Jane Fonda, Award-Winning Actress, Author & Fitness Icon
Jane Fonda shares how she owned her own career and found new energy in her "third act."
Actress, Author & Fitness Icon
Jane Fonda shares how she owned her own career and found new energy in her "third act."
Actor, producer, and activist Jane Fonda didn’t always know what she wanted to be. But when she took a class with Lee Strasberg at his famed Actors Studio (sitting next to Marilyn Monroe), she realized acting would be her field of choice. Initially, Fonda was repeatedly cast as the stereotypical “girlfriend,” until she was offered a role in the 1969 film “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” for which she received her first Oscar nomination.
After she realized she wanted more control over her filmmaking process, Fonda began producing her own movies, among them “9 to 5,” a film starring Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton, that spoke to real-life working women of the 80s. Around the same time, she began her series of aerobics videos, which eventually became the highest-selling exercise videos of all time.
When Fonda turned 60, she began what she called her “third act,” writing her memoir and relaunching her acting career with movies including “Monster-in-Law” and “The Butler.” In May 2015, she’ll launch a Netflix series, “Grace and Frankie,” with Lily Tomlin.
JANE FONDA: Curious. Curious is really important. It's much more important to be interested than to be interesting. I stay interested. I really-- I feel like every day I learn things.
I reached my late teens, early 20s without really knowing who I was, what I could do, what I wanted to be. I hadn't a clue.
I was so scared that I actually sat in the back of the class for a month next to Marilyn Monroe, who was also too scared to do anything. But finally I had to do something. And I got on stage and I did my thing. And Lee was quiet, which scared me to death. And I'll never forget it. He said, a lot of people come through here. But I don't see talent like I'm seeing right now.
I felt like the top of my head came off and birds flew out. It was like, whew, my whole life changed and I knew what I wanted to do.
There was this series of movies where I played the good little perfect All-American cheerleader good girl. And I hated the experience so much. People made you look the way they wanted you to. And I was not brave enough to be able to say, I don't like what you're doing to me.
The world was changing. Vietnam was erupting. The Tet Offensive had happened. It was the first time in my life that I was in a movie that spoke to what was happening in the world. I worked on that film differently than I ever had before, and something woke up in me. I began to realize that it was when I had some say so that it was better work than when I was told what to do. I thought, well, the only way I can do it is to make my own movies.
There was a woman, Karen Nussbaum. She began to organize office workers, women who worked in banks, hospitals, insurance companies. And she would tell me stories about what it was like for them. And I thought, I want to make a movie about this. And it started off as a serious movie. But then I met Lily Tomlin. I saw her do her show and I fell in love with her.
Lily and I often reminisce about the morning that Dolly showed up with her long nails. It was so funny watching her try to type. She's saying, I think I've got the song. And then using nails as a washboard, she started singing "Nine to Five". And Lily and I just looked at each other, and we had gooseflesh all over our bodies. And it became the anthem of the movement of women office workers.
[MUSIC - DOLLY PARTON, "NINE TO FIVE"]
It was, I think, the first and may be the only time that a movie grew out of an organized movement and then undergirded it to lift it up even more. And that felt really good.
SISSY SPACEK: And the winner is Henry Fonda, "On Golden Pond".
- Accepting the award is his daughter, Jane Fonda.
JANE FONDA: Oh, Dad, I'm so happy and proud for you. Me and all the grandchildren are coming over with it right away. Thank you.
My second marriage had failed. My self-confidence was rock bottom. I saw no future in my life. I was planning to move to New Mexico and become a full-time environmental activist, and then I met Ted Turner. Ted helped me heal, and he taught me to laugh.
When I turned 60 I thought, oh, goodness. If I divide my life into chunks of 30 years, this is the beginning of my third act. That's what made me decide to write my memoir, so I could figure out where I'd been so I'd know where to go.
And by the time I finished, I was a different person. And so I discovered that I could find joy again in acting, which I didn't think I ever would again.
Our movies are global. Our television is global. And so what we put out there impacts the world and how other people think. You can't really live unless you take risks. But if you know where you're going and why you want to get there and what that will mean for you, then you've got to go for it. And if you fail, you learn. All you can do is learn.
