G.I. Jane

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

According to Fred Gardner, a onetime comrade of Fonda's (credited with provoking her interest in the G.I. movement), "The way people related to Jane Fonda—try though she might to be plain Jane—was not pleasant to observe. Everybody wanted something—money, an appearance, a favor, a quote, a picture, a connection, a mention, an endorsement. At the same time, they bombarded her with charges of 'elitism' designed to maximize her guilt." Thus, Fonda was punished by Godard and Gorin in their extraordinary Letter to Jane—a 52-minute analysis of a single news photo of Fonda taken during her trip to Hanoi.

The North Vietnamese also understood the value of stardom. Narrated by Godard and Gorin themselves in English and condescendingly addressed to "you Jane," this no-frills tract—a criticism not of Jane but of "the function of Jane"—finds her Hanoi performance somewhat lacking. As she did in Klute, Fonda played the "tragic actress." Her facial expression in the photograph ("an expression of an expression") isn't even her own. Godard and Gorin find it on father Henry's face in The Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln. Even John Wayne struck this thoughtful pose in The Green Berets. Poor Jane doesn't realize that, in dramatizing her concern, she has made herself the poster child for idealistic philosophy: "I think, therefore I am."

Alternately brilliant and obtuse, Letter to Jane is underscored by a willful naïveté even greater than Fonda's. Furious at being upstaged, Godard and Gorin regard the actress as the author of the photograph—responsible for everything from the camera angle to the magazine caption that erroneously describes her as asking a question. Triumphantly, the filmmakers point out that in fact she is listening, as well she should. "I am keeping my mouth shut because I admit I have nothing to say" is the film's conclusion—a line placed in the actress's closed and unmoving mouth.

Illustration by Tim Lane

'Letter to Jane' reduced Fonda to pinup once more, but the actress was not quite through. "It was like a movie but she was living it. She was acting the part of Jane Fonda in a big adventure. And Tom was the hero of the movie," Fonda's former husband Roger Vadim said of this period.

In January, Fonda married Hayden. The following month, Steelyard Blues opened—a year and half after it wrapped and already anachronistic. Writing in the Voice, Molly Haskell called Fonda's performance "remarkable—light, offhand, witty, and touching in some impossibly cute situations—all qualities I was afraid she had lost when she turned herself into a political propaganda machine."

In the spring of 1974, with Nixon besieged in the White House, Fonda returned to Hanoi with Hayden, their nine-month-old son, and Haskell Wexler to make a documentary in liberated Quang Tri province. When Introduction to the Enemy had a limited release later that year, The New York Times praised it as a "quiet, modest film," while Haskell called it "a tiny jewel." But Variety disagreed. Citing the sequence in which a crowd of locals watch Fonda and Hayden toss around a Frisbee, the scene wherein Fonda argues with a North Vietnamese man who defends the American people, and the actress's "constant use of an incongruously dippy smile to show her fondness for the peasantry," the reviewer actually invoked Letter to Jane as proof of Fonda's "tendency for self-dramatization."

But that is what actors do. Because Fonda basically dramatized her own involvement with Vietnam, the title Introduction to the Enemy had an unexpected resonance. Two years after the movie's New York screenings, the post-revolutionary Hayden was running for senator from California and Fonda herself was in flight from the gutsiness and applied "sincerity" of her political period. It was the moment of bicentennial rebirth; the icon would need another makeover.

Steelyard Blues is easily found on videotape (Warner Bros.). Tout Va Bien is available in 16mm from New Yorker Films, as is a very worn print of Letter to Jane (which New Yorker no longer lists in its catalog). Not even the Library of Congress has a print of F.T.A., nor does any record exist in the AIP film library. Nevertheless, bootleg videos have circulated for years, mainly in Northern California, and excerpts appeared in Fonda's E! network biography. Some blame the actress for the movie's total disappearance on celluloid, although as late as 1974 she named it one of her three favorite vehicles, along with Klute and They Shoot Horses, Don't They? The only known print of Introduction to the Enemy belongs to Haskell Wexler and was last screened in New York nearly a decade ago. When I inquired as to the film's availability, I was first offered a screener and then told that it was not possible "at this time." Despite requests, no further information has been forthcoming.

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