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Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda is sitting on the ground with both legs above her head, only her bottom touching the ground. From a distance she looks like an incredibly supple 40-year-old. The photographer snaps a series of shots as Fonda twists her body into more and more extraordinary poses. She springs nimbly to her feet. “Can I see the pictures?” she asks, looking over his shoulder at the computer screen. “But where are my wrinkles?” she asks crossly. “Please don’t remove the wrinkles.”

Fonda is about to turn 73 but, if anything, she is more prolific than ever. In the next few weeks, she is launching two new fitness DVDs, opening in a play, 33 Variations by Moisés Kaufman, in Los Angeles, and putting the finishing touches to her autobiographical sequel, Prime Time: Creating a Great Third Act. Keeping fit is intrinsic to a great third act, says Fonda, and her new DVDs are targeted at the older generation. “Your body’s gotten you this far – it deserves your respect and attention.” Ever since her first fitness video hit the market in 1982, selling 17 million copies, working out in your living room – or “doing Jane” – has become a cultural commonplace. Yet Fonda was famous well before then: the child of Hollywood screen idol Henry Fonda, she became a strident anti-war activist (Hanoi Jane) and the star of countless movies, from the cult science-fiction spoof Barbarella, in which she established her status as a sex symbol, to Klute, which won her the first of two Oscars.

Despite her celebrity – or perhaps because of it – Fonda does not want to seem out of touch with the real world. She may be a Hollywood multimillionaire, famous across the globe, but she wants her wrinkles to show. “The wrinkles make me Jane,” she insists. And although she still looks unbelievably good in her workout clothes, she maintains that her body is far from perfect. “I used to be able to tie myself into pretzels. I can’t do that any more. I’ve had a hip replacement and a knee replacement; my body is full of titanium and ceramic. It’s amazing that I can do what I can do, but I can’t do what I used to do.”

Yet however hard Fonda tries to convince us that she is one of us, the world around her still goes all a-flutter the moment she enters their airspace. And so I find myself in a West Hollywood studio with eight other people awaiting Fonda’s arrival for a photoshoot and interview. There is the hairdresser, the stylist, the make-up artist, the photographer, the photographer’s assistant, the publicist and a couple more random characters whom I fail to identify. Every so often we get a traffic update as Fonda negotiates her way from her nearby home to the studio. Eventually, about 40 minutes after the appointed time, the door bursts open and a distinctively strong, raspy voice – “Sorry I’m late” – booms around the studio, preceding an extraordinary bird-like creature in skintight jeans and a black glittery shirt, with a white fluffy dog clutched under one arm, a silver bag swinging from the other and a lavender straw hat on top of the whole ensemble. She has just finished shooting a movie in Woodstock (Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, in which she plays what she describes as a “stoned hippy grandma”) and it looks as though she may still be in character.

Fonda throws her hat on a chair and settles down in front of the mirror. “My skin is strange right now,” she says, touching her cheeks. “I got a treatment yesterday.” Everyone clucks around her. As she is styled for the photographs, she delivers a stream of gossip. “Oh my God, did you hear about the man who shot the agent by the Beverly Hills hotel?” The stylist mentions that a man pulled a gun on a friend of hers at the same spot the previous day. Fonda’s head whips round. “Did she say something to the police?” I think so, says the stylist. “She must, she has to. You have to ring her to make sure.” A second’s silence ensues, then Fonda pipes up again. “Did you see the latest Dancing with the Stars?”

At the merest mention that she is hungry, everyone springs into action. “She’s hungry – have you got any food here?” the publicist whispers urgently to no one in particular. “She’d like blueberries. And yoghurt. Or maybe blueberry yoghurt.” No yoghurt can be located, so someone is sent out shopping, returning with a huge tray of cut fruit, roasted nuts and several different flavours of yoghurt, none of them blueberry. Fonda emerges from the dressing room. “Ooh, yoghurt!” she says. “Which one is blueberry?” None of them, someone says nervously. “Never mind,” she says, ripping the top off a peach yoghurt and licking the lid. No blueberries either, so she picks up a chunk of mango, pops it in her mouth, makes a face and spits it out. Nervous glances are exchanged, but Fonda seems unperturbed, switching to sliced apple instead.

Fonda herself directs the photoshoot, suggesting her own poses. For one she lies down on the floor, her head propped up on her hand, her left leg flat on the ground and her right leg at an almost 90-degree angle, pointing at the ceiling: “I can’t get it all the way up any more.” There is a pause, then Fonda, realising the double entendre, emits a dirty laugh and everyone laughs with her.

