SECTION ONE
PAGE TEN

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

AMERICA'S ANSWER TO BARDOT
THE YOUNG JANE FONDA

X.

After two years of intermittent absences at Vassar, Jane finally absented herself entirely.  She went instead to Paris under the pretext of studying painting but, at the two schools in which she enrolled, her greatest artistry continued to be in cutting classes.  When, after several months, she came home for the Christmas holidays, her father asked her to stay home.

"Paris," she says, "was really going out, being accepted, being popular."

New York turned out to be more of the same.  According to her acquaintances of the time, she became an uptown beatnik, not proficient in anything except the knowledge of where the parties were.  She started to study piano but the scales came between her and fulfillment. She tried working at the Paris Review, but she couldn't write.  She began doing office work for a producer but that brought her too close to what she already feared she wanted most.

"I kept trying to find things that I liked," she says, "trying to avoid acting. I mean I was a social butterfly, I really was, it was the whole international Society bit. I went out every night, I went to parties in the Village, I went to society balls. Oh, it's not silly enough to laugh at it now, but it's a pretty empty existence. And that was my life, it really was, and to be home alone, it meant that there was something going on that I wasn't part of.  And the moment I acted, I didn't need to go to parties any more. I didn't need to. I didn't need to be with everyone all the time. I was able to stay home alone."

Her fear, of course, was of failure. She had no insights into acting and her father, by a conscious design and an admitted inability, had not given her any of his. At the Emma Willard school, she had joined the drama class and at Vassar, she had gone so far as to play the lead in Lorca's Amor de Don Perlimpin con Balisa en su Jardin.

"I liked the makeup and the costumes," she says, "but I didn't know anything about the character's motivations."

When she was seventeen, she appeared with her father as his granddaughter in ten performances of The Country Girl, a summer benefit for the Omaha Community Playhouse in her father's hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.  Again, it was just for kicks, but the biggest kick went to her father.

'the first day we were in rehearsal in the scene that involved Jane," he told me, "she had to enter crying hysterically.  So I made my exit from the scene and as I come off, Jane's standing there ready to make her entrance.  And there is a moment or two before her cue and she says, 'Dad, I'm supposed to be crying.' And I said 'Not now, darling, you're not supposed to be crying in this first rehearsal, relax.' Anyway, I sort of thought she'll be embarrassed if I'm watching, so I sort of turned my back and she walked on.

'so I'm not watching and I hear this girl sobbing like her heart's going to break, reading these lines.  I mean she worked herself up.  It's very short, she makes her exit and comes 


Henry Fonda doesn't
remember Jane expressing
any interest in acting


off and I'm still standing there and she walks right up to me and says. "Dad, I can't cry,?? and he himself laughed tearfully remembering the incident. "I said, "You can't cry?? and I put my arms around her. "Whatever you did, that's good enough."?

The next summer, when she was eighteen, she again appeared with her father as the ing?nue in The Male Animal at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts.

"Now remember," he said, "as far as I knew about Jane, there was no ambition for the theater at all.  But she played the part and again it was just because---as far as I could make out---it seemed like it would be fun to do something during vacation. Now I don't know today whether it's because she was self-conscious because her name was Fonda and sort of staying away from acting or she didn't have the interest.  I don't know.

"But when she played the part, again she was absolutely charming, natural, unaffected, unself-conscious and everything.  And I remember then thinking, and I never said it to her, 'Well, God!  If this girl ever decides that she does want to go into the theater, I as a papa, can relax.  Because particularly as a parent who's been in the business and knows what heartbreak it can be, I thought, "Well, if she ever wants to, she's going to be all right and I don't have to worry.  Because this girl has really got it now. I don't mean that I could see what I can see today, but at least that she wasn't going to fall on her face."

I asked him why he didn't tell her.

"Well," he said.  "I don't really know whether I could articulate reasons.  I guess it was just instinct.  I don't know whether I was thinking that if she does want to act, she'll want to know that she did it on her own.  And I had a feeling of not wanting to dissuade her or persuade her one way or another, I wanted to let her make her own decisions.

"And partly because she, as far as I could make out, was indicating verbally that she wasn't interested, that it was for a ball at the at the moment and that she couldn't care less about having a career.  And also, she was nuts about a young guy down there who didn't want her to be an actress.  I think they got engaged for a while, and he wanted the career, he wanted to be a play?wright, and he didn't want his wife to be an actress.  Anyway, I just didn't say anything about it, and I still think I was right."

Jane's emotions on the subject are as variable as her moods.

"I hated myself on the stage, I hated myself," she told me, trying to remember how she felt during her experience on Cape Cod.  "Physically, I was ashamed of being there.  It was just a matter of learning lines and saying them.  I got no fulfillment out of it.  I felt phony.  It was a painful thing and yet somehow I loved it.  It wasn't even the acting, it was every time I would walk past an empty theater, something would happen inside of me.  And I kept trying to steer myself away.  And I had a whole mechanism, a whole philosophy all worked out that women---particularly me---with all my ego and all my selfishness, all I need to do is become on actress and I'm finished, forget it."

The problem again was in being Henry Fonda's daughter, although Jane tries to avoid putting it in such simple terms, much the same as she tried to avoid the consequences.  The fact remains that if she had been a butcher's daughter the problem would not have loomed so large before her.

"I think that really the most honest thing I can say," she told me, "is it was the fear that I wouldn't be the best, and I was unwilling to be anything but the best.  And I wasn't able to commit myself to acting until I was able to say, "I'm not the best and I still want to be an actress.' The fact that Henry Fonda was my father---'that might have been the final thing.  But there were other reasons.

"As I said, for me acting was learning lines and saying them as realistically as you could.  And it involved no fulfillment, and it involved no reward. It involved nothing except ego and discomfort and trying to live up to something.  And my ego wanted me to be an actress on the one hand, and my desire to belonnnnnng wanted me to be an actress.  And on the other hand my ego prevented me from wanting to be an actress because I didn't think I could be the best."

Looking back now, Jane realizes that there also was something else that prevented her from committing herself to acting.  It was, she says, ignorance of the pure joy that acting could bring to her.

"You see," she said, "at that time I couldn't know the fulfillment.  I mean there are some people who have experienced on the stage the thing that is fulfilling about acting---the privacy in public, the thing that happens, the inspiration when one part of your mind knows you're acting and yet it's happening, it's really happening to you. Now if anyone has      ever experienced this, the chances are they're going to be dedicated forever."

I asked Jane if she had experienced this.

"Yes,? she said.

I asked her when.

"With Lee Strasberg," she said.  ##

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