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COLUMN SIXTY-THREE, SEPTEMBER 1, 2001
(Copyright 2001 Al Aronowitz)

AMERICA'S ANSWER TO BARDOT
THE YOUNG JANE FONDA

[As the late great actor Tony Perkins once told me, you couldn't help but fall in love with Jane Fonda "because she's everybody's ideal."  I myself flipped over Jane.  Head over heels! Assigned by The Saturday Evening Post to write a 4,000-word profile of her, I instead wrote 40,000 words.  Of course, that gave my editor, Bill Ewald, conniptions.  Bill was one of the few editors I've dealt with for whom I have great respect, and it was with the help of his editorial expertise that I managed to trim down the piece to the size required by The Saturday Evening Post.

This was in the early "60s when Jane was being hyped as America's answer to Brigitte Bardot, the French sex kitten who enraptured the men of the Western World with her gallic beauty in director Roger Vadim's And God Created Woman. Brigitte later married Vadim and still later, so did Jane. Jane was the third of Vadim's five trophy, sex kitten wives, all delicious temptresses, one more famously beautiful than the other. Vadim, a celebrated stud, was the first of Jane's three husbands, all powerful, one more famously powerful than the other.  I wrote the attached piece before she married any of them.

Doing the research for this piece I of necessity had to hang out with Jane and hanging with Jane was one of the many great adventures of my life. It now seems to me I hung out with Jane for months. I remember going with my wife to an intimate Christmas party in Jane's apartment one year. That was at a time when Jane totally consumed my brain. I couldn't get Jane off my mind.  Nothing in life meant anything to me but that I write a truthful and entertaining account of my efforts to lean about Jane. I remember one afternoon driving West on Manhattan's 57th Street in my TR3 sports car with Jane totally occupying my thoughts.  There was an occasional drizzle and I was stopped in traffic

Suddenly there was a rapping on the plastic side panel next to me. I turned to look and there, in the middle of the street, was Jane, bending down to smile at me through what served as a window on the TR3.  She'd been crossing the street when she spotted me sitting behind the wheel, waiting for the light to change and she had hustled over to say, "Hi!"

Yes, I thought I got along famously with the famous Jane.  Then, after the piece appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, she turned into a snow queen. When I asked her what was wrong, she answered that her snooty New England relatives on her mother's side had read the piece and had called her up to tell her, "Well, if you needed some money, you should have come to us."

Some time later, when Pete Hamill was Shirley MacLaine's toy boy, he roped me into joining the two of them at a party in a Democratic bigwig's penthouse on the upper East Side.  There were a few celebrities at the party and Jane was one of them. When I approached her to say, "Hello, Jane," she looked at me from atop her snow-covered mountain and icily said:

"Who are you??

Herewith is my original 40.000-word profile of Jane.] ##

I.

In the beginning they called her Lady.

"But it was really my name," she says.  "Like, the name tapes in my school clothes said "Lady Fonda.' And when I was maybe four or five I'd read comic books that had in the little balloon coming out of a character's mouth the word, 'lady,' and I'd think it vas something about me."

Her father's middle name was Jaynes. Her mother's maiden name was Seymour. When she was born, they happened to be reading about one Henry VIII's wives, a woman who, coincidentally, was known as Lady Jane Seymour.

"I'm not sure," says Jane Fonda," as if to recall an incident she never witnessed, "but I think Lady Jane Seymour was Henry VIII's second wife."

Actually, Lady Jane Seymour was his third.

"I'm also lot sure," Jane Fonda adds, "but I think she had her head cut off because she didn't have a son."

Actually, Lady Jane Seymour died while giving birth to one. What Jane Fonda doesn't know about Lady Jane Seymour, she   also doesn't know about herself. What she does know is that her parents put Jane Seymour on her birth certificate and "Lady? on her nametapes.

"There are people," she says, "there are people like Louella Parsons who still think my name is Lady."

Louella Parsons is a celebrated Hollywood gossip columnist, but that's only one of the assorted facts of Jane Fonda's twenty-five-year-old life.  Another is that when she was twelve, her mother committed suicide by slashing her throat in an insane asylum.  And still another is that her father is legendary movie actor Henry Fonda.

The title of star is not hereditary.  Jane Fonda did not, as Life magazine once suggested, spring up "almost magically as a full-fledged and versatile actress. . .like the ancient goddess who was born full-?grown out of her father's head."

For her first twenty years, she didn't even want to become an actress.

"Or at least," says her father, his raised eyes staring out into the past, "she said she didn't."

Looking into the past through her own eyes, Jane thinks that being her father's daughter, in fact, discouraged her from being herself.

"When people used to ask me why I wasn't an actress," she remembers, "I used to say, 'If I can't be the best I don't want to be an actress."?

To a little girl with "Lady? on her nametapes, the star that shone so bright to the rest of the world left her in his shadow.  Today, after five years of psychotherapy, she has only begun to find her own brilliance.

"When she was making her last picture," says actress Madeline Sherwood, "Jane would get up at four a.m. to study her part.  Then she would visit her analyst at six-thirty before reporting to the studio at seven."