JANE FONDA: Well it's important for human beings to fail in every aspect of life, because it's the only way you learn, I think. I mean, if all you do is succeed, it's hard to learn. I read somewhere, God doesn't come into us through awards and ceremony, God comes into us through our scars and wounds.
Knowledge, wisdom, growth comes into us when we have failed, when we have had setbacks. My greatest epiphanies and growth have come at the bottom of a nervous breakdown, when I was suffering so much that I didn't think it was humanly possible. You think you're broken, but you're really broken open.
JANE FONDA: It's certainly not what I would have imagined in the beginning that I would ever possibly be a role model. And I'm happy that that's the case. And I try to be responsible to that. It's why I've started to blog. I started the blog when I was 71, because why not? I wanted to be able to stay au courant with what was happening with young people. And be able to-- I have things to say and things that I think are important. And it's a good way to to get it out. And I do a lot of public speaking. I try to feed that part of my life, that part of me that has to do with women, and girls, and boys, and youth development, and the environment.
JANE FONDA: I think if women had more control in Hollywood, there would be more complicated movies about complex human issues that would be more respectful of audiences. Gratuitous violence would be down, objectification of women would be down, misogyny would be down. I think men and women both would be respected more as full human beings if women had more say-so in Hollywood.
Our movies are global. Our television is global. And so what we put out there impacts the world and how other people think, and so it's a definite goal to work for. It goes from a hierarchy with men at the top to a circle with men and women all together trying to make movies that are more helpful for humanity.
JANE FONDA: I co-founded the Women's Media Center with Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan, and we talk about the absence of women in the media. There's a lot of women's faces on television. But above the ceiling, the people making the decisions-- all except 3% of them-- are men. Movies and television create consciousness.
They tell us who we are. If we don't see ourselves reflected in the media, in all media, without our even being conscious of it we're going to feel that we matter less. We're going to understand our place in the world less.
JANE FONDA: It was mostly men on the crew, all men directing. I've never produced a movie with a woman director. It wasn't even thought of. Isn't that awful?
For me, now to go on to a sound stage and see as many women as I see is so moving. Not enough women directors yet, though. But they're coming in to the independent films and to documentaries in a very important way. And I think more and more, it's going to happen, because we tell stories differently.
But telling stories is what civilization is about. As long as there have been Homo sapiens, there have been men and women and children gathered around campfires telling stories. Those stories, those narratives, are what create consciousness. They're what make us who we are. And if all we see are stories told by less than half the population, then there's going to be a lot missing.
And so it's really important that more women are telling the stories and directing them up there on the screen.
JANE FONDA: It wasn't until I got offered the part in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They"-- which I didn't want to do. It was not a good script. But my then husband, Roger Vadim, a Frenchman, said, oh no, you have to do this. It was a very popular existential novel in France. And he knew the power of the story. And so because he told me to, I did it.
The person who originally wrote it and was going to direct it was fired, and suddenly Sydney Pollack was hired to direct it. Sydney Pollack actually came to the house and asked my opinion about the script. He said, I want you to reread the book, and I want you to tell me what you think is missing.
He didn't even realize the impact that it had on me, but I was beginning to internalize how film could be important, and that I might have a role to play in that.
JANE FONDA: I was an activist in a different way than other actors were. I considered leaving the business, actually. I was out there in the streets, in people's homes, on military bases, on Indian reservations. It was very on-the-ground activism, and it was full time.
And I didn't like the fact that the people that I was working with and helping to organize saw me as different, that celebrity set me apart from them. And it must have been 1970, I was in Detroit, working with union organizers and the auto workers unions. And I met a man named Ken Cockrel. I think he was the founder of the Revolutionary Black Lawyers, or something like that, I don't remember.
And I said to him, I think I want to stop making movies in Hollywood. And he sat me down, and he said to me, Jane, the movement is full of people. It's not full of movie stars. And it's very, very important that you remain a movie star, and that you keep acting, and that you make the best movies you can, and remain part of the movement.
