She can’t stop talking about that gun. The anti-aircraft gun, the one in Hanoi, the one she posed with in 1972, the one she seemed to flirt with in a ten-second stretch of silent newsreel that has become her most famous moment on film.
The first time she told me the story of Hanoi Jane and the Gun we were on a flight from L.A. to Des Moines, where she was going to address the foot soldiers in her workout-tape empire. She tried but failed to tell the whole story of the gun again a month later, in her prime-time national TV “apology” to Mother Confessor Barbara Walters. And this morning, after breakfast in New York City, a week after the Barbara Walters apology, she’s still talking about the gun.
We’re having breakfast in a booth in the back of Leo’s coffee shop on East 86th Street, a few blocks from the Central Park reservoir track, following a five-mile Fonda-led run. Jane is eating some kind of no-butter, no-fat omelet and looking even more physically formidable than usual, in a body-hugging, midriff-baring, racing-style running outfit. She’s recently worked and dieted herself into hyper-shape for the shooting of yet another workout cassette for her ever-expanding Aerobic Jane enterprise.
“It is true that what I do is put myself in situations that scare me. But I don’t enjoy it.”
And yet I sense that her spirits are not as pumped up as her flesh is. She seems down. She’s telling me about some regrets and second thoughts she’s had since the Barbara Walters appearance. She discloses that she and her husband were not of one mind on the question of the apology. And she feels she failed to explain the circumstances that made it seem she was flirting with the gun.
Her mistake, she believes, was choosing a format for the apology that she couldn’t control.
“Because they showed that piece of film again,” she laments. “And there were things cut out that would have explained more.”
“What was cut out?”
“The details as to how I got to the gun.”
How she got to the gun: we’ll get into “the details”—the context, the misperceived theatrics of her apparent coquetry with the anti-aircraft battery—later. But “how she got to the gun” is a good question in a larger sense: what is it about Jane Fonda that has driven her to court danger, to flirt with it the way she flirted with that gun? The near-erotic attraction to threatening situations is a recurrent theme in her account of her life. In fact, the first time we sat down to talk about acting, she spoke in terms of sex and danger.
This was down in Mexico during the shooting of Old Gringo, the film of the Carlos Fuentes novel. Jane is sitting by the pool of the Villas Archeologica headquarters of the Gringo production, sipping a tequila sunrise and telling me how she almost drove herself mad over an acting crisis early in the Gringo shoot. A crucial screen kiss with Gregory Peck hadn’t been working out right and she’d plunged into an orgy of self-laceration over it.
“We were supposed to finish the scene on Saturday and we didn’t. There was something wrong and we didn’t know what. So we were held over until Monday—and I had my nervous breakdown on the weekend. My husband was there, and it’s so hard when husbands come. He said he’d never seen me wake up in the fetal position before. What he doesn’t know is that I cried all night and I was … dysfunctional.”
This does seem a bit excessive, but she’d worked like a demon for eight years trying to get Old Gringo in front of the cameras and now it all depended on her coming through as an actress. She’s been known to drive herself to the edge, and over, before. She put herself in a near-clinical depression playing the suicidal marathon dancer in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? And she’s as fanatically self-critical about her acting as she is fanatically everything else: she swore to me she pleaded with director Alan Pakula to fire her from Klute because she was sure she hadn’t gotten the part right.
“There’s something about acting,” she says, looking back at her pushed-to-the-brink behavior over the kiss. “There’s this dangerous … it’s like sex. It’s like you never can … you can’t command it. If it starts to go, you can’t will it back.”
And while she denies getting pleasure from that scary loss of control, she concedes that she repeatedly seeks it out.
“It is true that what I do is put myself in situations that scare me. But I don’t enjoy it. I don’t enjoy the feeling.”
But you feel most truly and authentically alive when you’re testing your nerve?
“Yeah, maybe,” she says.
She’s certainly mellowed in some respects: a fifteen-year-long marriage, a stable family life. She’s become a brand-name ’80s icon, a corporate success story; she’s a respected Hollywood producer, and as the head of Fonda Films a mini-mogul. She’s always near the top of annual polls of America’s most admired women. But the attraction to dangerous levels of intensity, the feeling that nothing is authentic until it’s threatening, frightening, seems ingrained in her psyche. When I looked back over the transcripts of our conversations, I was surprised by how often words like “panicked” and “frightened” figure in her recollections of her formative experiences. Even, for instance, the funny story she tells about how Pancho and Pedro introduced her to sex.
She told me this story in the living room of her home in Santa Monica shortly after she came back from Mexico. Gringo had finally wrapped. It is early evening. In an hour we will be heading out to a Jewish temple in West L.A. where Jane is to receive an award for getting a refusenik woman out of the Soviet Union.
Pancho and Pedro were her father’s mules, Jane explains. After his Grapes of Wrath role, Henry Fonda took up farming in the hills above Hollywood. And so while young Jane would occasionally go to birthday parties at Christina Crawford’s, “where there would be merry-go-rounds and you had to dress up and wear shiny shoes, at home my father plowed the fields and I was a tomboy always in jeans.”
“He plowed the fields?”
