Hollywood royalty, Hank’s kid, the Girl Next Door, sex kitten, shag-haired radical, political activist, Public Enemy No. 1, movie star, Oscar-winner, aerobics queen, trophy wife — will the real Jane Fonda please stand up? There are a number of reasons to check out Jane Fonda in Five Acts, the HBO documentary that premieres on the premium-cable channel tonight. But the only one that you genuinely need to concern yourself with, the main attraction behind this two-hour-plus tour of a life that’s taken some incredible, mind-boggling detours, is that it provides a resolution to that rhetorical question above. The genuine article stands up, and then some.
Thanks to clips covering virtually every single aspect of Lady Jane’s professional ups and personal downs, you can catch a glimpse of her from childhood to grande dame status, beloved icon to hated “traitor.” The occasional talking heads, kept to a minimum considering the famous subject but ranging from regular costar Robert Redford to her son Troy Garity, offer a few tidbits of context. It’s Fonda herself, however, and the way she uses this forum, that sets this apart from your typical hail-celebrity-well-met hagiography. The honesty is third-degree blistering. The candor is unchecked. For the majority of Five Acts‘ long running time, it does not seem like you’re watching a portrait of an artist. It feels like you’ve stumbled into a particularly raw therapy session, or have accidentally eavesdropped on a chest-clearing confessional.
The format — or gimmick, depending on your viewpoint — is to break up Fonda’s arc into five distinct chapters. Act One is titled “Henry,” as in her dad — a screen legend who, per Jane, was withholding in the affection department and made her feel as if she “grew up in the shadow of a national monument.” (You try living with Lincoln, Wyatt Earp and Tom Joad.) Her mother, Frances Ford Brokaw, takes her own life when Jane is 12; Dad takes up with a much younger woman. Boarding school teaches her how to be bulimic, and Lee Strasberg, a neighbor in Malibu Beach, teaches her how to become someone else. When her father surrogate declares that she “has real talent” after an acting class, Fonda heads to New York, getting model gigs in between Broadway shows and ingenue roles. She gets bored and heads to France, where a breathless announcer will declare that this young woman (“half rose petal, half thorn!”) is the bridge between Bardot and Moreau. The country gives her refuge. It also gives Jane her first husband in the Euro-louche Roger Vadim, her first taste of real stardom and motherhood, the cosmic-striptease “camp romp” that is Barbarella and a growing sense that American adventures overseas — specifically those involving Indochina — may not be all they appear to be.
Her wild et fou times and transformation into the person her estranged spouse calls “Jane of Arc” are covered in “Act Two: Roger” as the coming of the Klute haircut, her first sense that she’s more than just a pretty face thanks to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and her evolution as an activist. This is the period when, high on Dexedrine and ideology, her public appearances were a blur of peace signs and raised fists. “Act Three: Tom” traces her partnership with Tom Hayden, when the two became a peace-movement power couple, as well as the “Hanoi Jane” tar-and-feathering and the fallout from some ill-fated photo opps. It also chronicles how she began to, in her son’s words, “use film as a platform for change” (cue China Syndrome and 9 to 5 snippets) and, in an effort to fund a pet project to combat economic disparity, she filmed a workout video — and inadvertently kick-started an industry. “Act Four: Ted” follows the Ted Turner years, when Jane tied the knot with the Atlanta-based media mogul (“my favorite ex-husband”) and was content to stay on the sidelines to keep him happy.
Perhaps you have noticed a pattern in these chapter headings — the fact that they’re all named after powerful and/or overpowering men in her life is not a coincidence. Fonda states over and over how she felt defined by fathers, husbands, Svengalis, directors and lovers to the point where, should they say something negative or simply look away, she might fade away. And this is where Jane Fonda in Five Acts proves that it has other things on its mind than just hot air about how great Jane is. Filmmaker Susan Lacy may be a veteran of old-school famous-person profiling — she’s a go-to director for the PBS series American Masters series, and helmed HBO’s strictly textbook Spielberg last year — but she’s smart enough to know that if your subject is ready to unload, you get out of the way. You form relationships with stars over decades, and even if the bond you feel with those 20-foot-tall faces on screens is one-sided, you still feel like you know these people who lived so long in the public eye. To hear one of them so blatantly lay out insecurities, neuroses, anger, fears, failures, fuck-ups and feelings about what having to live as the object of someone else’s desires or needs does to a person can be sobering. More importantly, it can be insightful, which is what makes the film’s high-wire exorcism act invaluable. It’s not, “and here was what I was thinking when I was collecting an Oscar and making The Electric Horseman.” It’s “I’m a woman, I’m going to be damaged” when talking about her apprehension about being a mom and continuing a cycle. It’s “I spent a decade not asking too many questions.” It’s “I just wanted to be OK” and “I never felt real.”
By the time we get to Act Five, which is naturally named “Jane,” you know it’s going to be a victory lap of reclaiming herself and late-in-life career resurgences. And if it pales compared to the emotional roller coaster you’ve dipped and dived on for the previous two hours of personal history lessons, the film itself also makes you feel that this woman has more than earned a sense of peace. It ends on two notes of forgiveness, one spoken and one unspoken. The first is for Jane’s mother, with unearthed facts and long-lost memories and a visit to a grave. The second is the one the subject grants herself. That’s the gift this movie gives Jane Fonda: the chance to see herself through no other lens than her own. The simplicity of that last title card hits the mark. She’s a legend, sure. But now she’s not Henry’s daughter, or Roger/Tom/Ted’s wife, or Bree Daniels. She’s just Jane, the doc suggests, plain old Jane. It only took decades to get there.