JANE FONDA: Along came this script called "Monster-in-Law." And it was not a very good script to begin with, but we hired Richard LaGravenese to create a character for me. And it requires agency to say the part's not good enough, we're going to hire somebody to create a worthy part.
It was the only strategic thing I've ever done in my career. I thought, OK, it's a popcorn movie. Probably the critics won't like it, and they didn't. It got terrible reviews. But it'll probably be successful, and people will go to it to see Jennifer Lopez, and they'll discover or rediscover me.
And that's exactly what happened. And it was a number one movie when it came out. It was just-- we had such a good time. I discovered that I could find joy again in acting, which I didn't think I ever would ever again.
JANE FONDA: We brought in-- because of Lily, it was her idea-- Colin Higgins, who had written "Harold and Maude." I brought Colin Higgins to Cleveland, where there was this national organization of women office workers. I asked my friend who was the head of the organization to gather about 40 women together of all shapes and sizes and ages and races.
And he went around and asked them all their story. And then when that was done, he asked the brilliant question, do any of you ever fantasize what you'd like to do to your boss? That's what ended up in the movie.
Although some of them were so horrendous they couldn't make it into the movie. But now, for the first time in my life, I was really enjoying making movies. It was a joyful, luscious, delicious, fulsome experience.
JANE FONDA: Part of the reason that women don't have equality is because of the way boys are raised, the way the culture influences boys. It's so hard to be a boy and keep your heart and your head connected and not split off and bifurcate. It's so hard to stay in touch with your humanity, with your feelings, with your sensitivities.
Boys are born with that. We all are born whole human beings. And then the culture damages us in various-- various ways. But boys are damaged very early-- about five or six years old, when they first start formal schooling and when they're taught not to be tender, not to be sensitive, not to be emotional, not to stay close to their mothers the way boys are supposed to.
Helping parents understand how to protect their sons is important-- and then as a society, creating safe spaces for boys who remain fully human. And, you know, you can really see it when they grow up and then they run for president. And they're put in a position where they're making decisions that are going to affect all our lives.
So I care a lot about starting with boys to try to detoxify masculinity so that, you know, our daughters can grow up with kind, empathic men that they can marry. And we can have men run for president who are full human beings.
JANE FONDA: My then husband Tom Hayden was running for elected office. And we had been spending time with the hearing-impaired community who were very supportive of him. And that made me aware of the fact that the Academy Awards were not signed. And we tried to get the Academy to caption them. And we didn't succeed.
So I thought, well, my form of protest will be, if I win, I will sign my acceptance speech. So I learned what to say. I didn't think I was going to win. But I did learn how to do it.
JANE FONDA: When Columbine happened, the killing of all the kids in school, by two boys, white middle-class boys. And all the headlines were, what's happening to our teens? What will we do about our young people? But the headline should have been, what's happening to our sons?
And the fact that it was rendered gender-neutral, rather than pointing out that it's boys doing it makes it impossible to solve the problem or understand it. So gender in all forms of media, consciousness of gender and the role gender plays, how women are affected differently by war, by peace, by bankruptcy, by health care-- gender is critical. Next to consciousness is critical. And we have to be more conscious in the making of our media of gender.
JANE FONDA: I remember I auditioned onstage for Elia Kazan to play the Natalie role part in "Splendor in the Grass." And at one point, he called me down to the footlights, and he said, are you ambitious? And I said, no. And the moment those words came out of my mouth, I knew that I'd blown it. He didn't want to hire me, especially for that role, for somebody who said they weren't even ambitious.
But good girls weren't ambitious, and that's what governed me. It's like well, I was a good girl, which implied that if I didn't try to be a good girl, what would be revealed was that I was not good, that I was really bad. And that was no good, because then nobody would like me.
JANE FONDA: Too many people don't understand what feminism is. What it is is democracy and justice. It's not matriarchy. It's democracy, and that's why it's so important.
We live in what we call democracy. But until, in every aspect of our lives, including one of the most important ones, which is our culture-- and movies are so much a major part of our culture, popular culture. It's what allows girls and boys to see themselves, and think of who they might be able to be. And if you leave the girls out, it ain't a democracy.