If she couldn't inherit her father's title, she did inherit the way he puts his hands to his lips when he is speaking as if better to express his words. Or the way his lips pucker and stretch in exactitudes of enunciation, caressing his words even in anger. Or the way he talks with verbal italics, elongating special spellings of meaning, like the far reaches of an El Greco canvas. Or the way his eyes tear and redden in quick and sudden revelations of emotion, demonstrations of inner honesty that he bares so easily to the world, but somehow not to his daughter.  Or the way she looks like him, with the same sad Fonda face that has endured at least three generations and perhaps longer---although that's not necessarily an asset for a girl whose profession requires that she look beautiful.

And, when she finally made up her mind to knock on the necessary show business doors, she also found that she had in?herited the keys.  Even then she hesitated to use them. Endowed as she was with the separate parts of her father's magic, and only incidentally with his name, she still had to walk through those doors on her own two coltish legs. 

From five movies and four Broadway plays, she already has emerged as a star of international proportions. But the piles of clippings she won from the critics in the reviewing stand and the stacks of money she earned from the box office didn't accumulate from people who came merely to see her father's daughter.  From her head, decorated with the high mascara of her brimming blue eyes, to her toes, she boasts a spectacular femininity that has Hollywood hyping her as America's answer to Brigitte Bardot.  In other words, Jane Fonda has attributes her father obviously could never possess.

"If I bad a child who became a bigger star than I was," Jane once told me, "I'd hate it.  I'd be miserable.  I just couldn't staaaand it."

Her father, of course, doesn't have to imagine what it would be like.

"There's no question but that she's going to be a bigger star than I am," he told me. "I think she's bigger already.  And it's kind of scary, actually, because she's so loaded, there's no limit to what this girl can do.  It's scary because I'm her father. I wouldn't think of its being scary if I saw another young girl like Rita Tushingham, who I know is loaded with talent. It's just that, Jesus Christ!---that's my daughter!" and his eyes reddened.  "And it doesn't bug me that she's going to be a bigger star. God, No! I think I knew some years ago. . ." Among her resentments, perhaps, is that he never told her.

The evidence of her stardom is in more than her father's opinion.  It is in the growing number of man who smile at the mere mention of her name and in the prehensile eyes with which they follow her image across a screen.  It is in the three more movies she is now under contract to make and in the five more contracts that producers have laid at her feet, all at a time of one of Hollywood's worst depressions.

It is in way that the Hollywood columnists give her. Hedda Hopper quotes her in all solemnity as proclaiming that marriage is obsolete. Earl Wilson reports she really did say, "Hollywood's wonderful---they pay you for making love." Sheila Graham writes about the feud within Jane's family because they don't like her boyfriend. Joe Hyams announces she told him: "I think movies would be wonderful if everyone would only play in them bald and naked." Sidney Skolsky complains about her unbecoming attitude.

She receives awed recognition walking into a health food store on West Fifty-Seventh Street to buy some figs or browsing for Christmas gifts in a button store on Fifth Avenue or losing her balance while trying to pirouette in her ballet class on Broadway or even, among her peers, arriving at the Actors' Studio to take her place in class. 

You can see her stardom in the designed naughtiness with which she told one friend, "Vassar is an unhealthy school---They don't allow boys in there." Or in the way she told another friend, "I'm going to fall in love with every leading man---how can you help it?" Or in the passion with which her press agent, Joe Wolhandler, told me, "Marilyn makes love to the camera.  Jane makes love to the cameraman." Or in the haste with which he burned the negatives after Jane, stopping by at Richard Avedon's studio for publicity photographs one day, ended up by posing in the nude. Newspapers all over the world compare her with Brigitte Bardot.

". . . Mr. Fonda's daughter blasts Bardot right off her sexy pinnacle," wrote Donald Zec in the London Daily Mirror after witnessing her performance in Walk on the Wild Side.  "If Brigitte taught the movie business new lessons on sex-appeal (The Teasing Uses of Anatomic Energy), then Jane Fonda has improved on the instruction."

There is a similarity in the animal grace of their movements, in the erotic curl of their lips, in the sensu?ality of their faces and, above all, in their hair.  On Jane, a dirty gold torrent falls to her shoulders with a studied lack of discipline, breaking into rivulets, some down her front, some down her back, but not as far down as Brigitte's, whose hair touches bottom.  Her bottom.

Not long ago Newsweek magazine, casting about for a successor to Marilyn Monroe's golden mantle, chose three candidates, Sue Lyon, Lee Remick and Jane Fonda.

"Blondness is more than a lightness of hair," said Newsweek. "It is the color of virtue. . .For as long as there have been movies there has been an All-American blonde. . ." In nominating Jane Fonda, Newsweek described her hair as chestnut but the nomination still stands.

"I?ve just been on a swing almost around the world," Henry Fonda told me, "to publicize a picture, How the West Was Won and everywhere I've been, they don't want to know about the picture, they don't want to know about me. Evvvvverybody, in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, they want to know about Jane. They know about her already, but they want to talk about me being the father and my reactions and so forth. The Japanese magazines that I was seeing when I was there full of Jane. In other words, she is internationally known."           

