoyment of life's quiddities for their own sake. After a few colorful pages, though, she's back in the self-actualization saddle, fretting over "whether my emotional under-development could surmount his 'charming' addictions" (to booze, gambling, etc.). Swept away on clouds of romance, Gauloises, and low self-esteem, Fonda even goes along with her lover-then-husband's taste for group sex—clearly the confession she's most embarrassed about. All the same, her bedroom contortions may have been as nothing compared with the verbal pretzel she turns herself into to rationalize her complaisance: "So adept was I at burying my real feelings and compartmentalizing myself that I eventually had myself convinced I enjoyed it." Later she isolates one reason she did enjoy it: "I liked having an up-close view of the varied ways women express passion," she tells a friend. As they say in Hollywood, it's all about the work.

Bigger storms are brewing, though. As she jets from L.A. to Vegas to marry Vadim, Watts is on fire down below—"an omen, though I didn't see it as such at the time," Fonda reflects. She also doesn't say of what, tempting us to picture flames that spell out he's a bum, jane. Then comes 1968: "perhaps the most turbulent, tumultuous year of the century," she reminds us with nostalgia. (Poor old 1945—always a bridesmaid, never a bride.) She and Vadim have just completed Barbarella, but Jane is restless; filming a silly sci-fi comedy "when so much substantive change was taking place in the world had acted as yeast to my malaise." She's also about to give birth to their daughter, and her inner radical is on the verge of blossoming too: "My pregnancy during that fertile year—1968—created a rich loam." Yeast, loam, malaise—suddenly Vadim's drinking looks so sensible.

Since Fonda is all too aware that in some quarters her antiwar activism will stigmatize her forever, her chapters on the Vietnam era are inevitably the most detailed and painstaking self-justification in the book. Her canniest defense is to locate the sources of her radicalism in the example set by a certain screen avatar of American ideals, with wise old Simone Signoret playing Glinda the Good Witch to spell out the connection: "I could see in her face that she had been waiting for this to happen," Fonda writes, as Simone—breaking out a bottle of "fine cabernet"—welcomes her to the Rolls-Royce barricades. "Somehow, through all the silliness of my lifestyle, she had maintained a firm belief that what she loved about my father from his movie roles was waiting inside me to manifest itself through action." The brilliance of this is that, in one fell swoop, Fonda not only places herself squarely in the American grain but also slyly ups the authenticity ante on Dad: he only pretended to be Tom Joad, the old fraud.

Still, her self-image is nothing if not ecumenical. On her way to Hanoi in 1972, Fonda breaks her foot: "Bulimics have thin bones." An idle comment? Guess again. A page later, flying over Vietnam, she's struck by an eerie resemblance.

I begin to think of the country as a woman … so small and vulnerable that any superpower would feel certain it could call her bluff in no time flat. What a thin little slip of a country she is, much like the small, thin-boned people who inhabit her.

She stops short of imagining them binging and purging, but we get the picture: Jane, too, will be pummeled, by rhetorical B-52s. What she never wholly faces up to is that the only real damage she did was to the antiwar movement, whose reputation she permanently sullied. Left-wingers, rather than jingoes, should be the ones least willing to forgive "Hanoi Jane"; although her characteristically vainglorious, self-dramatizing decision to publicly oppose the war was the most morally justified one of her life, her judgment of how to put it into practice was disastrous.

Because Fonda is only human, I think it's understandable that this lavishly illustrated book omits the famous photograph of a delighted-looking Jane sitting behind a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. She does print a somewhat less damning picture taken moments earlier, which as honesty goes is fair enough, and her own account of what happened during a "two-minute lapse of sanity [that] will haunt me until I die" is predictably overwrought, a mite disingenuous, and as fascinating as a lecture on zeppelin safety from the Hindenburg's captain. Even if her unduly earnest attempt to put herself in hostile vets' shoes goes from reasonable (she's "Henry Fonda's privileged daughter," who seems to be thumbing her nose at her country) to goofy ("Barbarella has become their enemy"), she's not wrong to remind us that in much of her stateside antiwar activity she'd gone out of her way to portray American servicemen as victims of U.S. policy, not antagonists. But so what? Perhaps she can't see why that photo is of a piece with her life, if not her ideology, but we can. Fully in the moment, as actors put it, she wasn't thinking like a propagandist. She was thinking like a star.

By then Vadim was long gone, and Fonda had taken up with Tom Hayden. Either despite or because of the fact that they stayed married the longest, he comes off the least well of her three husbands. He's also the egghead of the three (early on, Fonda compares following his New Left political arguments to "being with Vadim before I spoke fluent French"). But personal relationships, and indeed personality, aren't his strong suit. Once the last chopper leaves Saigon, the magic starts to fade; after losing a Senate race, Hayden tries incrementalism instead by starting a California grassroots organization called the Campaign for Economic Democracy. If you'd forgotten (and I had myself), it's very funny to be reminded that the workout-video empire that turned Fonda into a 1980s gym icon started out as a loyal wife's attempt to help fill the CED's coffers.

It didn't stay one for long. Throughout My Life So Far, Fonda has taken care to portray herself as a creature of enthusiasms, never calculation. But when the fitness tycoon starts gushing that she's no businesswoman, you may want to reach for the truth serum. Just look at what a ninny she is! First she sheds the partner who actually originated the exercise routine ("At least I've tried over the intervening years to make it up to Leni"). Then, with Jane Fonda's Workout making money hand over fists-on-hips, she snips its pipeline to Hayden's nonprofit: "I felt we had more than fulfilled our original mission of providing [the CED] with a solid financial base." Her husband's presumably thrilled reaction to the news that poverty in California is under control goes unrecorded.

If you ask me, this unlikely but lucrative self-reinvention as an empowered Barbie doll—not her turn as "Hanoi Jane"—marks Fonda's apotheosis: the glorious moment when her life's incoherence becomes sui generis, and no longer a reaction to circumstances. From now on, in the great tradition of star-spangled imbecilism, nothing she does can make us bat an eye—not ending up as the ultimate trophy wife when Ted Turner, who clearly awed Fonda by being so much more blissfully self-centered, decided she was Scarlett to his Rhett; not the excruciating mix of celebrity therapy and guaranteed box office that was her onscreen "reconciliation" with her father in On Golden Pond. In her dutifully lachrymose description of filming with Henry, one story stands out. As they rehearse their big scene, Jane—knowing the gesture will disturb him—resists her impulse to touch his arm while telling him she wants to be his friend; resists it, that is, until the take, when Dad's surprise produces exactly the spontaneously flustered reaction she wants. "It worked," she reports. "I was so happy."

Henry Fonda was seventy-five and in poor health, but spotting the glint of that shiv of professional opportunism in his daughter's valedictory bouquet is actually refreshing. It's one of too few times this book reminds us that manipulating emotions is what movie stars get paid for—and that Jane, for all her vicissitudes, is no slouch at delivering when the cameras turn. Still, her two Oscars to the contrary, she's unlikely to be remembered as a great actress—good, yes; great, no—and one king-sized irony of her whole fraught saga is that today nobody much under thirty even knows who the hell Henry was. Because his daughter has spent her life playing both clown and trapeze act in the American circus in a way Dad never did, she's now the more immortal of the two. Anyone who wants to protest that Jane is less deserving is more unpatriotic than she ever was, or just takes no delight in slapstick. There are times when I suspect they come to the same thing.