“Trying to be perfect is a toxic journey.” So says Jane Fonda near the end of Susan Lacy’s revealing, deeply personal documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts, and — after hearing the stories she’s told for the previous two hours — it’s impossible to disagree. Listening to Fonda’s revelatory reflections on her long life as an actress and activist, it becomes clear that it was only when she gave herself permission to be imperfect that she could become her happiest self.
The film is structured more or less chronologically, with four of the five titular acts devoted to the men who played the strongest roles in Fonda’s life: her father, Henry, and her three husbands: filmmaker Roger Vadim, activist Tom Hayden, and mogul Ted Turner. Fonda speaks frankly about all of them, sharing extremely personal anecdotes and observations. Henry, she tells the camera, may have been an American hero, but he wasn’t a good dad. Vadim turned her into a movie star, albeit in ways she might not have chosen, while Hayden helped her grow into the activist she continues to be today. And Turner gave her stability but ultimately stifled her independence.
It all leads up to the film’s fifth and final act — titled “Jane” — in which Fonda revels in her current stage of life: She’s confident, busy, passionate, and working more than ever. And it’s clear that she understands and appreciates the time and effort it took to get where she is. While she doesn’t cut the men in her life any slack, she also doesn’t let herself off the hook for her own mistakes: For example, she says she could have been a better mother to her daughter Vanessa, and she regrets to this day some of the optics of her controversial trip to North Vietnam in the 1970s.
Lacy’s camera captures one of America’s most well-known women at both her proudest and her most vulnerable, and the end result is sympathetic and satisfying. And, for women who want to make a difference, inspiring as well. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Esther Iverem: Susan Lacy’s revealing documentary on the life of actress and activist Jane Fonda is intimate enough to let Fonda tell her own story and distant enough capture the sweep of late 20th century U.S. history that her life represents. Fonda is likable as she reveals her contradictions: being of the feminist generation but still defined by the men in her life; being a privileged white woman who, at age 32, was still ignorant of Vietnam; being a fitness guru plagued by bulimia and body shaming by her famous father Henry Fonda. If this movie was a book, it would be called page turner.
Pam Grady: Earlier this year, Jane Fonda was among the stars of Book Club. At 80, she was a live wire, a ball of youthful energy and exuding a frank sexuality usually denied octogenarians of either gender on the screen. The movie reflected a powerful life force that Susan Lacy examines in depth in her engaging documentary that presents the actress’s life as one woman’s eight-decade-plus journey toward herself. Her children, close friends, and a couple of ex-spouses offer observations, but the bulk of the film is Jane Fonda in her own words. The “acts” reflect the important men in her life—father Henry and three husbands—and finally herself as her many lives unfold: actress, activist (and third rail for the American right), workout doyenne, wife, and mother. Movie clips, photos, and a wealth of other archival materials bring Fonda’s story to Technicolor life while at the same time introducing us to the real woman: curious, intelligent, dedicated, caring, flawed, likable, spirited—every bit that live wire glimpsed in Book Club.
Susan Wloszczyna: Having read Jane Fonda’s insightful personal 2005 memoir, My Life So Far, I knew of her five so-called acts that were primarily defined by the men in her life, but pictures often speak louder than words, and filmmaker Susan Lacy does a masterful job of summing up this amazing female icon – who somehow reflects the good and bad of all the eras she has lived in – with her documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts. Read full review.
Marilyn Ferdinand: Filmmaker Susan Lacy packs in as much information about Fonda as she can using archival footage, film and television clips, and talking-head interviews with her family, costars and friends and, of course, Jane Fonda herself. For those who are just discovering Fonda, this documentary will help them understand her place in history and perhaps help them on their journey of self-discovery. Read full review.
MaryAnn Johanson Susan Lacy’s extraordinarily intimate and perceptive new biography of Jane Fonda gives us extensive interviews with the legendary actress and activist in which she reveals insecurities and anxieties that are achingly raw, but also familiar. In fact, Lacy underscores that Fonda’s hard-won self-awareness is illustrative of the larger context in which all women exist, with patriarchal pressure constantly trying to mold us into something smaller and narrower than we should and can be. And so, though the film has clearly been a work in progress for several years, at least, it’s impossible not to hear echoes of #MeToo and #TimesUp here (though they are not mentioned). Many women will see themselves in Fonda’s story, as personal and unique as it is, and be angry on her behalf. And for ourselves, too. Read full review.