“Yeah, we lived up on Tigertail Road and it was nothing but us and coyotes and bobcats and skunks, and Dad would plow with a team of mules, Pancho and Pedro. My introduction to sex was … Pancho was actually a girl, and I was riding her bareback and leading Pedro because you couldn’t separate them. We were going across one of these hills and Pedro mounted Pancho—with me on her. It was one of the most frightening things!”
Frightening in a different way was her introduction to politics at her father’s hand.
“I had never known any black people, but I learned the word ‘nigger,’ and I remember once saying it in a car with my father. He turned around and slapped me. And then he told me the story of how his father made him come to a window and look down in the street and watch a black man being lynched as a way of teaching him how horrible racism is.”
Still, she didn’t grow up politically active—or rebellious in any way, for that matter—she says. “I was much more a good girl. It was my brother [Peter] who turned me on to Catcher in the Rye. He was Holden Caulfield.”
She realizes there are some bad-girl stories about her youth, which she thinks were dreamed up retroactively. That one about her showing up naked in pearls and high heels, for instance.
“I know there are legends about me,” she says. “There’s a story about when I was at boarding school. I was at Emma Willard and then I went to Vassar and I can’t remember which it’s supposed to have happened at. I think it was Emma Willard. We were required to come to dinner wearing pearls and high heels. Always. And I’ve heard this story—all the girls tell it—that one day I showed up wearing just pearls and high heels.”
She laughs at the image.
“I wish I had been that kind of person.”
That quality—of wanting to be bolder than she was, a desperate determination to be that kind of person—was the thing Lee Strasberg picked up about her. He saw it as raw fuel for her talent as an actress.
She was modeling for Vogue when she started getting acting roles as ingenues (Any Wednesday, The Fun Couple). But she lacked confidence that— aside from being photogenic and being Henry Fonda’s daughter—she had any qualifications for acting.”Major, major self-doubt,” she says now.
It was a kind of panicky courage, a need to prove she could put her life on the line, that gave a fanatical edge to her plunge into political activism.
And so against her father’s objections (he hated the Method) she started taking classes at the Actors Studio. Which didn’t mean anything unless you were accepted into Strasberg’s Master Class. And the master wouldn’t accept you until you had done some Big Emoting in an audition and he Saw Something.
It was crucial to her self-worth not merely that Strasberg take her in (which she thought he’d do anyway because even the master was fascinated with the Fonda aura) but that he also genuinely See Something.
Which, by all accounts, he did. What was it he saw? I ask Jane.
“He told someone that what interested him was that I was extremely proper and repressed, but that my eyes were panicked.”
It was a kind of panicky courage, a need to prove she could put her life on the line, that gave a fanatical edge to her plunge into political activism.
There was that moment in the late ’60s when she decided to liquidate her worldly possessions. “As part of the G.I.-coffeehouse movement [which provided counseling and encouragement to anti-war soldiers] I was driving around the country trying to make up for lost time—getting into a lot of trouble, I might add,” she says with a grin. “But I remember one day I was going to rent a house up in the hills— you know, up above Mulholland—quite a nice house on a big piece of property.
… And it just suddenly hit me that I had to make a choice about what sort of a person I wanted to be. Was I going to be one of those women that come down off the hill and dole out money and then go back and continue to live the same way? Or was I going to truly begin to identify with the kind of people I was meeting. And there was no choice, really, for me—no choice given the kind of person I am. I sold everything I had. Auctioned it all off. I lived out of a small bag. I was already thirty-two years old, and I started over. I mean, it wasn’t like I had nothing. I was Jane Fonda, so I had a lot. I had my name. But I spent the next few years living totally differently than I had before and discovering that I could do it. I don’t live that way anymore, but I could do it again. The conditions don’t exist very often that allow someone to put themselves in a situation where you can really test yourself.”
So many of her best roles have been about women fighting panic to be braver than they feel.
Those conditions exist less often now in her life, but she still seeks them out in her work. In fact, it might be said that the same kind of determination to take things to the limit that got her in trouble in politics may be the essence of what makes her so good as an actress. When you think about it, so many of her best roles (Klute, Coming Home, Julia, The China Syndrome, Nine to Five, The Morning After) have been about women fighting panic to be braver than they feel.
That evening in Santa Monica before the refusenik dinner, I brought up something she’d told me in Mexico.
After the crisis over the kiss, she’d turned to Gregory Peck and asked, “Why do we do this?”
“And Peck said it’s something like the attraction of high-stakes gambling. The thrill is in losing, in knowing you can lose more than you have.”
I ask her if that thrill was part of what attracted her to acting.
At first she denies she feels that way. “He said it. That’s what he likes about it. I don’t feel that way.” Then, forty-five minutes later, she abruptly retracts her denial.
We’ve been talking about one of her classic screen moments: the final voiceover monologue in Klute, when call girl/actress Bree Daniels is trying to explain her fear of going off with her rescuer, Donald Sutherland—her fear of feeling anything real rather than the acting she’s used to doing with men.
There’s a passage in Tom Hayden’s recent memoir, Reunion, in which he speaks of sitting in a darkened theater before he knew Jane, hearing that unrehearsed, improvised, halting monologue and thinking that somehow Jane, the real Jane, was talking to him, telling him her feelings. At least that’s what he says.
