The Movie That Defined Jane Fonda's Career

Jane Fonda might be one of the most established actresses in Hollywood today, but she had a hard time breaking through in roles that were of substance.

“There was a series of movies where I played the good little perfect all-American cheerleader,” actress Jane Fonda told MAKERS in the documentary, "MAKERS: Women in Hollywood."

Oftentimes in films, the actress was cast to play the "straightforward girlfriend," like her role as June Ryder in "Tall Story."

Fonda did get her fair share of more adventurous roles, from unlikely outlaw Cat Ballou in the eponymous film, to space goddess Barbarella in "Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy." Still, it wasn’t until she got offered a major role in Sydney Pollack’s "They Shoot Horses Don’t They?" in 1969 that Fonda felt she was really involved in the making of a movie. Based on Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel, the film centered around a group of characters desperate to win a Depression-era dance marathon for a $1,500 prize. Fonda played Gloria Beatty, a cynical contestant with a dry, deadly sense of humor.

“[Sydney] asked my opinion about the script. He said, ‘I want you to re-read the book, and I want you to tell me what you think is missing,’” Fonda said in "MAKERS: Women in Hollywood." “I began to realize that it was when I had some say so in my work that it was better work, and I was happier doing it.”

She met critical acclaim for her role in the film, too. The New York Times wrote that, “the cameras remain, as if they had been sentenced, within the ballroom, picking up the details of the increasing despair of the dancers, the movie becomes an epic of exhaustion and futility.” In 1970, she was nominated for a Golden Globe and her first Oscar, for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Fonda would go on to garner six other Oscar noms, winning two.

"They Shoot Horses Don’t They?" reflected the tumultuous times of the late '60s with the Vietman War, and Fonda said she was glad to be a part of a film that concerned itself with the issues of the era.

“It was the first time in my life that I was in a movie that spoke to what was happening in the world,” she told MAKERS. “And that just thrilled me to be able to be relevant.”

For more of Jane Fonda’s story and a history of Women in Hollywood, watch MAKERS: Women in Hollywood.