In our society, the stars are gods and goddesses enshrined in an eager gossip equal to the mythology of the gods and goddesses who lived on Mount Olympus.  It is no little coincidence that many movie houses are built to resemble temples.  But Jane Fonda is also something other than a star.

"That's probably what I mean by saying it's kind of scary," her father told me, "because when you see something like that and realize, as I said, that there's just no limit to what this girl can do.  And going to do, because she's dedicated. She's the most serious girl about her work I know.  She just never stops work. Voice, vocal lessons, dance of all kinds, acting classes---and the work, the dedicated hard work that she does when she's on a picture, or in a theater or whatever she's doing. She's just completely wrapped up in it."

If Henry Fonda talks about his daughter with great pride, others praise her just as effusively.  From a Broadway debut in a play that the public endured for only thirteen performances, she emerged with the 1960 New York Drama Critics' Award as the "most promising young actress of the year."

After he watched her audition for her membership in Actors' Studio, Elia Kazan turned to Lee Strasberg and said, "I always thought of her as an interesting theater personality, but not until now did I realize she could be a major talent."

In his reviews of The Chapman Report and Period of adjustment movie critic Stanley Kaufman devoted almost his entire New Republic column to a lament that too many people were looking at Jane as a movie star without appreciating her accomplishment as an actress.

"Jane has more talent than she knows," says playwright Arthur Laurents, not particularly a friend of Jane. 

"Jane works five times as hard as she really has to," Shelley Winters told me. Said George Cukor, who directed both Jane and Shelley in The Chapman Report,  "I think the only thing she has to watch is that she has such an abundance of talent she must learn to hold it in. She must learn not to discipline it but deal it out less generously than she does."

When I asked Cukor to compare Jane with the other great female stars he has directed, such as Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlowe and Greta Garbo, he answered:

"I think the very virtue of the girl is that one can't make a comparison.  I think the very thing that makes people stars is their great individuality, and the thing that's unique about Jane is that she does not fit into any category.  She is an original. She is an American original."

Broadway producer Robert Lantz, who found that simple professional curiosity ambled him to become a close friend of Jane, used the exact wording.

"She's not like Carole Lombard, she's not like Marilyn Monroe, she's not like Elizabeth Taylor, she's not like any of them," he told me. "What I mean is that we've only seen the trailer, the coming attractions, of Jane Fonda's career. . .Fonda has a built-in future. She's a Rolls Royce. She'll last.  She s an American original."

As original as the antiques with which she has furnished her apartment. Jane is well aware of her success.  But she is also well aware that the greater her success becomes, the greater it becomes difficult for her to justify it.

"It's much harder now," she told me, sitting one night after Christmas in her West Fifty-Fifty-Seventh Street Apartment, just off Fifth Avenue, wearing a dressing gown of pink roses with her legs folded beneath her---or at least all of her legs that would fit.  She kept trying to find room for them and, as she spoke, she shifted in the uncomfortable antiquity of her chair. Several times, her thighs peeked through the folds of her gown like two little children hiding behind the top of a banister, sneaking a look at the downstairs company past their bedtime. Like a nerdy prude, I turned my eyes away.

On the floor a tiger and a leopard lay guarding her silently with open mouths that once had roared.  But now they were a couple of rugs she said her boyfriend had given her after claiming he had shot them in California.  Her boyfriend was asleep at the time in the next room.

"Just to get up in the Actor's Studio now and do a scene," she said, "it's so hard.  Mainly because I know that there are people there who have far more talent than I do, and I know it, and it's hard really to know.  I know that I have something else, but as far as real acting ability, they have much more than I do.  I have star quality, I have a personality, I have a presence on the stage which make me more important than they are, but just in terms of acting they have more, and that's why it's hard to get up in front of the Studio," and she emanated strange feminine air of wistfulness and envy.

"I know the kind of feelings that there are, you know, that I'm Jane Fonda and I've worked and I've done movies and there's talk about me and I'm Henry Fonda's daughter.  And I know that there are people out there that have more talent than I do that will never be star.  And that's what makes it difficult.'?

The point is that when Jane Fonda committed herself to acting it was as an art and not as a profession. Even today, after five major films she still demands less than one hundred thousand dollars a picture in contrast to the going rate of three hundred thousand dollars charged by her contemporaries of equal rank.

"I deliberately underprice myself," she explains, "because I'm more interested in getting the roles than the money. What most kids do today is to get their price up as fast as possible and then stay up there as long as possible by playing 'safe? roles, the kind that put them there in the first place.  So what happens is they price themselves out of a lot of pictures. If you set a high price on yourself, then lots of times a producer doesn't even bother to ask you to play a part, even though you might want to. I'd rather play a wide range of roles, and so I keep myself available."

Jane, of course, has an agent, but by the time he's called in, he usually finds his ulcers aggravated by the fact that the bargain already has been struck.  ##

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