I ask Jane if that was her on some level in that monologue.
“Not really,’’ she says. “I mean, to a certain extent, but I’m not that frightened of losing control. I try to do the opposite. You know, it’s weird: at the beginning of this session you referred to the idea of wanting to lose more than you have. And I said I don’t want that. And yet when I think about it, in a sense I am constantly putting myself in that kind of situation. I mean, I have always hated the way I play drunk—and then I go and accept a role as an alcoholic [in The Morning After, for which she got an Oscar nomination for 1986]. Why?’’
You just hate the idea that anything could … ?
“I don’t like giving in to cowardice. I don’t like giving in to what I feel are… “ Suddenly she laughs and says, “I’m considering giving in, though. It’s getting a little … ”
It was meant just as a funny line. She has an appealing self-deprecating streak that will lead her to stop herself with an interjected “Oh, shut up, Jane!’’ And yet it might well have been a portent of her decision to apologize on national TV for some of her Hanoi Jane acts. Maybe it was a weariness with being the focus of such concentrated hatred for so long a time. And now there were going to be Fonda-hating vet pickets on the Waterbury, Connecticut, location of her next film (Letters). It was getting a little …
This willingness to consider giving in is something new. I’d been concerned when I set out to see Fonda in Mexico that I’d find someone guarded, rigid, over-intense, suspicious to the point of paranoia. I’d admired her as an actress, thought it took nerve for her to stand up to Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover in the bitter bad old days (remember Hoover’s vicious dirty-tricks campaign against Jean Seberg). But I’d found her political persona, well, irritating. There was an unpleasant edge of self-righteousness, an arrogance about her political correctness. She got roars from the convinced among the crowd, but I never thought she made any converts.
She’s no less politically committed these days, but she has lost that off-putting edge of moral superiority. I found her much more relaxed, funnier, more self-questioning than the iron maiden of correct politics and perfect fitness I’d expected. Not only is she capable of laughing at herself, she’s capable of making others laugh. There was one night at the Villas Archeologica when she kept a whole tableful of tired cast and crew in stitches with tales about certain French director artistes, making cheerful wisecracks about film-business types.
She’s no longer the same kind of fanatic. Gregory Peck probably said it best down in Mexico. I’d just seen her take him aside on the set to practice positions for that trouble-plagued kiss. They’d been standing toe-to-toe, exploring Jane’s various suggestions as to where heads and hands should go.
What was it like working with someone so relentless? I asked Peck. Would you say there’s a fanaticism?
“Well,” he said, smiling, “it’s a benevolent fanaticism.”
Time for the benevolent fanatic to get ready for the refusenik dinner. Jane changes into a shimmery peach silk blouse, tucked into black velvet pants that show off her slim waist and other impressive physical assets. The serious but glamorous look.
At the temple on Wilshire, she is surrounded by a friendly hubbub as she poses for pictures in the banquet room. It is a very California-Jewish occasion—one guy is being honored for his prodigious efforts to build tennis courts for the youth of Israel.
During the dinner, before the tribute, Fonda is talking about the growth of Network, the Brat Pack political-action entity she and Hayden co-founded, the one that has mobilized Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, and a whole younger generation of stars and starlets in support of such causes as the Hollywood Clean Water Caravan. Part of the inspiration of Network, she says, was her memories of the haphazard way she became politically involved.
“I was just this starlet, new out here, and I got a call from Marlon Brando inviting me to this meeting for SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. It was at Arthur Penn’s house. I remember Rita Hayworth was there, and some SNCC field-workers, just these kids from the South who were getting beaten up for voter-registration work. It was the first thing like that I’d ever been to. And I went to the SNCC office the next day and started licking stamps and stuffing envelopes. I would have gotten involved earlier, but I hadn’t been approached. I was just a time bomb waiting to go off.” She laughs.
“And little did I know the man I’d one day marry was there.”
Hayden was at that meeting?
“No, I mean he was down South working with SNCC.”
They didn’t meet until ten years later, and the way she describes it, it sounds as if it was Hayden who channeled her shortfused rage into a more long-term political commitment.
“I was a neophyte activist drawn into the fray at this very sectarian period when lines were drawn, violence was high,” she recalls. “It was a very unpleasant time and very, very confusing. So in the midst of this there was this voice belonging to Hayden that was accessible to someone like me.”
She’d read his political essays in Ramparts and admired them. “His analysis was not intellectual, doctrinaire, ideological. It was just sensible. I liked the sensibleness of it.”
The first time they met she felt uncomfortable.
