Jane Fonda Movies: Anti-Establishment Heroine

Jane Fonda KluteJane Fonda in Klute.

Jane Fonda movies on TCM: 'The China Syndrome' & 'Klute' + Jean-Luc Godard drama among highlights

Turner Classic Movies' 2014 “Summer Under the Stars” kicked off earlier today, August 1, with a day-long series of Jane Fonda movies. Still reviled by American right-wingers because of her 1972 trip to North Vietnam while the United States was at war with that country – she was photographed seated on an anti-aircraft battery – but admired by others for her liberal views, anti-war activism, and human rights advocacy, the two-time Best Actress Academy Award winner has enjoyed a highly eclectic film career, eventually becoming a rarity among rarities: Jane Fonda is the child of a film star (Henry Fonda) who not only became a film star in her own right, but who went on to become an even bigger screen legend than her famous parent. (See also: Jane Fonda “Summer Under the Stars” movie schedule and "Vietnam Vet Spits on Jane Fonda.")

Things didn't start out very promisingly: Jane Fonda's first movie was the drab Tall Story, a 1960 comedy that despite a prestigious director (Picnic and Sayonara Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joshua Logan) and screenwriter (Casablanca's Julius J. Epstein) could easily have killed her movie career then and there. But Fonda persevered, and a number of inconsequential movies notwithstanding she went on to achieve fame as a sex symbol of sorts, most notably via the futuristic camp fest Barbarella (1968), directed by her then husband Roger Vadim.

Surprising her critics (and even many of her admirers), in 1969 Jane Fonda suddenly became a Respected Actress thanks to her performance as a Depression Era marathon dancer opposite Michael Sarrazin in Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, which earned Fonda her first Best Actress Oscar nomination, in addition to the New York Film Critics Circle's Best Actress Award. (Fonda lost the Oscar to upset winner Maggie Smith in the British-made The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.)

Jane Fonda at her best in 'The China Syndrome'

Right now, TCM is showing one of Jane Fonda's best movies and performances: James Bridge's 1979 socially conscious thriller about the dangers of nuclear reactors, The China Syndrome, which opened right at the time of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania – considered the most dangerous such occurrence in American commercial nuclear power plant history. Fonda deservedly received her fifth Best Actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a television journalist who goes from disseminating the usual fluff found on American TV news to some hardcore reporting.

A few years before Romancing the Stone and Fatal Attraction turned him into a bankable superstar, The China Syndrome producer Michael Douglas plays a TV cameraman, while Best Actor Oscar nominee and Cannes Film Festival Best Actor winner Jack Lemmon is outstanding as the nuclear facility employee who comes to the realization of the imminent and potentially catastrophic danger at the plant. A major box office hit, The China Syndrome was written by eventual Writers Guild Award winners James Bridges, Mike Gray, and T.S. Cook.

Jane Fonda's controversial Oscar win for 'Klute'

The story of a private detective (Donald Sutherland) investigating the disappearance of a businessman who may have been involved with a New York City sex worker, the Alan J. Pakula-directed, Gordon Willis-shot Klute (1971) earned Fonda, as the prostitute, her first Best Actress Oscar and her second New York Film Critics Award, in addition to a Golden Globe and a National Society of Film Critics Award.

At the time of her Oscar win in April 1972 – when her anti-Vietnam War activism had made her the bane of American nationalists – Jane Fonda reportedly received some boos from the audience, though, as explained in Mason Wiley and Damien Bona's Inside Oscar, only the applause could be heard on television. After thanking “all of you who applauded,” the actress famously told the crowd gathered at downtown Los Angeles' Dorothy Chandler Pavilion: “There's a great deal to say, but I'm not going to say it tonight. I just want to thank you very much.”

In my humble opinion, Jane Fonda isn't at her best in Klute; apart from deciding to make a political statement, that Best Actress Oscar should have gone instead to Glenda Jackson in John Schlesinger's Sunday, Bloody Sunday. As an aside, while watching Klute keep an eye out for Sylvester Stallone (to be seen in a couple of weeks in The Expendables 3), early transgender performer and Andy Warhol “Superstar” Candy Darling, and All in the Family actress Jean Stapleton in bit parts. (Note: Jane Fonda's second Best Actress Oscar would be for Hal Ashby's 1978 Vietnam War-related drama Coming Home, co-starring Jon Voight and Bruce Dern. See also: Jane Fonda at Coming Home screening.)

'Cat Ballou'

Less controversial but even more surprising than Jane Fonda's Best Actress Oscar win was Lee Marvin's Best Actor win for playing two distinct characters – a gun-toting villain and a drunkard riding an equally drunken horse – in feature-film newcomer Elliot Silverstein's irreverent Western Cat Ballou (1965). Jane Fonda starred in the title role, as a prim schoolteacher-wannabe turned anti-establishment outlaw after her Wyoming rancher father (Love Story and Faces' John Marley) gets killed.

Lee Marvin, in a role that Kirk Douglas reportedly turned down, beat Rod Steiger (The Pawnbroker), who later claimed he actually stood up when the Best Actor Oscar winner was announced, believing he had heard Julie Andrews read out his name. Written by Walter Newman (Ace in the Hole) and Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon), from Roy Chanslor's considerably darker novel The Ballad of Cat Ballou, Silverstein's film also features Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as a singing duo.

More Jane Fonda movies: 'Any Wednesday' & 'Tout Va Bien'

Adapted by Julius J. Epstein from the Broadway hit by Muriel Resnik, the Robert Ellis Miller-directed Any Wednesday (1966) is a sort of poor man's The Apartment, with Dean Jones as a man who, after being set up in a New York City flat, accidentally falls for the lover (Jane Fonda) of a married executive (Jason Robards) with whom he's doing business. Unfortunately, unlike Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning classic, Any Wednesday lacks wit, pathos, and good acting. Sandy Dennis played Jane Fonda's role on Broadway, winning a Tony for her efforts.

TCM premiere Tout Va Bien a.k.a. All's Well (1972), a sociopolitical-psychological drama written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard (with collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin), should certainly be more interesting than Any Wednesday. Jane Fonda and Yves Montand star as, respectively, an American journalist and her French commercial-director husband, both of whom become involved in a strike at a sausage factory. Godard and Gorin would later collaborate on the featurette Letter to Jane, in which the filmmakers discuss a photograph of Fonda taken in North Vietnam. I should add that in the 1980s the formerly left-wing and liberal-minded Yves Montand, whose credits include Costa-Gavras' Z, The Confession, and State of Siege, would become quite an unabashed right-winger and Ronald Reagan admirer.

["On TCM: Klute and Other Jane Fonda Movies" continues on the next page. See link below.]

Note: An earlier version of "On TCM: Klute and Other Jane Fonda Movies" had Rod Steiger as the New York Film Critics Circle's 1965 Best Actor winner. In reality, Steiger tied with Lee Marvin in second place; the actual New York Film Critics' winner was Oskar Werner for Stanley Kramer's all-star drama Ship of Fools – which also featured Lee Marvin.

Jane Fonda Klute photo: Warner Bros.

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  1. djebel levinson says:

    I just took a smoke break while watching Klute and had to thank you for reminding me about Marvin's win over Steiger. Good conversation tidbits that help root out fellow cineastes are difficult.