News and Commentary – Jane Fonda: The New Hollywood Years

Jane Fonda turns 80 on December 21, which makes perfect sense, but nevertheless comes as something of a surprise. Fonda has been in the public eye for so long – and in so many guises (trailblazing video exercise guru in the eighties, the Ted Turner 1990s, most recently an art-house television star) – that one can lose sight of what an important figure she was for the New Hollywood. Not so much in terms of her films, of which there are only a handful from that era—but for the trajectory of her career, and the extent to which the choices she made embodied the social-political context that shaped the New Hollywood movement.

For much of the 1960s, Fonda played the role of the nubile young beauty in a string of films that reached their ultimate expression with Barbarella (1968) directed by her then-husband Roger Vadim, where she floated in and out of her clothes as a sex-kitten from outer space. This is a little too dismissive of some of Fonda’s performances in the 1960s, which include starring roles in Arthur Penn’s The Chase, and The Game is Over (opposite Michel Piccoli), also directed by Vadim and which could in its second half pass as second-rate Claude Chabrol (that is high praise). Nevertheless, Fonda’s career fundamentally changed as she shed Vadim and experienced a political awakening, becoming engaged with the three principal social movements of the late 1960s, regarding Vietnam, Civil Rights, and Feminism.

And so in a sudden transformation, Fonda followed the zero-gravity entertainment of Barbarella with the heavy, serious, They Shoot Horses Don’t They (1969), headlining an impressive cast in Sydney Pollack’s wasn’t-the-Great-Depression-dehumanizing drama. The following year, Fonda and Donald Southerland embarked on a barnstorming tour with a party of favorites (including Peter Boyle) that would perform near army bases to entertain troops, as sort of an anti-Bob Hope. Known as F.T.A. (Free The Army in polite circles, something a bit more vulgar among participants), a film of the enterprise directed by Francine Parker reached theaters briefly in 1972.

Fonda followed Shoot Horses with Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, opposite Donald Sutherland. The movie was controversial in some feminist circles, because her character, Bree, was a prostitute—and this factor did cause Fonda to hesitate and assess the implications of that before taking on the role. Ultimately she decided, rightly, that the film was an important character study, and had something to say. And Klute is one of the jewels in the crown of the seventies film, and her performance – which she threw herself into with De Niro-like immersion – is outstanding. It does not minimize the contributions of Sutherland, Pakula, and cinematographer Gordon Willis to observe that (despite its title) the film is entirely about Bree. (And we think it’s the right title—just think of Klute as the character that enters Bree’s life.) We are always with Bree, in every walk of her life, and often alone. She controls the narrative, and she is the movie’s sole complex character—plainly illustrated during three sessions with her analyst. (Those sessions emerged from long improvisations, shot, at Fonda’s insistence, near the end of principal photography; she also insisted that the role of the therapist be recast and played by a woman.)    

Continuing her personal and political exploration, Fonda next appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s Tout va Bien, about an American reporter and her husband, a once-famous New Wave filmmaker (now making commercials) as they are trapped during a strike at a sausage factory. Fonda and co-star Yves Montand (also a politically committed leftist), both agreed to defer their salaries in order to make the film possible. The class politics are inevitably simplistic, but the long, complex, bracing conversation between wife and husband (as she begins to see their relationship with awakened eyes) makes the film worth watching—in our view it is one of Godard’s best in the past half-century. (The director showed his thanks with a gratuitously mean-spirited documentary-conversation with his collaborator Jean Pierre Gorin.)

That documentary, Letter to Jane, came on the heels of Fonda’s enormously controversial trip to North Vietnam in July 1972 (to be clear, Godard’s criticism was from the left). This certainly compromised her career prospects for the next few years, but Fonda did resurface on screen in 1973 with A Doll’s House (directed by Joseph Losey), and Steelyard Blues, reuniting with Sutherland and Boyle. Steelyard, a well-intentioned comedy, is subordinate to its political purpose, and is well-summarized by Vincent Canby’s relatively generous review.

After a hiatus, Fonda would go on to make 11 films from 1976 to 1981, returning to more commercial cinema, though still typically reflecting an effort to choose meaningful roles in films by accomplished directors (including Coming Home, directed by Hal Ashby, and reuniting with Pakula for Comes a Horseman and the disappointing Rollover). From the 1980s, Fonda would remain in the public eye but become better known for things other than her feature films, which she approached more cautiously (6 roles in 30 years), before resuming a more active acting career in the past decade. But the force of her participation in the New Hollywood should not be underestimated. 

Shoot Horses

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?



F. T. A. (With Donald Sutherand)



Klute: Bree tries to sort out her Issues in therapy


Klute Alone

Klute: Alone again, naturally 


TVB w/Yves

Tout va Bien: with Yves Montand



Reassessing a Marriage