“It was at a motel, I was with somebody else, and I felt sort of self-conscious. I was nervous about being stupid. But then the next day I drove Tom to the airport, and he was so funny and the pressure was off to make an impression, and I really liked him. Then a year or so later I was—I wasn’t looking, but I was wanting a relationship that had some meaning and some depth. Where I wouldn’t have to pretend to be less than what I was, so as not to intimidate a man. And I was giving a slide show [on Vietnam] at the Embassy Theater in downtown Los Angeles and Tom came backstage and he had weird baggy pants and sandals and a long braid down his back and a band of beads around his forehead and he looked… kind of neat actually. Weird but neat. And he sat down next to me and it was a friendly talk and he put his hand on my knee—and I’ll never forget it: I felt a current of electricity, real sharp, and I went home and I said to a girlfriend, ‘I’ve just met a man that I think I might spend the rest of my life with.’ ”
Toward the end of dinner, just before the awards are bestowed, a pleasant-looking fellow in a conservative business suit sneaks up behind her chair, leans down, and gives her a kiss. She lights up when it turns out to be her husband, both surprised and pleased he’s raced in from the airport in time to be with her.
Hayden’s still youthful-looking and intense, but the Irish-pol side of him has been emerging since he got elected to the California Assembly six years ago. While it took close to a million dollars of Fonda-family money (both Henry’s and Jane’s) to get him that first victory, he’s since demonstrated shrewd political skills, building not only a statewide issues organization (Campaign California) but an old-fashioned patronage-and-favors local political machine on the west side of L.A. Hayden’s been particularly assiduous in establishing close ties with the L.A. Jewish community, an effort he capped by hiring a key organizer from its ranks, Havi Scheindlin, as director of his political committee. It was she who mobilized the Fonda chutzpah behind the campaign to free embattled refusenik Ida Nudel.
Jane’s remarks upon receiving the award are worth noting because, in their skillful blend of modesty and feeling, they show how far her public persona has come since the days of the strident buzz-saw whine that turned everybody off. She has the crowd at the temple eating out of her hand.
She begins by shifting the credit for the refusenik victory from herself to Havi Scheindlin: “The Fonda-family motto is perseverance, but I didn’t know from perseverance until I fell into the clutches of Havi. [Laughter, applause.] Who in turn had fallen into the clutches of those heroes in the Soviet Union who are the real masters at teaching us about persistence and courage and never giving up. And it’s like a great big chain and I’m sort of a shiksa link. [Loud laughter, applause.]
“It’s been an extraordinary experience for me, and [heartfelt pause] when I got involved, I was told what to do and I did it. I was always told when somebody said do something good you did it. But I never thought she [Ida Nudel] would get out. I mean, bad enough to be a refusenik, but to be a woman, a woman who after four years in Siberia, the only woman in a camp of male criminals, the day after she got back to Moscow, instead of shutting up she held a press conference—it was a way of saying to them, ‘If you think you’ve broken my spirit, you’ve got another think coming.’ We all said she’d be the last person to get out. But then Havi said, Go to the Soviet consul and say if you don’t let her out I’m going.. .And I didn’t want to go. But I had to go.”
She talks about the trip, about Ida Nudel (who sounds like a troublemaking kindred spirit), about how she traveled around the country with an Ida Nudel slide show (she’s always been big on slide shows) until the release. She modestly disclaims meriting the award and then closes by saying, “I give to you not only my thanks but my commitment. I’m yours forever.”
I’m yours forever. ’’Oh God, they’ll hold me to it too,” she says cheerfully afterward.
I’m yours forever. It’s a killer conclusion to a great Jane Fonda performance. Not that it’s any less sincere for being a performance. It occurs to me that in the past her public appearances, her attempt to be herself, often came off as bad acting. And yet in her acting she could always—almost unerringly—hit the notes that convey authenticity. She was more authentic as an actress than she’d ever been as a person, at least as a public person. But now it seems she’s put back into her personal act something of what she’s learned about authenticity from acting.
Two days after the refusenik dinner. It is seven in the morning. Jane is at the wheel of the battered Fonda-family station wagon heading out for the first stop of what is going to be a long day. First there is a forty-minute drive into central L.A. to visit a health-and-social-services center for Salvadoran refugees that several of Jane’s extended family of political buddies dating back to the ‘‘Red Family” collective are helping to run. She will then drive to LAX (using the driving time for a cellular call with her CAA agent, Ron Meyer) for a flight up to Sacramento to attend a Hayden fund-raising party—where they will once again confront the specter of the scary Hayden-Fonda-hating cadre that dogs their public appearances.
We arrive at “El Rescate,” a sad-looking structure in a sadly deteriorating neighborhood. “Ten percent of the population of Central America is living in central Los Angeles. Most of the people who come here are political refugees fleeing the death squads—which are still operating, by the way,” Fonda adds grimly.
Waiting inside the clinic to show us around is one of Jane’s longtime personal and political associates, Carol Kurtz. Their bond goes back to a short-lived but influential Maoist-inspired collective in Berkeley—the Red Family commune. “Carol was in the Red Family with Tom,” Jane explains, “and now she runs his L.A. office. We lived together from the time Troy [her son with Hayden] was born. She lived downstairs with Jack Nicholl, who became the director of Campaign California.”
Not all of the Red Family alumni are still in the Hayden-Fonda orbit. Two years ago Jane split with her longtime film-producing partner, Bruce Gilbert, whom she had met when he was supervising the Blue Fairyland day-care center for the Red Family. They spent six years getting Coming Home off the ground, and he had producer or co-producer credits on almost all her films in the late seventies and eighties.
