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Jane Fonda Profile
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Jane Fonda Profile
* Films air on 8/23

One of the cinema's most iconoclastic stars whose politics and outspoken opinions have often eclipsed her performances, Jane Fonda has been a vivid presence onscreen and off since 1960. Born in 1937 in New York, Lady Jayne Seymour Fonda was named for an ancestor, on her mother's side, the third wife of Henry VIII Lady Jane Seymour. Her younger brother Peter, born in 1940, would eventually become as unique an actor and as rebellious in his own way as Jane. Nominated two times for Academy Awards, Peter co-wrote and starred in one of the touchstone counterculture films of the Sixties, Easy Rider (1969) and eventually went on, like his shape-shifting sister, to reinvent himself as the star of another generation of independent film in Ulee's Gold (1997). Peter's own daughter, Bridget, would go on to follow in the family craft (Scandal 1989, Single White Female, 1992).

The daughter of revered actor Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath, 1940, 12 Angry Men, 1957) and socialite Frances Seymour Brokaw, Jane Fonda's early life was marked by tragedy. When Fonda was just 12 her mother, after time spent in psychiatric hospitals, committed suicide. That fact was kept from Fonda until she accidentally discovered the cause of her mother's death - from slashing her own throat - while reading a movie magazine.

In her candid best-selling 2005 memoir My Life So Far, Fonda described a childhood and adolescence marked not only by the lingering effects of this tragedy, but the emotional aloofness of her famous father which began Jane's lifelong battle to please the various men in her life and her battle with eating disorder beginning as a teenager which would continue into her forties.

Fonda initially did not consider following in her father's footsteps as an actor. Her first role was in a charity performance alongside her father in the 1954 Omaha Community Theater production of "The Country Girl." But it would take years before Fonda struck out on an actor's path.

After enrolling at Vassar in 1955 and finding her studies there unsatisfying, Fonda decided to move to France where she met movie stars like Charlie Chaplin, Jean Cocteau and Ernest Hemingway. During the time her father rented a French Riviera villa, Greta Garbo came to visit, Fonda recalls in My Life So Far, and would swim naked in the sea. During the vacation Garbo asked Fonda if she was going to be an actress. Fonda was surprised by the question and by Garbo's comment that she was pretty enough to be one.

While she was in France Fonda briefly studied art before eventually returning to New York where she worked as a model and appeared on the cover of Vogue. It was in 1958 after meeting Lee Strasberg that Fonda found her calling and joined the Actor's Studio after much urging from Fonda's friend and Strasberg's daughter, Susan. Despite a nervous first meeting with Lee, the famed acting coach said he saw past Fonda's nervous, ladylike comportment, "It was your eyes. I saw something else in your eyes," he told her.

Jane made her film debut in 1960 in Tall Story, her first experience with the Hollywood studio system and the endless criticisms of her appearance that she remembers as "a Kafkaesque nightmare." "I was unable to rediscover the excitement I had experienced acting in Strasberg's classes. I didn't know how to use what I had learned there to make my cheerleader character more than one-dimensional."

Often as famous for her association with famous men as she has been for her film roles, Fonda has often gravitated toward maverick films and unconventional roles and partners with those same qualities, though most have come with difficult strings attached, including infidelity and alcoholism.

Fonda's lover Roger Vadim ushered in Fonda's momentary rein as a European sex goddess in 1964 when she appeared nude - a shocking step for an American actress of the time - in La Ronde. In 1965 she appeared in the Western spoof Cat Ballou and in the Neil Simon comedy Barefoot in the Park (1967) in which she played a spirited newlywed alongside a conservative lawyer played by Robert Redford. Variety called it "a howl of a picture" and young Fonda "excellent."

Her first marriage to Vadim in 1965 produced one of Fonda's most memorable roles as the futuristic bombshell in Barbarella (1968). Directed by Vadim, it was his attempt to mold Fonda into a Bardot-style sex goddess. The marriage also produced a daughter, Vanessa, now a documentary filmmaker. Vadim and Fonda divorced in 1970.

Jane was never very interested in playing the role of the passive sex kitten and was more attracted to the vital, compelling social causes of the sixties. Throughout that decade Fonda embraced such causes as the plight of Native Americans, the Black Panthers and the Vietnam War, her most controversial cause. Along with actor Donald Sutherland Fonda traveled to military camps in Vietnam as a member of the Anti-War Troupe.

Fonda's most memorable incident and the one that has proven the hardest to live down was her decision to travel to Vietnam in 1972 where she was photographed posing on North Vietnamese anti-air craft guns. It aroused vehement protest for cozying up to the Communist forces while American troops were still fighting and dying in Vietnam. The incident earned her the nickname "Hanoi Jane" which she spent a lifetime trying to live down. "I was framed and turned into a lightening rod for people's anger," Fonda has said of the incident. She has since publicly voiced her regret over that moment of poor judgment, though many have remained unforgiving. "That two-minute lapse of sanity will haunt me until the day I die," Fonda has said.

