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Jane Fonda: The times, the face, the bodies, the politics

All good things lead to Jane Fonda.

Let me start by stating the obvious: Jane Fonda is one of the key screen presences of the late 20th Century, an among the very few survivors from classical Hollywood that has kept on growing, accumulating meanings and mythologies. As an actress she has a remarkable career arc ranging from her 1960s prostitutes and ingenues to her recent TV appearances as media executive Leona Lansing in The Newsroom and a delightful turn as Grace in the sitcom Grace and Frankie, and that includes a taste for characters who undergo ideological awakening (as a woman, as Vietnam-conscious housewife, as working girl, as a seventy year old executive and divorcee). She also had an image befitting an icon. There was always that face, the intense expression, the shadow of her father’s features (a touch of The Grapes of Wrath, promising a better future), that mouth, the American teeth and even more american hair, the piercing eyes and the voice, that rich, sultry voice flowing like hot chocolate and bourbon. And the roles to go with that: space heroine, bimbo, newlywed, writer, army wife, tv reporter, a westerner, a secretary going through a midlife crisis, a psychiatrist who is reluctant to believe in immaculate conception, a drunk ex beauty queen involved in murder. She was political when it was not the done thing for actresses (Angelina Jolie would simply not be possible without Fonda), and she took a stand on thorny issues, she reflected on her body and the way it was used. And used it herself in ways that some women would find opressive or ridiculous. According to some, she made  a bit of a fool of herself with those infamous aerobics tapes and a hard-to-explain marriage. Like Carlotta in the musical Follies she is currently the performer who could most deservedly sing Sondheim’s anthem “I’m Still Here”.

However, let me clarify now that this is not a blog about Jane Fonda, not about the actress or the star. This is a blog that reads Fonda in terms of what she represents, and focuses on what she means, how she reflects trends, particularly in the cinema of the 1968-1980 period, when she was at her most influential. It is ultimately a blog about time, and about what certain approaches to art have to do with time. At its most extreme, the experiment carried out in these pages will consist of something like a leap of faith: let’s imagine, provisionally (then again aren’t all things provisional) that Jane Fonda stands at the center of the universe and let’s think of everything else in the cultural landscape (movies, other performers, notions of sex and feminism, the seventies, Hollywood itself) in terms of its relation to Fonda. Fonda in the seventies represented to me “mature cinema” and somehow, even if she made lots of frivolous films or even lazy ones before and after, I still think of Fonda as an actress that for me held those meanings. In terms of this blog, she is the gravitational force that somehow links the names and images of a period in American culture, particularly in the visual arts: so it’s about Robert Altman, feminism, Watergate, Gordon Willis, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Aaron Sorkin, Alain Delon, naked bodies, Sondheim’s Company or Follies, Brigitte Bardot and French sophistication, Barbara Stanwyck, the Vietnam War, George Cukor, movie prostitutes, A Chorus Line, Communism, Katharine Hepburn, Vilmos Zsigmond, Jean Luc Godard, ageism, careers, objectification, it will also be about two interesting contemporaries of Fonda: Shirley MacLaine and Natalie Wood, who can help us make sense of sexuality and sexual fantasies in the sixties. So much of this is about me and the cinema, of course. I started watching films in her glory years of the mid seventies: you could then feel her trying hard to make a point, to talk about her developing views in terms of character and narrative. And it taught me, at twelve, thirteen, fifteen, that movies actually did that. Then she disappeared, but when I became a lecturer, I again gravitated towards her, as if I could not really let go of the lessons learnt in my teenage years.

So, this blog will be about many things. Fonda will be the ultimate (but by no means the only), signifier. Expect entries on Fonda’s films, sure, but also on sex in the sixties on her contemporaries and on old and new Hollywood; it will be very much about what happened in the sixties and the seventies to actresses, performers and women’s bodies, on “the sexual revolution” and the servitudes of beauty, on what cinema can attempt and on how it conveys the particular fascination of particular faces, on her competitors and her concerns, on how her body came to represent objectification, then liberation, then aerobics; on the obstacle race of growing older, having a career, having a life, having meaning; on performing one’s own life, with the fun, the politics, the awakening and the daddy issues.  It will also be about being a performer and assumed to mean something, and will deal with alternative ways to achieve meaning. It will be about a time that can be hypothesized as artistically utopian, basically the Seventies (including Cimino and Malick, disco and Hair), in which certain notions seemed up in the air and on the brink of change and will ask some questions on what became of those dreams. And it will be about a period in which mainstream Hollywood cinema dared to be political, nuanced and daring in its narratives, formally challenging and dared to be questioning, to engage with feminism, to go against the grain, to explore texture and be gorgeous, in fact, a period in which cinema was a bit like Jane Fonda.