Jane is uncharacteristically reticent about the reasons for the split, saying only, “He wanted to work on his own projects.”
Whatever the reasons, the break may portend a welcome shift away from what has become known as the “Bruce Gilbert formula” for Jane Fonda films. It’s a formula that produced some stunning successes, but the Gilbert formula also tended to bind Fonda to a certain kind of role that may have sacrificed one of her chief assets as an actress—her edgy intelligence—for the sake of populist appeal.
In the Gilbert-formula film, Jane would play a good-hearted but unsophisticated woman who gets exposed to injustice, gets wised up, and finds the courage to stand up for what she’s come to believe. You can see it in Coming Home, Nine to Five, The China Syndrome, The Doll Maker, and Rollover. They were often good movies, but in some sense Jane’s acting choices were subordinated to the design of the upbeat populist message. Since the message held that ordinary people could wake up and fight for their rights, Jane was forced to make sure that her characters didn’t transgress the parameters of ordinariness.
I’ve always felt that her best roles are the ones in which she doesn’t underplay the sharp-witted, angst-riddled, modern-urban-woman side of her in order to be more like Everywoman. In fact, you can do a fairly comprehensive taxonomy of Jane Fonda roles if you divide them into Smoking and Nonsmoking categories.
“I can’t do anything, you know, if I’m scared shitless. So I have to feel love coming from everyone, everyone, the sound guys and the grips and the electricians.”
In almost all the Bruce Gilbert-formula roles (the good-hearted woman who gets wised up), she doesn’t smoke—it doesn’t accord with the character’s innocent wholesomeness. But the call girl in Klute smokes; the sharp-tongued Newsweek editor in California Suite (a gem of a performance in an otherwise thin Neil Simon setting), the Lillian Heilman character in Julia, the smart, edgy lawyer in Agnes of God—they all smoke. They drag on cigarettes greedily, gratefully—as if the smoke itself were the embodiment of the complex, tainted, dangerous consciousness Jane denied herself in more wholesome, Nonsmoking roles.
Jane’s new partner in Fonda Films is Lois Bonfiglio, a longtime East Coast development producer. Lois is, in fact, very East Coast: sharp, funny, wised-up. It will be interesting to see if the shift will mean more up-front smart-woman roles for Jane. Lois smokes like a chimney.
Later that morning, on the flight up to Sacramento, I ask Jane about my Smoking/Nonsmoking theory. She doesn’t dispute it, but she doesn’t like it.
“So, what are you saying?” she asks, sounding irritated.
“That your best roles are the up-front smart-woman ones.”
“O.K.,” she says dryly. “I’ll do one of those for you.”
Speculating about her co-producers’ influence on her choice of roles shouldn’t diminish Jane’s own achievements as producer. She’s managed to get an extraordinary number of difficult movies made. “I don’t think there’s been any project I really wanted to do that I didn’t eventually get produced.” But, she contends, her hands-on role as producer stops when the camera starts rolling. “When the shooting begins, I want the director to be my father, my lover, my brother.” What’s more, “it’s very important to me that everyone on the set like me. I have to be popular. I can’t do anything, you know, if I’m scared shitless. So I have to feel love coming from everyone, everyone, the sound guys and the grips and the electricians.”
Nonetheless, she tells lots of stories about breaking this love spell to engage in creative disputes with her father-lover-brother directors—particularly over endings.
She fought with Pakula to get a more ambiguous, less sappy ending for Klute. She disagreed with Hal Ashby, she says, over the ending of Coming Home. She wasn’t happy with the way her husband (Bruce Dern) committed suicide by walking into the ocean after he learned of her affair with the paraplegic vet (Jon Voight).
“I thought it didn’t acknowledge the violence built up in him,” she says. “I thought he should have used his gun—on them or on himself.”
She also argued for a violent ending to Nine to Five. She wanted the vengeful secretaries to actually murder their chauvinist-piggy boss (Dabney Coleman). “Fox wouldn’t allow it.’’
And she argued with Sidney Lumet over the beginning of The Morning After—which contains a fairly heavy-handed critique of fitness culture as pornographic flesh worship. She thought it would be misinterpreted either as criticism of her own workout enthusiasm or as some sort of reconsideration on her part of fitness ideology. Lumet kept it in.
“I hated it,” says Jane. “He didn’t understand.”
But in a sense the biggest argument was a running battle with herself. There was a point at the height of her commitment to the cause when she just about abandoned her film career entirely to be on the front lines.
“Back then the bulk of my career had been spent doing things I wasn’t exactly proud of. And so it was like, if I was going to become a serious person that had some meaning in my life, I certainly wasn’t going to go back to Hollywood.” It was actually Hayden, the notorious firebrand, who changed her mind about that.
“Then I met this guy who was the opposite of Hollywood, who really took me—you know, most of these radicals saw me as the exploited Hollywood starlet, Barbarella and all that. But he took my work very seriously, more than I did. He likes American movies, and they don’t have to be sophisticated. He doesn’t like cynical movies. He likes movies that are entertaining. So I felt I’d be able to come back to movies and also have a career that had some relevancy.”