Nell Minow: Director Susan Lacy has the great advantage of a subject whose life has been extensively documented literally since birth, and the archival material, including an interview with the late Tom Hayden, is thoughtfully selected and presented. Wisely, it is not always chronological. Older material is included when it is most thematically appropriate, as an echo of Fonda’s understanding over time of who she is and when to let go of past hurts and mistakes. Fonda’s own interviews are candid and insightful. Her regrets about the way she allowed herself to be used by the North Vietnamese are sincere but practiced. She has said this many times. More visceral is when she is visably shaken admitting her sadness in not being a better mother to her oldest child, Vanessa Vadim (named after Redgrave). While Vanessa’s children appear briefly in the film, Vanessa herself does not. Fonda’s son with Hayden, actor Troy Garrity, and their adopted daughter, Mary Luana “Lulu” Williams, do appear. Their affection and respect for their mother show that Fonda achieved her greatest wish, to be the loving parent she never had. Read full review.
Anne Brodie: Susan Lacy’s superb, emotional and often raw documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts presents a woman of contradictions, an activist and feminist who says she had just one democratic marriage then ended it to fulfill herself. She has a great need to make the world a better place, and once went way off the rails thinking she was doing it right. She is still hated by some, and beloved by more. Fonda is surprisingly candid about her life from a painful childhood as Henry Fonda’s barely noticed daughter, whose mother killed herself and who describes her first twenty years as dark, sad and joyless. She found fame and power as an actress but admits she never had much ambition. Fonda’s ground-breaking Workout tapes, records, videos and book helped launch the home video industry and financed her political activism with then husband Tom Hayden. There are so many unexpected revelations plus fresh insights from her democratic ex Ted Turner, Robert Redford, Lily Tomlin, her son and family members that paint pictures far different from what we imagined her life to be. It’s painful to watch at times as she blows the lid off our expectations, and the darkness she still feels at age 81 for the failures of her parents to provide her that basic need – to feel safe and loved.
Jeanne Wolf: If you thought you knew Jane Fonda after decades of watching her life and art unfold in the public eye you’re in a for a surprise. Susan Lacy’s HBO documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts takes you deeper than ever before into the Hollywood legend’s personal successes and failures, her hopes and dreams, and her true grit. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin Jane Fonda in Five Acts is a closeup and very personal biodoc in which the actress, interviewed on camera, traces her own evolution as artist, activist and feminist through the various phases — mostly, she says, defined by the men she was with — of her life. Filmmaker Susan Lacy uses archival footage and movie clips to show that Fonda has been a public figure for decades, influencing women’s images of themselves and taking stands on political and social issues. But it is Lacy’s almost psychoanalytic approach to interviewing Fonda — and Fonda’s compliance — that gives us a look at the icon’s insides, making the film particularly provocative and moving.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Walt Whitman wrote “I am large, I contain multitudes,” and Jane Fonda is a living example of how one person can be full of contradictions and complexities that make us human. A privileged member of Hollywood royalty. A hedonist. An ingenue. A controversial socialist radical. An international human rights and anti-war advocate. A wife of larger-than-life men, each of whom changed the course of her life. A fitness guru. A feminist producer. Jane Fonda has lived many lifetimes in her 80 years, and Susan Lacy’s new HBO documentary about the actress-activist is utterly riveting. Lacy even manages to sit down with both of Fonda’s living ex-husbands: legendary leftist congressman and activist Tom Hayden, and billionaire media mogul Ted Turner. Hayden provides an intimate look at Jane during her zealous activist years, while Ted admits his life was much happier with Jane than without. The five acts in the documentary are deftly divided between four men (father Henry and her three husbands) and then, finally, Jane. Brother Peter and oldest daughter Vanessa Vadim are conspicuously missing from the interviews, but otherwise, Jane Fonda in Five Acts is a frank and fascinating look at the complicated life and career of an extraordinary woman.
Cate Marquis Curiously, although the documentary shows Jane Fonda transforming herself throughout her life, the film is structured in five chapters, mostly built around the men in her life, although the men were mostly an accompaniment to her transformations. Read full review.
Title: Jane Fonda in Five Acts
Directors: Susan Lacy
Release Date: September 28, 2012
Running Time: 143 minutes
Distribution Company: HBO
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin