SECTION ONE
PAGE ELEVEN

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

AMERICA'S ANSWER TO BARDOT
THE YOUNG JANE FONDA

XI.

In the summer of 1958, Henry Fonda and his fourth wife, the Baronessa Afdera Franchetti, rented a beach house in Malibu, California, and Jane spent her vacation with them.  In the beach house next door were Lee Strasberg and his wife Paula, then serving as drama coach to Marilyn Monroe in the filming of Some Like It Hot.

"I'd never met them before," Jane said.  "I met their daughter, Susan, and I met a friend of hers, an actor, Marty Freed.  And it was at about this time that Mervin Leroy said to me, "Why don't you play a part in a movie, play Jimmy Stewart's daughter?'

"No one had ever really offered we a part in a movie, you know, and suddenly that started getting me going.  Of course, it turned out I didn't play the part, but I did make a trip to the studio.  And then, on the beach, Marty said to me, 'You're kind of like Ingrid Bergman.' And Susan said to me, 'Why aren't you an actress?' And I knew I had to come back to New York at the end of the summer and I was panicking.  And finally I thought, well what the hell.  It was kind of like something to do.

In addition to his duties as Artistic Director of the Actors? Studio, Strasberg holds private classes for a group of select students. At Susan's suggestion, Jane telephoned him for an appointment.

"I went all dressed up like a little daughter of the father and had an interview with him," Jane remembered.  The result of the interview was that Strasberg accepted Jane as a student.  "I think he would have taken me in anyway simply because of my father," she said.  "I don't think that he ever thought I was going to last in classes.  And later on, in class, he told me, 'The only thing?---he was talking about my facade because I have a very proper facade, and he said, 'The only thing that made me take you, the thing that gave you away, because you seemed so calm, were your eyes. There was such a panic in the eyes."'

With a reputation that has endured the heights of reverence and depths of belly laughter, Strasberg is easily one of the most controversial men in American theater.  In trade press simplification, he is usually described as the high priest of the Method, the Stanislavsky Method.  Actually, according to his disciples, he is the high priest of nothing more than his own personalized interpretation of the Method. The list of these disciples includes such stars as Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Eli Wallach, Joanne Woodward Anne Bancroft and now Jane Fonda.

'the actor," Strasberg likes to say, "is in himself both the instrument and the creator, a unique situation in the arts.  The actor means to do certain things but at the same time the instrument has other things going on, unaware of its prior, lifelong conditioning."

The function of the Method, in other words, is to achieve a theatrical naturalism by having the actor, in effect, psychoanalyze the character he is about to play.  In doing so, the actor also has to psychoanalyze himself.

In Strasberg's private classes and at the Actors? Studio, the experiments to this end are often something short of comprehensible, not only to the layman, but to actors as well.

"In the beginning," said Henry Fonda, "Jane would come home from class and I'd greet her and we'd sit down on the couch and I could see the question mark up there in the sky right above her."

Jane's first exercise, for example, was to act out the way she drinks whatever it is she drinks in the morning, except that she misunderstood her homework.

"I did orange juice," she said, "and for two weeks before I did it, every time my father came home, he would walk into the kitchen and there'd be five dozen oranges that had been cut up and squeezed.  And I would be upstairs with a gallon jug of orange juice working out this exercise.  Well, he didn't have to say anything.  His silence was eloquent.  There'd be a slight sneer, or I'd just hear his laughter coming from downstairs. And he disturbed me very much.

"For example, he visited the Studio once and saw something, and at the drop of a hat he would get up from the dinner table and do this thing.  What he saw was, there was a table set up in the middle and there was a girl and a few boys and jazz music playing in the background.  And there was a girl doing something, you didn't know what, whether she was washing dishes, fooling with the kitchen tap and wandering around and saying, 'Helloooo, five o?clock, Helloooo, five o?clock." And my father would do a take-off on this, and everybody would be in stitches and I would be under the table.  Because you can't explain it, and he wanted to make fun of it.  "

By that time, of course, acting to Jane had become a subject both of more serious


Jane's Method
versus
her father's method


consequences and more serious attempts at discussion with her father.  One of the differences between them, however, was his method and her Method.

"I can't articulate about the Method," he told me, "because I never studied it.  I don't mean to suggest that I have any feelings one way or the other about it.  Jane sometimes says things like, 'Dad and I don't agree about the Method.' Well, I don't know what the Method is and I don't care what the Method is. Everybody's got a method.  Everybody can't articulate about their method, and I can't, if I have a method---and Jane sometimes says that I use the Method, that is, the capital letter Method, without being aware of it.  Maybe I do, it doesn't matter.  I know she thinks sometimes---or says at least---that I don't agree.  I don't know why."

Andreas Voutsinas says that at times of deep emotion, Jane, borrowing the facade of her childhood, sometimes drops a Venetian blind over her countenance, the same Venetian blind through which Lee Strasberg was able to see the light.  Jane ascribes a similar Venetian blind to her father.  Fonda himself told me that he often feels lost when he isn't wearing the mask of a role written out for him. And their friends say that any misunderstandings between Jane and her father exist largely because there isn't enough emotional communication between them to be understood.