Fonda is unabashed about her body. Although the dressing room has a curtain behind which she can discreetly retire to change, she doesn’t bother after the first switch of clothes, pulling her top off before she is even through the door, revealing a perfectly toned upper torso. The hairdresser, who is male, ducks deftly out of the room in a gentlemanly way with a “crikey” expression on his face. A few seconds later, she unzips her jeans and tucks her top in over a pair of white lacy underpants. Even though most of the people present are about half her age, most of the energy in the room emanates from Fonda.

I sit in a corner quietly working for three hours while this performance continues. Fonda acknowledges me every time she passes. “Have you got enough light there?” she asks. “Do you miss England?” And later, “Your new queen is really pretty.” (She is referring to Kate Middleton.)

“What magazine is this for?” asks Fonda, as the make-up artist applies blusher. “The London Times,” someone answers. Fonda is not listening. “So I’m thinking of doing the Leno show.” Everyone agrees that would be a good idea. “And I was thinking I should wear something very edgy.” Everyone nods. Boots, suggests the stylist. “As long as they’re platforms,” says Fonda. “And I saw a woman at a party the other night wearing a leather jacket with a lot of studs, a lot of metal. It looked very hot. I want to wear a jacket like that.”

Fonda shows no false modesty about her appearance. “I am very fit for my age and I look good,” she says when she finally sits down with me. “I worry sometimes that I’m gonna make people feel bad because they’ll think, ‘I’m supposed to look like her but I don’t.’ But when I went on Oprah recently, people said, ‘When you walked out on that stage at that age, it suddenly gave me hope.’ I think people need role models. I never had any role models except myself.”

She is one of the few Hollywood actresses who will admit to having had plastic surgery. “If you ask me what the worst part of ageing is, the answer is gravity. I purposefully took the bags out [under her eyes]. I didn’t want to lie about it. But I didn’t remove the wrinkles because I didn’t want to look like everybody else. Cher can carry it off, but it’s not me. The problem is that this is a city built on the industry of looking good. I want to take the emphasis off how you look and on to, ‘Are you healthy?’

“Basically, I’m a teacher,” continues Fonda. “If I come up with something that I think is important on some level, then I want to get it out to everybody.” Her battle now is with age and her tactics are simple: confront it with exercise. “A lot of people say, ‘Why even bother [exercising when you’re older]?’ And that is the complete wrong approach. We have these 34 additional years that our grandparents didn’t have, but it’s not a matter of living longer, it’s living better. Being physically active is a way to look better when you get older. Young bodies are forgiving but, boy, as you start getting older, you have to be physically active. It’s the difference between being able to age well and not. There are three key things to the bodily part of ageing: not smoking, eating properly and staying physically active.”

Fonda says that in the past she didn’t bother observing the first two. “I lived in France,” she explains, excusing the smoking. As for food, she battled with both bulimia and anorexia. “I suffered from eating disorders for a very long time,” she says, opening a second yoghurt and talking thickly through spoonfuls. “So my relationship to food has not exactly been healthy. I’m very conscious of what I eat. I make sure to eat the right things every day.”

She didn’t even start working out until she was nearly 40. “Like a lot of women who suffer from eating disorders, I used to do ballet. Ballet is about control. I did that for about 20 years, and then I broke my foot so I had to find something else. So I started working out.” Now, she tries to work out six days a week: “Usually, I’m doing something for the muscles because I have osteoporosis and I have to do things to keep my muscle mass intact.” It has often been suggested that the problems she has may result from too much working out. Fonda disagrees. “My family has a genetic tendency to osteoarthritis. My father had it, my brother has it. Each day I do some kind of exercise: sometimes it’s resistance training, sometimes it’s walking or an exercise bicycle or hiking. Me and my boyfriend try to dance every day too; it’s nothing special but it’s good for the soul.”

Fonda refers often to her boyfriend, Richard Perry, a music producer who is nearly five years her junior. They have been dating for a year and she happily admits that she is now “shacked up” with him. I ask her if she thinks she will get married again. “Never,” she says emphatically. “There’s been a lot of gossip about it recently – where I’m going to get married and who I’m inviting. But it hasn’t even crossed my mind. Why would I want to marry again?”