While both Fonda and Hayden have evolved, matured, mellowed, whatever you want to call it, there are other kinds of fanatics out there who won’t let them forget who they were, what they did, who still serve as spectral reminders of the past, ghosts at their feast.
The first time I got a hint of what living with this is like was late on the afternoon of the fund-raiser in Sacramento, as I came back from the men’s room in the corridor outside Hayden’s state-capitol office. There was an armed guard standing near the office door. He hadn’t been there when I left.
Nobody mentions it when I re-enter the office and resume taping a conversation with Jane, although in retrospect I think she was a bit nervous.
I’d been talking to her about the impact of The China Syndrome, the effect it had on the public image of Jane Fonda when the anti-nuclear-power thriller opened just two weeks before the spectacular Three Mile Island reactor incident. While it wouldn’t be true to say she went directly from being pariah to prophetess, the fact that this time when Jane Fonda cried wolf there was a wolf served to get her a kind of respect she had never had as a shrill, politicized starlet.
She seems unreceptive to the idea. Or somewhat distracted.
At this point there is a knock on the door.
Outside are Hayden and two armed capitol security men.
“I have to go,” she says. “There are gonna be pickets.”
Along with a couple of others from Hayden’s office, I join them in the elevator. There is what seems to me an uneasy silence. In any case, the office people and I get off at the ground floor, leaving Hayden, Fonda, and the security men to descend to the basement garage, from which they will be taken to the site of the fundraiser by a route that will avoid confrontation with the pickets out front.
The fund-raiser that is the target of the picket line is being held in the basement of Brannan’s, a bi-level Houlihans-type bar and yuppie-politico hangout on a plaza across from the golden-domed capitol building. The theme of the fund-raiser is reunion. There is a silver-colored souvenir booklet titled “1968-1988: Assemblyman Tom Hayden’s 20th Year Reunion.” It is filled with paired then-and-now, ‘68-and ’88 snapshots of Hayden and various Assembly cohorts. There are stacks of Hayden’s book Reunion, for inscribing to party goers. A pleasant, nostalgia-clouded notion of the sixties is being celebrated.
But on the sidewalk overhead, their faces set in concrete, are the picketers carrying signs, shouting slogans. The ’60s are not over for them.
It might be said that there is an almost Conradian symmetry, a dark elegance, to the juxtaposition of past act and present consequence in this scene, with its disturbing aura of menace and blood.
The word “blood” tends to recur on the placards the picketers hold up or hang around their necks. As in: Blood on their hands! Words like “Traitors!” and “Murderers!” also get repeated.
There are maybe twenty of them, men and women, many of them gray-haired. (Jane contends the ones who most violently hold a grudge against her are not Vietnam but WW II vets.) At times they trudge slowly in a circle; at times they stand still, brandishing their Blood! and Traitors! placards. Occasionally they call out to the young men and women in cool summer suits arriving for the fund-raiser, who, with a somewhat studiedly casual air, ignore the catcalls and shrug off a persistent Ancient Mariner type pressing some densely typed screed on them.
From the palpable hostility these people radiate, one senses that in each case there is some loss or sorrow connected to Vietnam that has been transmuted into hatred of Hayden and Fonda.
That fellow who is trying to pass out his hand-printed pamphlet, the Ancient Mariner, if indeed he’s the author of the two-page “Declaration of War. . . Against Hanoi Hayden and Fonda”—he’s experienced a loss. Buried beneath the agitated type (“I am going to Join Forces with the people of Waterbury Conn; they have the GUTS to tell both sides of the STORY”) is the story of a death in Vietnam, a young cousin named Bruce. Clearly he holds Hayden and Fonda responsible for that death. The smoking gun in his screed is a blurred reproduction of a letter Hayden wrote in 1968 to a certain Colonel Lao, apparently attached to the North Vietnamese Embassy in Paris. It was an otherwise innocuous introduction of a fellow peacenik, but the salutation to Colonel Lao reads, “Good fortune! Victory!” The Ancient Mariner thinks Hayden should pay for these words.
Downstairs three hours later: the Hayden fund-raiser is concluding with speeches and toasts. Good fortune! Victory! Hayden is signing a dwindling stack of copies of Reunion. In a chapter called “Vietnam Reconsidered,” he puts forth his regrets about certain of his actions and positions back then. The uncritical hero worship of the North Vietnamese and other nominally revolutionary but factually repressive Third World regimes is one of those regrets.
But it’s too late. Too late certainly to appease the scary crew who are still stationed outside. What would appease them: Trial and execution for treason? Something less? Something more? (In fact, a few weeks later, the V.F.W. passed a resolution that Congress put Fonda on trial for treason.)
They are waiting when the alleged traitors make their way upstairs and emerge into twilight on the plaza. It is an eerie scene—eerie because the picketers seem to be staring right through Hayden and Fonda as they emerge from the doorway. As if they don’t recognize them. As if they just don’t connect the middle-aged mortals in front of them with the outsize incarnation of The Enemy in their imaginations.
As for Hayden and Fonda, they certainly know these people calling for their blood are there, within spitting distance, but they do a convincing impression of being untroubled by it, of barely registering their existence at all. They don’t interrupt their murmured husband-and-wife conversation; they don’t quicken their leisurely pace as they stroll out into the evening beneath the now floodlit golden dome. Eventually they link arms and— linked forever by their common nemesis—head off for a late dinner together.
