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Jane Fonda won the first of two Academy Awards for what many consider her best performance in Klute (1971), playing Bree, a complicated New York City call girl whose life is in danger, and who becomes involved with a cop investigating the case. When she made the film, Fonda's life and finances were in disarray. Her marriage to French director Roger Vadim was on the rocks. She had taken time off from making films to get involved in anti-Vietnam war activities and other left-wing causes, and had poured most of her own money into them. Fonda may have agreed to star in Klute for the money, but something in her responded to Bree's vulnerability, and she made something remarkable of the role.
Working on her character from the outside in, Fonda collaborated with costume designer Ann Roth to perfect Bree's look. Much of it was based on Fonda's own style: the midi skirts, high boots, chunky jewelry, tight sweaters worn without a bra, and the leather-trimmed trench coat all became iconic looks that were copied by '70s fashionistas. So was the shag haircut, created by a hairdresser in New York's Lower East Side.
For Bree's inner self, the Method-trained Fonda researched her part by talking to New York call girls. That research helped shape her burgeoning feminism as she learned about the violence prostitutes often endured from their pimps and johns. She also seemed to dig deep into her own psyche for the scenes of Bree talking with her psychiatrist, played by fellow Actors Studio member Vivian Nathan. Their scenes together were improvised, and are among the most riveting in the film. But Fonda's insecurity sometimes got the best of her, and she told director Alan J. Pakula that she was wrong for the role and that he should replace her with Faye Dunaway. Pakula was patient, and Fonda later expressed her gratitude to him for helping her to trust her instincts.
The atmosphere on the Klute set didn't help Fonda's nerves. Many crew members did not share her outspoken antiwar opinions and support of the Black Panthers, and were openly hostile. On one occasion, when she had made negative remarks about the Nixon administration, Fonda arrived on set to find that the crew had hung a large American flag. Her costar Donald Sutherland shared her views, however, and the two began an affair. After the film wrapped, he joined her touring in an anti-Vietnam war stage show called F.T.A. (which stood for "F**k the Army," or euphemistically, "Free the Army") and appeared with her in a documentary about the F.T.A. tour.
For Klute, the reviews were mixed. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael had kind words: "Reminiscent of the good detective mysteries of the 40s -- it has the lurking figures, the withheld information, the standard gimmick of getting the heroine to go off alone so she can be menaced." Roger Greenspun of the New York Times found it less effective. "The actual intentions of Klute are not all that easy to spot, though I think they have more to do with its intellectual aspirations than with its thriller plot." But Fonda's performance received nearly unanimous raves. Jay Cocks of Time magazine wrote that she "makes all the right choices, from the mechanics of her walk and her voice inflection to the penetration of the girl's raging psyche. It is a rare performance." According to Richard Schickel in Life magazine, "Jane Fonda has emerged as the finest actress of her generation with a mercurial, subtly shaded, altogether fascinating performance." Kael agreed. "Her performance is very pure, unadorned by 'acting'...she has somehow gotten onto a plane of acting at which even her closest closeup never reveals a false note...There isn't another young dramatic actress in American films who can touch her."
Many observers believed that Fonda's radical activism had cost her an Oscar for 1969's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Maggie Smith won for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). During the 1971 awards season, Fonda was showered with nominations for Klute. She won a Golden Globe and sent a Vietnam veteran to pick up the award in her place, a move that earned her criticism for politicizing the event. Fonda recalled in her memoir, My Life So Far that as the Oscars approached, she struggled with how she should accept the award if she won, trying to decide whether she should reference the controversy over her political views. She asked her father what he thought. "'Tell 'em there's a lot to say, but tonight isn't the time,' was his recommendation -- and the moment I heard it I knew he was right." Her acceptance speech was brief and to the point, almost verbatim what Henry Fonda had suggested, with an added, simple "Thank you" at the end.
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Producer: Alan J. Pakula
Screenplay: Andy K. Lewis and Dave Lewis
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Editor: Carl Lerner
Costume Design: Ann Roth
Art Direction: George Jenkins
Music: Michael Small
Principal Cast: Jane Fonda (Bree Daniel), Donald Sutherland (John Klute), Charles Cioffi (Peter Cable), Roy Scheider (Frank Ligourin), Dorothy Tristan (Arlyn Page), Rita Gam (Trina), Nathan George (Trask), Vivian Nathan (Psychiatrist), Morris Strassberg (Mr. Goldfarb)
by Margarita Landazuri