In 1965, she married film director Roger Vadim, who persuaded her to participate in threesomes with prostitutes. “If this was what he wanted,” writes Fonda in her autobiography, “this was what I would give him – in spades. Sometimes there were three of us, sometimes more. Sometimes it was even I who did the soliciting.” But it didn’t stop Vadim being unfaithful, and after eight years, they divorced, having had one daughter, Vanessa. That same year Fonda married politician Tom Hayden, with whom she had another child, Troy, now an actor himself. She threw herself into raising money for Hayden’s political campaigns, but she describes it now as a “very bad second marriage. I was very unhappy.” The day her divorce was announced, in 1990, media mogul Ted Turner rang her out of the blue, saying, “Is it true?” before asking her out. She resisted for a few months, then started dating him. They married in 1991. She gave up acting, moved to Atlanta and became a “trophy wife”. But a decade later she divorced him too, partly because he was also unfaithful and partly because, she says, she finally realised that she did not need a man to complete her.

“Pleasing men was my modus operandi,” she says today, referring not only to her husbands but also to her father. “One of my biggest accomplishments is learning how to please a man while not losing myself. That’s what makes intimacy more possible: you become whole and stand on your own feet as opposed to ‘falling’ in love. Freud would call it ‘individuated’.” She frowns. “Or maybe it was Jung… Anyway, once you know who you are, you can give yourself away – that’s been a biggie for me.”

I ask her if she’s found the perfect man in Perry. “Nobody’s perfect. He’s not perfect, nor am I. But he’s not afraid of closeness, so it’s a step in the right direction. If you grow up being afraid of closeness, then you tend to be attracted to other people who are afraid of closeness. It all has to do with your parents: if you have parents – as I did – who are narcissistic, who are not able to express emotion or to be intimate, that’s then something you have to learn to give to yourself.”

Fonda grew up in the limelight: her father was a movie star and her mother, Frances Seymour, a glamorous society girl. Jane and her younger brother Peter were raised in LA and Connecticut, and although she remembers happy times, they were obliterated by her mother’s mental illness and suicide when Fonda was just 12. Jane and Peter were told their mother had died of heart failure, but a few weeks later Fonda read in a magazine at school that her mother had actually slit her throat with a razor. Her father never spoke of her mother again. “It’s really important to understand who our parents are,” says Fonda. “When I found out that my mother had been abused as a child everything fell into place.”

Starting her career as a fashion model, Fonda appeared twice on the cover of Vogue, but when the renowned acting coach Lee Strasberg told her she had “real talent”, she felt she had found her calling: “It was like the roof had come off my life.” Soon she was averaging two movies a year. But acting was not enough. “I have a lot of energy, and acting has never been the totality of my life.” Fonda channelled her energy into political activism, most famously with her opposition to the war in Vietnam. Visiting North Vietnam, she branded American leaders “war criminals” and was persuaded to sit astride an anti-aircraft battery, giving the impression that she was trying to shoot down US planes. When I ask Fonda if she regrets anything in her life, it is this episode that she immediately refers to.

“I regret one thing: I regret sitting on an anti-aircraft gun and I will go to my grave regretting that.” It sounds, I say, as though you were slightly set up. “I was 32 years old and I take responsibility for my actions. I wasn’t thinking. Going to North Vietnam was no big deal, but being photographed like that changed everything. I will pay for it for the rest of my life and deservedly so because it was a terrible thing. Terrible thing.”

Even decades later, some Vietnam veterans have not forgiven her. On a recent book tour, a former soldier spat at her. Was she shocked? “Yeah,” says Fonda, then laughs. “Dolly Parton sent me a fax saying, ‘Well, honey, it was tobacco juice. At least it was sweet.’ ”

Fonda’s next focus was somewhat more benign: the fitness industry. She wrote a manual, Jane Fonda’s Workout Book, which was turned into a video in 1982, sparking a fitness craze among baby-boomers. “I’d like to say I’m a really clever businesswoman who understands timing, but I’m not,” says Fonda, who nonetheless takes credit for launching the home video market. “At the time the hardware was very expensive, and then my video came along and suddenly the women who make the consumer choices said, ‘I have to own this.’ So little ol’ me launched the whole video industry.”

