Jane Fonda walked out onto the stage of the Winspear Opera House to a standing ovation. The house was full, and the crowd, boisterous. Throughout the night, the conversation between Fonda and moderator Robert Wilonsky took many turns, which was indicative of her life of adventure in the golden age of activism. Even if the conversation had been somewhat contrived, nobody cared. At 81 years old, Fonda took the stage Monday night and turned it on its head through a passion and energy that reverberated through the audience long after the conversation ended.
Fonda said she didn't become an activist until her later 20s. She admitted that she was “boring” as a young person, as well as “unambitious” — she says she told director Elia Kazan that at her audition for Splendor in the Grass — which none of the audience seemed to believe. This deep sort of honesty is perhaps what allows Fonda to comfortably speak in front of an audience about her own life. Her legacy is one of honesty and a willingness to show what it looks like to be real, whether that means within the roles she’s portrayed or the pursuits she’s made as an activist.
Fonda spoke of being the daughter of actor Henry Fonda, and how much of her early life was spent with little awareness of anything else. She went to university for only a little while, then figured out through the Lee Strasberg school that she had an aptitude for acting. Strasberg had told her that she had “something behind her eyes,” which had gotten her hooked. Fonda built her career in America and Paris, where she spent a large part of her 20s but did not truly break out until the 1968 cult classic Barbarella. She then started using her sexuality as a means for feminism and learned quickly that “any role that allows you to portray a multidimensional character is feminist.”
Fonda explained that she went back and forth between acting and activism for years and found that her celebrity got in the way of truly understanding the people with whom she so often worked to create change. Celebrity also gave volume to her voice. She recalled a friend who once told her that “you have to take your career and use it.” Barbarella was only the beginning of her foray into combining her activism with her art. Fonda wanted to be a part of it all — and succeeded in doing so. From then on, she began shaping her career based on the stories the people wanted to see and using her fame to ensure that it happened. “You’ve gotta make a movie that people will see,” she said. “Regardless of whether to not they agree with your politics.”
Fonda also spoke about her adventures in film production and investing in scripts she wanted to be a part of. One of these films was the comedy 9 to 5, the idea for which came from friend Karen Nussbaum, the founder of the National Association of Working Women.
Another was On Golden Pond, which she chose specifically as a project in which she could act with her father. The entire shoot, she recalls, was rife with friendly competition between her and Katharine Hepburn, who played her mother in the film. Hepburn was a large topic of conversation throughout the night — and Fonda’s impression of her, uncanny — largely because of the mutual love and disdain shared throughout their relationship. Fonda mentioned that perhaps Hepburn had been so brash toward her just so she’d continue to talk about her long after her death. Hepburn ended up serving as a sort of mentor to Fonda, always encouraging her to do more.
Later on, Fonda segued into talking politics and only politics. Her words on activism lifted her out of her seat, and the audience hummed along, nodding their heads in agreement, often saying, “She’s right.” Someone from the audience shouted, “Fonda 2020,” which led Wilonsky to ask whether she’d considered running. “Oh, no, I’d make so many mistakes,” she answered. She likened her position in the grand scheme of things as a receiver atop of a mountain, picking up signals from the valley below so they could be carried into the air. One of her recent points of action has been going door to door to talk to people about their personal politics.
An audience member asked Fonda what advice she’d give those who are looking to do more, to which she replied, “Ask people what they care about, and listen to them — without your sunglasses. Hopefully you’ll be able to teach them something they don’t know.”
The final question of the night came from Wilonsky, about a notion in her book that, because of all the change that took place around her, she too had continued to change. Throughout her life, Fonda’s faced massive backlash and even hatred. Yet, on she’s pushed, not so much willing energy but harnessing it, all with a certain grace. “Pride goeth before a fall, but I am proud,” she said. As she should be.
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