"My father can't articulate the way he works." Jane said.  "He just can't do it.  He's not even conscious of what he does, and it made him nervous for me to try to articulate what I was trying to do.  And I sensed that immediately, so we did very little talking about it.  I mean, I used to come home so full of what I was doing, and he said, 'Shut up, I don't want to hear about it."  He didn't want me to tell him about it, you know.  He wanted to make fun of it."

In retrospect, Jane isn't entirely unhappy about her father's method in letting her make her own discoveries.

"In a way I think that maybe my father was very wise," she told me. "I mean, I remember times I've been backstage with him, like to in Silent Night, Lonely Night. It was five minutes before the curtain went up and I was in his dressing room.  I said, "Dad, what do you do before the play begins? Do you think anything?  What do you do?' And it stopped him short. He said, "What do you mean?' He said, "I don't know, I stand there, I think about my wife, Afdera, I don't know.'

'so maybe the fact that he doesn't bombard me with things is because he's never studied. He doesn't have the lingo. But the fact that he let me alone, I'm very grateful for.  And it's not easy.  At least it wouldn't be easy for me if I were a parent, so I assume it wouldn't be for him.  There are things, though, that if I had a child---if I were my father and I were my child and if I had come to him right before my first opening in New York---'there are things I would have said to me.

"My father said to me, 'There's nothing I can say, we've all gone through it.  You just have to go through it." I would say more.  I would say that I think that nerves are a sign of talent, that the more your heart is beating, it simply means the more sensitivity there is inside of you. And don't let that be an excuse for not performing.  Just try to take the nerves and channel them.

There were other Silences between Henry Fonda and his daughter. 

"There was one point," she told me, "where I had just done a marvelous scene in class.  I was working on three or four scenes at one time, and this scene was marvelous, and Marilyn was there and she cried. She was in class that day, and it was like I was on fifty Benzedrine. And I bumped into my father on the street right after the scene and I got into the taxicab with him and---and she panted heavily to recreate her excitement.  "And I could see his curtain come down.  He smiled and all that kind of thing, but it just didn't get through.  And I understand. I know that in twenty years, if I had a child who was just beginning and who came at me with that kind of enthusiasm, it would be terribly difficult because of the things that it would remind me of---the thing that inevitably goes out when you become a professional. 

When I spoke to her father several days later, I told him what Jane had said about the incident in the taxicab.  Tears came to his eyes and he unwound in his seat.

"Well, I don't understand this," he said with a troubled tone.  We were in the living room of his town house on East Seventy-Fourth Street.  He had just returned from a visit to the dentist and he was drinking Scotch in a toast to his teeth.  "Maybe I?m---maybe I do things that I'm not aware of that mean something to other people," he said. "I don't know what she means by a curtain coming down.  I remember the incident very well.  It may be that I'm trying to hide my own emotion, and to her it's the curtain coming down.  Now I'll relate that story, because it started at a time long before Jane ever indicated that she wanted to be an actress.

"We were in this very same room, and she was with a young beau of hers who was just getting started in the theater---his name is James Franciscus now---and he and I were talking about acting. Jane was a listener as far as I'm concerned, because she wasn't that interested.  And I don't know how I got on the subject, but it was something to do with an emotion, using an emotion, having to feel an emotion in the theater.  And I found myself going into detail about a problem that I had had as an actor in a scene in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, because it had been a recent experience with me.

"And I likened my reactions to each performance with an amphibious plane---and I have had this experience as a flyer, so that's why I use it, I guess.  But there's a step on the underside of hull of a seaplane, and it's very sluggish, slow in the water, but as it picks up speed it can get out on that step, and then it's just on that step.  And I used to feel if I could get myself going in the early part of this scene, it was like I was up on that step, and then nothing could stop me.

'then all I had to do was to hold back, hold the reins, because then I was going, I was soaring.  And I remember going into great detail for an hour and a half about this, and I'm talking to the guy, not to Jane.  Anyway, it was maybe a year, two years later, but I found myself in a cab and I saw Jane waiting for a cab and we were in a cab going downtown and Jane said, "You remember the story that you told one day about soaring?? And she said, "I know what you mean. It happened to me today?

"Well, I can get emotionally involved right now remembering Jane tell it, and probably the curtain came down to hide the emotion.  Because for my daughter to be telling me about---she knew what it was like! Because she felt the emotion and she knew that all she had to do was to keep the reins on it.  Well, Christ! I wasn't going to let her see me go like this," and his eyes were pained with red.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Well, I don't know," he said.  "I don't know why not."

"Don't you understand," I said, "she wants to get to you"'

"Well, gosh," he said, "she gets to me."

He leaned forward in his chair.  The Nebraskan in his voice vas unmistakable.

"I know," I said, "but she wants to know she's getting to you. . . She's such a demonstrative person, you know that."

"Well," he said, "I'm not."

"Well,? I said, "you're not with her, but you are with me this very moment. Why should you be demonstrative with a stranger and not with your own daughter? It's none of my goddamned business, but I just hate to see her upset by it."'

"You can't just not. . ." he started to say something, but then he stopped.  "Is she upset?" he asked.  ##

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