New York City. Earlier in the morning, up at the track, Jane had said something that suggested to me her husband hadn’t necessarily concurred in her decision to apologize. Now, with the tape recorder on, in the booth at Leo’s, I ask her if in fact they’d differed. There is a long silence. A very long silence. I think she’s annoyed with me for trying to get this on tape. Finally she says in a flat, controlled tone, “He has a problem about the fact that somebody who tried to end the war is being asked to apologize, when the people responsible never apologized. He was very concerned that it would come across as a mea culpa. He wanted me to be careful that I was clear.”
“That goddamn aircraft gun. It was just the most stupid, horrible, unconscionable— but not deliberate—thing I could possibly have done.”
And now she’s concerned that it wasn’t clear, that what she was and wasn’t apologizing for was blurred. She wasn’t apologizing for being part of the anti-war movement. “I’ll go to my grave knowing the anti-war movement was one of the forces responsible for ending the war—and should be thanked because it saved the lives of American soldiers by cutting the war short.”
Nor is she apologizing for going to Hanoi, or for making broadcasts to American servicemen from Hanoi. Her apology was targeted at two particular acts: calling American P.O.W.’s “liars” for accusing their North Vietnamese captors of torture, and posing with that anti-aircraft gun.
And of these two acts, it is, more than anything, the moment with the gun she feels genuinely ashamed of. Perhaps because it was captured on film, because it was a Fonda performance, a wretched piece of bad acting—of bad feeling— immortalized on celluloid. “I wince every time I see it,” she tells me. “That goddamn aircraft gun. It was just the most stupid, horrible, unconscionable— but not deliberate—thing I could possibly have done.”
Explaining how she did it is very important to her. She has a long, intense rap on that subject, and I heard it nonstop for nearly twenty minutes during that flight from L.A. to Des Moines. The flight was a particularly incongruous occasion on which to tell the tale of how Hanoi Jane got to the gun and made a fool of herself on film, because she was winging her way into the heart of Middle America on a quintessentially Corporate Jane mission.
She is making a marathon twelve-hour round trip to Iowa in order to appear on the stage of a Holiday Inn banquet hall for thirty seconds. The occasion is a convention of videocassette-distributor middlemen. Following the thirty-second pep talk, she will stay for twenty minutes to pose for pictures and sign autographs, and then it is back through the sorghum fields to the airport and the long flight home.
Corporate Jane speaks a different language from Jane the actress and activist. It’s kind of benevolent in-search-of-excellence corp-speak.
“There is the fear of losing it,” she says of success in general. “Especially if you’re a woman actress, it’s going to happen because the business is so predicated on how you look and being young.”
“These are strategically important people,” she says of the middleman convention. “This chain of video distributors has been very, very supportive of my tapes always, but they were the largest single purchaser of my latest tape, which is called Start Up—I think there were 250,000 sold.”
She can go on about her efforts to interface with the market, about her “Zen-like” attitude toward competition in the corporate arena. She can invoke phrases like “success ratios” to characterize her business and personal performance trajectories.
“There is the fear of losing it,” she says of success in general. “Especially if you’re a woman actress, it’s going to happen because the business is so predicated on how you look and being young. You know, I’m at an age where you’ve got to begin to prepare for a change in the success ratios.”
This has been a strategically important year for Corporate Jane. For one thing, she’s taken the big step of separating her lucrative videocassette business from the Hayden-Fonda political entities, and turning it into a pure capitalist operation. From the beginning all the revenues from her workout enterprises had gone to the Hayden-Fonda Campaign for Economic Democracy and its successor, Campaign California. Now the free ride on the multimillion-dollar gravy train is over for them. Fonda tends to put an optimistic light on it: Campaign California will develop into a more grass-roots-supported organization, because it will have to survive on what it gets from the grass roots.
In any case, it somehow sharpens the irony to hear Fonda the pure capitalist recalling her apparent rapture on film over a Communist gun.
Rapture: it is precisely the impression she gave of rapturous infatuation with the gun that has made it a focal point of Fonda hatred. It’s a mistaken impression, a misreading of her performance, she says, but one she’s ashamed of nonetheless. One whose genesis she’s intent on setting straight.
How she got to the gun. To summarize her eloquent defense is difficult and unfair, but she begins by putting it in the context of that particular moment of history. It was mid-1972: after Tet, after the secret bombing of Cambodia was exposed, at a time of increasingly savage U.S. high-level bombing of civilian North Vietnamese targets, increasingly strident protests at home, in which it wasn’t uncommon for tens of thousands of Americans to march behind banners calling for North Vietnamese victory. The specific impetus for her trip to Hanoi, she says, was a rising chorus of voices from the North Vietnamese and from neutral observers accusing the U.S. of deliberately bombing the system of dikes that protected the lowland growing areas of North Vietnam from flooding.
She knew that there would be films of her appearances in North Vietnam. She was, after all, an international film star. She wanted there to be film. “I wanted to give a face to the people we were bombing, the civilians whose lives were being threatened by the bombing of the dikes.” And she claims her mission succeeded.
