G.I. Jane


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.

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.

“This film was a false thing about a false thing, and it is that which is true.”

Fonda had experienced the paradox of “life acting.” After she won an Oscar for Klute, it was her politics that rated an article in Life: “Nag, Nag, Nag! Jane Fonda Has Become a Nonstop Activist.” There was “scarcely an evil—be it racism, sexism, capitalism, or the war in Vietnam—she has not taken on.” Fonda proclaimed herself “a revolutionary woman” ready to support all radical struggles. Her new project, a righteous outlaw comedy called Steelyard Blues, was, she proudly informed Life, “a film which says stealing is not theft, property is theft.” Proudhon in Beverly Hills! John Wayne had finally met his match.

For years, America’s beloved warrior-cowboy had been a tireless right-wing blowhard—or was it a nag? The Duke was not only the top box-office attraction of 1971 but also the most outspoken. “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility,” he told Playboy in an interview published that April. Wayne held the press responsible for the My Lai massacre and compared the plight of the South Vietnamese to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. Suddenly, here was little Jane Fonda calling Wayne’s revered Richard Nixon “the worst war criminal in the history of the world.”

Steelyard Blues—a programmatically amateurish guerrilla-theater parody of Klute in which Sutherland plays a visionary social bandit and Fonda a happy hooker with an Afro wig—went into production that summer in Oakland. It was there that Jane encountered radical feminism; she spent time at the Red Family collective, the most celebrated of East Bay political communes, ostentatiously stocked with shotguns and the writings of Kim Il Sung. (The Red Family had recently expelled one of its founders, Tom Hayden, either for “male chauvinism” or the “bourgeois privatism” of his relationship with the ex-wife of fellow-communard Robert Scheer.)

After Steelyard Blues wrapped, Fonda flew to France to discuss a project with Jean-Luc Godard, then at the height of his Maoist period, and embarked—with Francine Parker’s camera crew—on the month-long F.T.A. Pacific tour, with stops at bases in Hawaii, the Philippines, and Okinawa. The 21 shows were seen by some 64,000 servicemen. Vivian Gornick, who covered the tour in the Voice, reported, “As the month progressed it became clear, even to me, that indeed the F.T.A. was surrounded, wherever it went, by agents of the CID, the OSI, the CIA, the local police, the various national investigating agencies of the countries it visited. In fact, one of the most incredible elements in the entire Asian tour of the F.T.A. was the miracle of frightened attention that it received from the U.S. military. . . . Men were confined to base, ‘riot conditions’ were declared, GIs were photographed.”

Jane Fonda, national threat: Mocking the brass and attacking male chauvinism, bringing down the house with jokes about officers “fragged” in the field by their own men, these obscenity-rich shows were not subtle. According to Gornick, Fonda was enamored of a particular phrase, forever speculating on the “political correctness” of everything she observed—nevertheless the movie shows her singing, hoofing, mugging, working hard, and seemingly enjoying herself as part of the ensemble. The filmed F.T.A. Show is a magical mystery tour with a chaotic energy feeding on its own self-righteousness that amply documents the then widespread, now conveniently forgotten, G.I. hostility toward the war.

Fonda maintained that even her disapproving father was moved to tears when he saw the film. American International Pictures, the home of youth exploitation flicks, opened F.T.A. (“the show the Pentagon couldn’t stop!”) on July 14—one day before the world learned of Fonda’s trip to Hanoi. Despite this publicity, the movie ran only a week before AIP withdrew it from circulation.

Fonda had informed the world that she would “passively” support McGovern as preferable to Nixon (even if he was no more prepared to make fundamental social change). Despite this, she was hung around McGovern’s neck. William Buckley wittily suggested that a President McGovern would name her secretary of state. Two Republican congressmen demanded she be convicted for treason; Richard Ichord, the Democrat who chaired the House Committee on Internal Security, declared her a criminal. It was, after all, an election year.

Along with Tom Hayden, Fonda established the Indochina Peace Campaign, a nine-week, 90-city tour to get out the antiwar vote. A few weeks before the election, Tout Va Bien, the movie Fonda made for Godard and his partner Jean-Pierre Gorin, had its American premiere—along with an unauthorized sequel, Letter to Jane—at the New York Film Festival.

“If we hire stars we’ll get money,” an off-screen voice explains at the onset of Tout Va Bien. True enough: Thanks to the participation of Fonda, cast as an American journalist in France, and Yves Montand, who plays her filmmaker husband, the movie was financed by Paramount. Fonda’s first line is “Fucking male chauvinist,” but she speaks French throughout—enjoying her finest moment in a lengthy argument with Montand, during which she brandishes a photo of male genitalia. Tout Va Bien was misleadingly promoted as Godard’s commercial comeback and tepidly received, despite Fonda’s stellar turn. She’s “most appealing (and very funny) as a solemn American political correspondent who becomes radicalized after being trapped overnight in a strike in a Paris sausage factory,” Vincent Canby wrote in the Times. Was the actress having too much fun?

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.

‘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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