Last November, I had the pleasure to interview twice Jane Fonda when the French Institute-Alliance Française awarded her the 2018 Trophée des Arts. To celebrate the 2019 International Women’s Day, here is an updated article based on these conversations. The two-time Academy Award winner explained how she made a first name for herself as a young adult in France, thus becoming a major trailblazer.
WOMEN CAN HAVE IT ALL | SERIES | FONDA: ON BECOMING JANE
On this November 2018 evening, Golden Globe Award winner Sam Waterston was about to start his speech to present the annual Trophée des Arts Award to his Grace and Frankie co-star Jane Fonda when the actress surprised him on the New York Plaza ballroom stage. Her arms suddenly wrapped around the actor, the mischievous actress remained closely behind Waterston, as he tried to deliver a few words.
“The speech is going to be a little more difficult to give this way,” the actor whispered bewildered.
And then he went on. “It takes a big person to break out a protective and isolated bubble of great stardom and engage with the world and simply and directly with people. There are not that many stars interested in doing it. Jane Fonda is one of the happy few,” Waterston said.
At 82 years-old, Jane Fonda is nowhere near slowing down. She was recently the subject of a five-part HBO documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, and she stars in Netflix’s popular show Grace and Frankie.
But the daughter of one of America’s most revered actors, Henry Fonda, Jane was less self-assured growing up. “Je n’étais pas très heureuse en tant que jeune fille (I was not very happy as a young girl)” she said in flawless French, which she believes she speaks “plus ou moins (more or less).”
It is in France that the celebrated actress, feminist icon, and vocal political activist developed her singular voice.
Wearing her father’s famous last name had its benefits. “People paid attention to me because I was Henry Fonda’s daughter. So I had opportunities that others would not have had.” Still, even after starring in six movies, including the 1962 film Period of Adjustment, for which she received her first Golden Globe Award nomination, she still felt she “was under the big shadow” of her father.
Fate intervened when French film director René Clément cast her in his movie, Les Félins (Joy House), alongside Alain Delon.
“I decided I wanted to go to Paris because I wanted to make it my own way. It was the time of La Nouvelle Vague, and Paris was a very exciting place for filmmaking,” she said.
Once in France, she found more than an individual path, she discovered her unique power. She had first traveled to Paris as a teenager with her father, who was on his way to Italy to star with Audrey Hepburn in King Vidor’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace.
“The thing that made me love Paris was “Les murs,” she said, waxing nostalgic. “It was the walls and the colors of the Parisian stones that I fell in love with. Paris was my first European city, and I was smitten.”
Fonda also fell in love with French film director Roger Vadim, and the two eventually married. Soon after, Vadim directed her in the comedy Barbarella. She remembers this as a time of romance: not just with a man, but with an entire culture and lifestyle, recalling the sound of cars on the paved “narrow” streets of Paris and conversations in a foreign language.
“I stayed to be with him,” she said. “I spoke French and liked the idea of living in France.” Their apartment was “‘dans le grenier (in the attic) of the Hotel des Ambassadeurs d’Hollande, rue Vieille du Temple in Le Marais. Before, we lived on rue Seguier and also in the 15th arrondissement.” She listed her old Parisian addresses as if they were a poem—a Prévert catalog—reciting the charms of the French capital, where she had found a home.
Paris helped define her identity. It is in France that Jane ‘the actress’ became Jane ‘the trailblazer.’ She became Jane Fonda–End of the sentence.
In the 1960s and early70s, Jane Fonda met French actress Simone Signoret who became her mentor: “She explained to me the [Vietnam] War, and what it was really about. And then I met American soldiers who had resisted the war and I decided that I had to leave France and return to the United States to be part of the anti-war movement.” Jane Fonda had become an activist.
When she left Paris, her need to speak up against injustice and give a platform to the disenfranchised, particularly women, was cemented.
In 2004, Jane Fonda, now a producer, actress, and former wife of CNN founder Ted Turner, could not fathom how women “voted for the re-election of George W. Bush against their own interest.”
“So much of how people think, how they see themselves and their place in the world is created by the media,” she explained.
“We have to do something so that more women’s voices are heard in all forms of media.”
So she launched the Women’s Media Center with Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan.
This ambitious organization provides female leaders with media training, helping them to more effectively communicate in interviews and across social media. Through the Women’s Media Center, Fonda works to create openings on television, film, and other forms of entertainment for women’s visions, ideas, and perspectives.
“If only men tell the story, then half of the population is left out,” Fonda said.“ And the other half, the men, are robbed of hearing the narrative from a woman’s point of view. Both sides, men and women, are losing by not having women’s voices strongly represented in the media.”
In Hollywood, this means finding more projects for women to produce, write, direct, and cast. “It is the people that are not in front of the camera that make the decisions about what story will be covered,” she said.
So, the key question, Fonda explained, is ‘who gets to tell the story?’
“Historically, it has always been the winner, those in power—which means that for almost the totality of history, it has been men—who have gotten to tell the story, with “a mostly male-only point of view,” added the heroine of HBO’s series The Newsroom, in which she plays a media mogul.
For more than eight decades, Fonda has witnessed progress and change, much of which she has helped to pioneer.“But it is too slow,” she said. “We are facing a global crisis on many levels.” She wants to see more women in leadership positions, in Hollywood and in Washington. “We have different ideas on how to solve problems.”
“Everything affects women differently: war, bankruptcy, famine, climate crisis, healthcare. Women look at and experience things in a different way; so, we now have to demand that we also get to tell the story.” Tellingly, Fonda has adeptly made sure to voice her own narrative.