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Book Review

The Fonda Syndrome

Natasha Walter

Jane Fonda is one of those celebrities who has been present in our culture for so many years and in so many guises that it has long felt impossible to get a handle on who she might really be. Here is a telling moment from her autobiography. She is discussing with her daughter, Vanessa Vadim, whether Vanessa would be prepared to help her put together a video of her life for her 60th birthday party. "She said, 'Why don't you just get a chameleon and let it crawl across the screen?' Ouch."

And of course that is the thing about Jane Fonda to which everyone keeps returning - she didn't just live through changing times, she embodied them. Call into your own mind the Fonda of Barbarella standing next to the Fonda of Hanoi standing next to the Fonda of the workout. There you have 60s woman, 70s woman and 80s woman: the first with blonde curls and a miniskirt, focused on her man; the next with shaggy dark hair, focused on a wider cause; and the third hardbodied and narcissistic. One good thing about this book is the way that Fonda recounts so energetically all the changes she has been through in her life, and the other good thing is the way she tries very frankly to understand them.

Fonda is particularly good on her physical life. As a gorgeous Hollywood actress her physical experiences may seem completely out of the ordinary from the outside, but there is an everywoman flavour to what she felt on the inside. When she talks in very immediate terms about her bulimia, or how she felt pushed into being sexually experimental, we hear from a woman who has learned only very slowly to make friends with the body that men so easily adored.

Her honest exploration of her physical experiences bears fruit above all when she deals with her first marriage to Vadim. "I'm so good at becoming whatever my man wants me to be," she says with anger, but also some affection for her younger self. Although there was something almost absurdly glamorous about their circle and their relationship, Fonda is now able to give the measure of its rickety foundation.

But Fonda begins her excavation of her feelings about her own body much further back, remembering the day when her mother, Frances Ford Seymour, showed her the terrible scar around her middle, the result of an operation on her kidneys, and the distorted breasts that Fonda thinks were created by botched cosmetic surgery. This intimate moment came a few days after her mother told Jane she was getting divorced from her father, Henry Fonda. "Oh horror - that's why they were getting divorced!" thought the child Jane, gazing at the terrible scars. "I think it was around that time, maybe right there on that bed, that I vowed I would do whatever it took to be perfect so that a man would love me."

Soon after the divorce, Fonda's mother became hospitalised for depression. Then one day she came back to the house accompanied by a nurse. Jane was playing jacks with her brother Peter upstairs when she came in, and when her grandmother called for them to come down Jane failed to answer. "Why didn't I go down? Was I so angry with her for not being there for us?" It was her last chance, and she failed to take it - a month later Frances cut her throat in the sanitarium. Jane was told it was a heart attack, and only found out the truth from a magazine she read at school.

Without her mother, the 12-year-old Jane naturally focused on her father, who had a lot to answer for in making Jane what she was. Not only did he pass on the unquestionable acting talent that flowered so brilliantly in Klute and They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, but his complete inability to express love for her left her on a constant search for reassurance.

Her father would never, however, praise her for her talent. She finally made On Golden Pond, that syrupy tale of a father and daughter looking for closeness, as a way to get nearer to her icy parent. But although the film was a success - becoming the top grossing film of the year and earning Oscars for Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn - it is unsurprising that it left her unsatisfied. The kind of sugary closure that it offered is available in Hollywood, but not in everyday life. To her devastation her father even criticised her approach to acting during the filming. "When the scene was over," she remembers, "I remained on the couch, unable to move but sure that no one was aware how Dad's words had hurt me."

My Life So Far is the book's title, and it does have an unfinished feel to it. She is clearly too close to her marriage to Ted Turner and its aftermath, so that there is a naivety about the last chapters that sits oddly with her more knowing examination of her earlier two marriages. She certainly gives a great portrait of Turner himself, a hypersexual and hyperactive "man-child", who could not even pronounce the word monogamy. "Oh boy, playtime!" he says when showing her the bed on his private jet.

As she ends the book Fonda slides into wishful thinking about her newfound faith, a mixture of feminism and Christianity and generalised spiritual longing: "I am only at the start of my soul journey but ... reverence is humming back to me." It's easy to laugh at that kind of Californian dreaming, but one can see that the vulnerability that inspires it runs right through Fonda's life. Even her strongest attribute, her marvellous acting, is founded on that vulnerability, the look of raw pleading that peeps out at you from the honed star. This book's similar mixture of the raw and the studied gives it a surprising force. Fonda may not give us an answer to all her incarnations, but she gives us the feel of them, the play of them, which is also the feel and the play of 20th-century America.

The review was first published in the Guardian


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