Film

The Ingenue Turned Activist: Jane Fonda in the Seventies

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When Jane Fonda was sixteen, a male executive at Warner Bros. wanted to break her jaw. It was the only way to elongate her face and create the Barbie doll dimples he so adored on his leading ladies. “He didn’t like women with small breasts,” Fonda further recalls in Sois Belle Et Tais-Toi (1981), the opening-night film of Metrograph’s “Jane Fonda in the ’70s” series. (The program was conceived by 4Columns film editor Melissa Anderson, who was the senior film critic at the Voice from 2015 to 2017.) “It was clear,” Fonda continues, “that I was a commercial product and they could do anything to make me more commercial.”

Fonda didn’t let the executives break any bones, but she did, in her early years onscreen in the Sixties, wear false breasts; dye her hair blonde; and play cheerleader, girlfriend, and housewife. This trend persisted until Fonda had just about had enough. By the early Seventies, she’d spent time supporting the Black Panthers and opposing the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. She’d also started playing women with similarly outspoken attitudes. It could be argued that, by turning herself into someone she didn’t want to be in the Hollywood machine of the Sixties, she was able to bring a sense of informed urgency to the more complex women she played in the ensuing decade. In movies like The China Syndrome (1979) and Coming Home (1978), Fonda’s characters react and evolve amid highly political situations. Energized by her activism offscreen, Fonda in the Seventies was able to create a new kind of heroine: a woman aware of injustice, and willing to fight.

Sois Belle Et Tais-Toi, which translates roughly into the wonderfully concise phrase “Be beautiful and shut up,” is the perfect film to kick off the series. Rarely screened, it features major actresses in the film industry describing to an eerie degree the same issues we’re confronting today. With remarkable candidness and self-awareness, a chorus of women (Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Maria Schneider, Jill Clayburgh) express day-to-day grievances: how their bodies have been routinely objectified by casting directors; how their dialogue amounts mostly to reactions to more dynamic male characters; how they rarely, if ever, come across scenes featuring friendship between women.

What’s most striking about these women’s stories isn’t their content so much as the manner in which it’s delivered. Letting their guards down in front of the director, Delphine Seyrig (the star of Jeanne Dielman and, like Fonda, a significant activist in her own right), they slouch, they think, they get angry, they laugh, and, perhaps most noticeably, they speak in lower voices. It’s as if these are their real intonations, deep and in control, and the voice we’re used to hearing them deploy in their movies is something forced upon them, the lightness and airiness all of a piece with the makeup and other assorted fabrications of Hollywood.

The China Syndrome, directed by James Bridges, is a political thriller with a fantastic sense of energy. That vitality radiates off of Fonda the moment the film opens, on a tight shot of her face, powdered and frantic as her newscaster character is about to go live while her camera guy is still in the bathroom. You can tell she wants to barge in and drag him out if that’s what it takes. After he does show up, just in time, her segment on singing telegrams goes well, and the men in the control room praise her for her looks. When she tells the male head of the network that she’s ready to cover hard news, he responds with a shrug. “Let’s face it,” he tells her, “you didn’t get this job because of your investigative abilities. Don’t fight, don’t try to do anything else.”

This is the sort of role Fonda was meant for, because it mirrors a transition in her own career. She spent most of the Sixties playing the blonde starlet while knowing it wasn’t what she really wanted. Her Kimberly Wells in The China Syndrome feels similarly about fluff reporting. She wants to cover the real stories, and actually gets a shot when she’s the incidental witness to a nearly fatal accident at a nuclear power plant. But when Fonda’s whip-smart reporter confronts her boss about it, he turns the story down. This isn’t your place, he clarifies, and a part of her seems to believe him. Like most women taught to see themselves through men’s eyes, Kimberly is a people-pleaser, and she’s not necessarily eager to expose the footage and jeopardize her good standing in the eyes of her male colleagues and superiors.

Much of the intensity of The China Syndrome comes through Fonda’s fantastically expressive face and her internal struggle between action and inaction, between the consequences of speaking up and the potentially far-reaching damage of not. The China Syndrome makes it clear that men in power are filled with fear — a dilemma that speaks to our current moment. Kimberly’s bosses aren’t trying to censor her because they think she’s better at covering zoo stories, but because they’re scared of her — scared of what she knows and what she can do with it. “I know it’s not my area, as you define my role,” she later tells the same head of the network about her feature on nuclear power. “But it’s my story and my exclusive, and I want to do it.”

Coming Home, from a year earlier, is a pacifist melodrama about a military wife and the belligerent paraplegic veteran she befriends. If this premise sounds clichéd, that’s because it is; Fonda’s wide-eyed hospital volunteer in pastel scrubs is the ultimate trope to match Jon Voight’s disillusioned former football star. And yet they’re somehow the ideal instruments for director Hal Ashby’s gentle moralizing. There’s nothing cool or ironic about Coming Home; the sincerity with which Ashby and his lead actors portray the aftereffects of war gives the film its staying power.

When Fonda’s sweet-tempered Sally first bumps into the wheelchair of Voight’s Luke in the hallway of the VA hospital, his bag of urine spills open and she’s left standing dumbfounded, wiping her hands clean, awakened to a reality of war that she has, until now, chosen to largely ignore. At first, she’s afraid to unstrap Luke from his hospital bed, but there’s warmth in his eyes, and Fonda has a lovely way of looking at him. She’s sympathetic to what he’s been through, but learns along the way just how tragically unprepared so many young men going into war really are. Though Coming Home is billed as a love story, Fonda’s Sally always remains an individual  not half of a romantic pair  and the heart of the story lies in the subtle yet profound change in the way she sees the world.

Fonda dazzles in just about every role she took in the Seventies. As a young starlet of Hollywood royalty, she wasn’t supposed to pursue politics — wasn’t supposed to get involved in the causes of the day — and, maybe because of this expectation, the fact that she eventually did resonates all the more. In her transformation toward disruption, Fonda can be seen as a stand-in for a sort of everywoman, a constant reminder that any of us can take a stand against complacency. I wasn’t alive in the Seventies, but I grew up listening to the women in my family tell stories about the uprisings from the period: the feminist movement, the fight for civil rights, the protests against the Vietnam War. The different roles Fonda took on in the Seventies reflect a vision of what my forbears’ experiences and emotions might have been like. She’s the fighter we’ve always had and, during that pivotal decade and beyond, embodied the woman we needed her to be.

‘Jane Fonda in the ’70s’
Metrograph
Through June 8

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