G.I. Jane

A Hollywood Daughter’s Radical Past Winds up on the Cutting Room Floor

This Monday evening, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is set to celebrate Jane Fonda. A glamorous assemblage of old costars, former directors, and Hollywood colleagues will gently roast the actress amid clips from her best-known movies, including the two that brought her Oscars, Klute and Coming Home. There might even be a bit of her mega-bestselling exercise video Jane Fonda's Workout. What will largely pass tastefully unnoticed, at least inside the hall, is the defining performance of Fonda's career. For years, the actress has attempted to distance herself from her greatest role—a four-year walk on the wild side as the most politically outspoken star in Hollywood history. Familiar with the ways of celebrity, the evening's programmers don't need to be told to accommodate her wishes.

In late 1967, the image of a nude and tawny Fonda—star of the upcoming sci-fi sex romp Barbarella—was splashed across Newsweek for a cover story entitled "Anything Goes: The Permissive Society." It's a more dressed but no less provocative spacebabe that graces the current issue of the Film Society's Film Comment. But then, Barbarella is far more likely to be excerpted than any of the three features, two film essays, and one stunning piece of newsreel footage that preserve Fonda's radical persona. Indeed, the two of these movies that Fonda helped produce—F.T.A. and Introduction to the Enemy—are virtually impossible to see. Whether or not, as has been reported, the 63-year-old actress is now a born-again Christian, there's no question that a push-up bra is safer than an upraised fist.

That, of course, is the rub. Fonda turned down the chance to play a social outlaw in Bonnie and Clyde, but she made up for it. In the context of the Vietnam War, hers was the greatest sign crime. She was the pinup who went AWOL—something for which she must forever be pursued and nailed back to the wall.

Illustration by Tim Lane

Fonda's intervention in American politics occurred during what was arguably the most Hollywood-inflected presidential election ever: Nixon versus McGovern, 1972. As Robert Redford promoted his personal project, The Candidate, with a mock campaign swing, Warren Beatty pioneered the rock benefit to establish himself as candidate George McGovern's most important fundraiser, as well as a close adviser. The Republicans meanwhile mobilized a troglodyte army of toupees and face-lifts in support of Richard Nixon: John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Charlton Heston, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Jane Russell, Zsa Zsa Gabor. (The youngest of Hollywood Nixonites was Clint Eastwood, whom the president had just appointed to the National Council on the Arts.)

Newsweek put McGovern supporter Shirley MacLaine on its "Show Biz in Politics" cover. But it was Henry Fonda's only daughter who achieved apotheosis as a Hollywood Freedom Fighter. On July 15, 1972, just after the Democratic National Convention ended, The New York Times and Washington Post broke the story that Jane Fonda had been in Hanoi, making radio broadcasts for the North Vietnamese. Ten days later, the actress returned home to face the music. Her press conference included a 20-minute silent film showing the ruined North Vietnamese dikes—as well as Jane herself in guerrilla-style black pajamas, laughingly pretending to aim an anti-aircraft gun at an American bomber.

John Wayne aside, Fonda was the lone Hollywood figure that had the guts to cast herself in a Vietnam scenario while the war was on. Anything Goes: By the time she arrived in Miami Beach on the second day of the Republican National Convention to speak at a memorial for the martyred black militant George Jackson, she was the personification of political protest.

Since late 1970, the newly radicalized Fonda had crisscrossed the country, appearing at campuses and donating her fee to the most significant (and forgotten) of peace groups, Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Already she had been targeted for smears and harassment by the FBI's clandestine COINTELPRO program (even as her activities in Hanoi remain, to this day, subject to all manner of exaggerations and lies). Soon she would be on the Nixon "enemies" list.

Retired Marine Corps Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr. had just completed a soon-to-be famous article for the Armed Forces Journal noting that, thanks to the unpopularity of the war in Vietnam, army "morale, discipline and battleworthiness [were] lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States." It was then, in the spring of '71, that Fonda and her Klute costar Donald Sutherland opened a new front. The F.T.A. Show (as in "Fuck the Army") was a political vaudeville designed as the antiwar response to Bob Hope's Christmas Show—its theme song was "Insubordination."

Self-conscious, second-generation Hollywood royalty, Fonda had already demonstrated a willingness to engage in open-ended media events, and ponder her own authenticity. In the 1962 cinema verité portrait Jane (a fascinating but hard-to-see movie that is also unlikely to be excerpted at Lincoln Center), she appears as herself, playing to the camera even as she plays at being the uncertain star of a Broadway sex farce that closes on its second night. "There were moments when I didn't know when I was acting and when I wasn't," she later explained.

Next Page »