“A week after I got back and gave a press conference at the airport to expose what we were doing, the bombing of the dikes stopped,” she maintains.
“And merely visiting the gun on that trip was not in itself unusual or shameful,” she says. “It was a very normal thing for people visiting Vietnam to be taken to an air-defense installation. Hundreds of people had gone and done the same kind of tour. You visited military installations and when you were there you wore a helmet wherever you went.”
Still, in that notorious film clip we see her in her helmet, striding up to the gun turret, then suddenly breaking into this rapturous grin, and waving her arm as if she’s making a theatrical gesture of hailing the deadly weapon. Next she’s bouncing up to take a seat on the firing chair behind the barrel of the gun, smiling and waving almost as if she were blowing kisses. In retrospect, it looks like another manifestation of the characteristic Fonda response to danger: a manic effort to appear blithe-spirited about it. Still, it’s pretty inflammatory stuff.
This is what was shown on The Morton Downey, Jr. Show, then again on the Barbara Walters segment, and then in the news clips about the Barbara Walters segment. The ten seconds she’s genuinely ashamed of. But what was that show-biz-like song-and-dance gesture she made before the gun?
It was a song, in fact, that led to the gesture, she explains. While it looks as if she’s hailing or blowing kisses to the gun, that arm-waving gesture was actually a show-bizzy flourish to an American song she was singing to the gun crew in exchange for a song they had sung to her.
“There was a group of young soldiers, seventeen or eighteen maybe, and they sang me their national anthem,’’ she says. It was translated for her, and she was struck by the fact that it contained a passage from the American Declaration of Independence—”We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Caught up in her naïve enthusiasm for the solidarity of spirit between the American Revolution and the Vietnamese struggle, she responded with theatrical gusto when the gun crew asked her to sing them an American song.
“They asked me to sing a song and I sang a song. And I was sitting on this goddamn anti-aircraft gun. I wasn’t even thinking. And the pictures were sent around the world and were interpreted as if I was in favor of shooting down our planes, so that I was siding with them militarily… It was terrible. I mean, it was terrible. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The truth, she insists, is that she entered the anti-war movement to help save the lives of American soldiers. That her anger was never at the soldiers, thousands of whom she met face-to-face through the G.I.-coffeehouse movement. Her anger was at those who sent them to die.
She’s said these things before, she contends. She’s spoken before of her regret at how some of her acts have been misinterpreted by vets.
“But it didn’t get heard,” she now realizes.
And so she decided upon a public act, a ritual of catharsis. She’s not selling out, caving in to “the right-wing ideologues who have made hating me a cottage industry,” she says. “But there’s another group, the real guys and their parents and their wives, the guys who went there, those who were hurt by that picture [with the gun] and those who have been led to believe that it represented an anti-G.I. stance. Because they’re the ones that I spent my time trying to help. Those are the ones I wanted to reach.”
She felt she owed them a redemptive Jane Fonda performance to redress the memory of the one with the gun. Perhaps a gift to the vets of a symbolic victory over her in a war that had meant nothing but defeat to them. She’s still not sure whether the Barbara Walters appearance succeeded. She’s critical of her performance, wishes she could do it over again, do a retake.
“I didn’t sleep the night before. I was so tired, I’m afraid I was almost numb. One always wishes the inspiration will come, the words that will really say it. And it didn’t.”
Still, the day after the broadcast, something happened that made her think that, despite her numb performance, the event itself did have some cathartic value.
The day after the show, she walked into the lion’s den, into a four-hour closed-door meeting with the very vets in Waterbury, Connecticut, whose protest against the filming of her new movie in their community had suddenly made her a front-page issue again.
“I want to take more risks with my acting in general,” she says. “I want to be dangerous again.”
They were skeptical, unconvinced by the Barbara Walters performance, many believing it was a cynical act to make filming in Waterbury more convenient for her. She faced them, a room full of a hundred of them.
“These were all guys with anti-Fonda bumper stickers and buttons, and for the first two and a half or three hours it was a lot of very intense emotional stuff,” targeted at her, she says. But she told them her story, how she got into the anti-war movement, why she went to Hanoi, how she got to the gun.
“Finally,” she says, “it began to turn. And there was a moment when one of the guys pulled an ace out of his pocket, I think it was the ace of spades, and said, ‘This is what we’d leave on the bodies of the VC.’ “
Had it been meant for her body?
“He held it up and said, ‘I don’t need this anymore,’” Jane recalls. As if he was, by tossing in his final card, finally burying his hatred for Hanoi Jane.
“He tore it up,” she says.
As our conversation in the coffee shop comes to a close, we turn to other matters, and finally, inevitably, to acting. When we get up to go, Jane discloses something interesting: for the first time in a long time she’s been working with an acting coach, to help her prepare for the film she’s doing with De Niro up in Waterbury.
“Is there something particularly challenging about this role?” I ask her.
“No. In a way, it’s because it’s rather simple and straightforward. I’m looking for a way to shake myself up, though, do something more with it. I want to take more risks with my acting in general,” she says. “I want to be dangerous again.”