Fonda went on to release another 21 workout videos. The two new DVDs, Walkout and Fit & Strong, are primarily aimed at the same women who bought her original fitness video. “Remember these from the old days?” she says on the DVD as she demonstrates “single arm reaches”. “Still doing ’em. Stick with me.” Next, she marches on the spot, elbows sticking out: “Just imagine you’re walking down your neighbourhood sidewalk like this. That’s OK, they’ll know you’re doing Jane. ‘Hi,’ ” she calls out, pretending to greet a passer-by with an hilarious little wave. “ ‘I’m doing Jane.’ ”

On her website, Fonda describes herself as “the actress, fitness instructor, entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist”. “I’ve done so many things,” she says, trying to persuade her dog to drink from a bowl of water. “When I did my book tour, women would line up. One would say, ‘I marched with you at a rally in San Diego in ’72.’ That meant the world to me. And then someone else would say, ‘That workout that you did helped me get through my mastectomy.’ Another would say, ‘I loved Cat Ballou,’ and I realised, wow – politics, the workout and movies: I’ve intersected in people’s lives on many different levels, much more so than just about any celebrity that I’ve ever heard of.”

Although Fonda happily blows her own trumpet, she is just as willing to own up to her failings. “I was not a good parent,” she volunteers. “I’ve also been challenged in the relationship-with-men department. Although I keep trying.”

Of all her past husbands, she refers most often to Turner. “Those ten years with Ted gave me humour and gave me a lot of things. We remain close and I’m really grateful.” She even compares Turner – favourably – to Perry, when describing her compulsion to blend in with everyone else. “It just comes naturally to me. My boyfriend is much more conscious of how celebrities are supposed to be. The other day we went to the premiere of Burlesque. There was a lot of traffic. I said, ‘Let’s get out and walk.’ ” She gasps in horror, imitating Perry. “The idea that you were going to arrive at a red-carpet thing walking. But when I was married to Ted we once walked five blocks, and I had a train [on my dress], because the traffic was bad and we were late to the Oscars. I’m not conscious of what you’re supposed to do or not do. When we finally got to the premiere the other night, Cher was right ahead of me, so I stood in with the photographers and took pictures of her, and my boyfriend said, ‘You’re not supposed to do that.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, I’m not supposed to? I’m almost 73 years old. I can do whatever I want as long as I’m not hurting anybody.’ How was I going to photograph her if I didn’t stand with the photographers?”

She stresses repeatedly that she has never lived in an ivory tower. “My friends have mostly not been celebrities, and my father was not a celebrity-type person. He was very, very shy and it just didn’t interest him – he’d rather farm. And in my various marriages it was not about celebrity or hanging out. My children went to public [state] school. We lived in a house in LA which I bought for $40,000, in a district of bars and laundromats and thrift shops.”

The publicist, who has been sitting at the table as we talk, intervenes: “We have to wrap up.” “A few more, a few more,” says Fonda, overruling her. The publicist shrugs.

If this is the third act of her life, I ask, how much has her character changed between acts one and three? “Your temperament is what it is, but your personality and character can change; mine has. I’ve worked very hard to try to rid myself of things I didn’t like: judgment, impatience, humourlessness, depression.

I have depression on all sides of the family; you can’t totally disperse the demons, but they’re banished to the corner.” She points so emphatically to the far corner of the studio that I look over my shoulder to see what she is pointing at.

Fonda’s politics have also evolved. “I wasn’t even a feminist once. A friend of mine called and said, ‘There’s 5,000 people on the streets of New York who are demonstrating for the legalisation of abortion.’ I wrote in my journal, ‘Don’t understand the women’s liberation movement. There are more important things to have a movement for.’ ” She laughs and shakes her head. “It took me a long time to get it.” Once she did, of course, she threw herself into it wholeheartedly and now supports an array of feminist causes.

She says that her own experience of ageing has been mostly positive. “I have noticed myself becoming happier. Stressful things still come along, but they don’t stick, they fall right off me. Generally speaking, older people find life easier: we have a long backward perspective, we’ve been here before, we’ve done that before, we didn’t die, we survived. So we make lemonade out of lemons, instead of making mountains out of molehills.”

Recently, Fonda had a cancer scare, but her publicist has firmly instructed me not to raise the subject with her. Fonda is not so precious, referring openly to it on her blog. “I had a scare with a non-invasive breast cancer, but it is ALL OUT NOW!!! I am so lucky. We got it early.” No subject appears to be off limits on Fonda’s blog, which she started two years ago. “My blog makes me accessible, and I like that. Actually, I think I’ve found a really good balance between celebrity and normalcy.”

“Do you think you’ve covered everything,” intervenes the publicist again. This is not posed as a question. “She has an awards show to attend.” What’s the show, I ask Fonda.

“I don’t know,” she shrugs. “Some business associate of my boyfriend is getting an award.” She sighs and gets to her feet, scooping up her dog. “Frankly, I’d like to have a quiet evening.” It seems a futile hope: Fonda’s quest for “normalcy” is one battle she may never win.

as seen in The Times, December 2010

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