In the first of many accolades to come, Fonda received the New York Film Critics Best Actress Award in 1969 for her searing performance as a grim victim of the Depression in Sydney Pollack's searing They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, based on Horace McCoy's novel. She was also nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Gloria Beatty in that film. Two years later Fonda would win an Academy Award for her performance opposite Donald Sutherland as a New York prostitute in Alan J. Pakula's Klute (1971). It was the first of two Academy Awards that came before her own father had ever received one.

Marriage to peace activist Tom Hayden in 1973 produced a son, Troy Garity (he would also pursue an acting career) who was given his paternal grandmother's last name to protect his anonymity. Unlike her marriage to Vadim, Jane felt like she enjoyed an equal partnership with Hayden and they both shared an intense interest in politics. In 1974 Fonda and Hayden appeared in the documentary Introduction to the Enemy about Fonda's experiences in Vietnam; it was directed by cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Her backing of radical political causes and her relationship with Black Panther leader Huey Newton made Fonda so notorious she was placed under surveillance by the FBI.

Over the course of a distinguished, volatile career, Fonda earned two Academy Awards, both for films made in a fertile creative period during the 1970s. In 1972 a Redbook magazine poll named Fonda one of the ten most admired women in America. Fonda was nominated for another Best Actress Academy Award for Julia (1977) and received her second Academy Award for Best Actress in the powerful Hal Ashby film about the effects of the Vietnam war on the homefront, Coming Home (1978).

Fonda was nominated for Academy Awards three more times, for The China Syndrome (1979), On Golden Pond (1981) and The Morning After (1986). Her film appearances in the Eighties include Agnes of God (1985), a murder mystery set in a convent in which she spoke of a new spiritual awareness brought on by working on that film. Demonstrating her ability to move back and forth between drama and comedy, in 1980 Fonda appeared alongside Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin in 9 to 5, one of the films Fonda also produced (along with The China Syndrome, The Morning After and On Golden Pond, 1981).

In 1981 Fonda was able to appear for the first and last time alongside her father on film in On Golden Pond, his final movie appearance. A tense affair for dredging up some of the difficulties of her own relationship with her father, the production was also marked by costar Katharine Hepburn's first words to Jane, "I don't like you!" She later realized that part of Hepburn's anxiety may have been that of an older actress fearful of being overshadowed by a younger one in both screen time and billing. "From the moment I sensed what was going on, it was easy to open my heart to her."

A woman of remarkably versatile talents, Fonda was reborn in the eighties as that era's striped leotard exercise guru who urged advocates to "feel the burn" in her Jane Fonda's Workout. That 1982 video continues to be the top grossing home video of all time. The profits of her exercise empire helped support the Campaign for Economic Democracy in which she and Hayden worked together.

In 1990 Fonda appeared alongside Robert De Niro in Stanley & Iris which opened up the "Hanoi Jane" controversy anew when a group of Vietnam Vets from Waterbury, Connecticut objected to her filming in their town. Fonda was able to diffuse the situation and publicly atone for any missteps she may have taken in Vietnam by meeting with the Vets to air grievances.

In 1991 at age 54 Fonda married Turner Broadcasting mogul Ted Turner, and announced her retirement from film. Even at an age when many women would settle into the complacency of middle-age, Fonda became a born-again Christian, much to Turner's chagrin. Though she publicly announced her abandonment of her film career, Fonda still engaged in a variety of causes and pursuits including the publication of a cookbook, Jane Fonda: Cooking for Healthy Living. In 1995 she also continued her interest in philanthropic causes by founding an important foundation, the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention in her new home of Atlanta, dedicated to eradicating teen pregnancy. In 2001 a $2 million donation to Emory University in Atlanta created the Jane Fonda Center devoted to adolescent reproductive health research. She has also financially supported a multimillion dollar Harvard University study of gender role in education. Fonda has also publicly promoted playwright Eve Ansler's V-Day, an organization that addresses violence against women around the world.

Able to reinvent herself, undertake new creative projects and enjoy a staying power rarely allowed actresses in age-obsessed Hollywood, in 2005, Fonda returned to the screen with a spirited comic performance alongside Jennifer Lopez in Monster-in-Law. That same year Fonda penned her best-selling 600-page memoir My Life So Far at the age of 67.

In 2007 Fonda appeared alongside another younger, tabloid-centric Hollywood beauty, Lindsay Lohan, in Georgia Rule. Despite the endless controversy over her protest of the Vietnam War, Fonda has remained dedicated to political causes, speaking out against the Iraq War and on issues that directly affect women.

by Felicia Feaster
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