my name is mayukh sen and i'm a student at stanford university studying film, history, and creative writing (or something like that). i happen to like jane fonda. a lot. CONTACT: email@example.com
I MISS YOU, JANE
Wednesday, November 30, 2011 7:59 PM
Jane Fonda had raw talent. There was an earnestness that characterized her early performances, but it served her well. If she lacked technical proficiency, she more than made up for it with her presence. Her nervousness gave you a reason to root for her. She was wanting. You could tell she wasn’t quite there yet, that she hadn’t reached the state of eloquence and mastery of craft that she would later, and you wanted her to pull through. You could see an actress trying very hard, yet she was the kind of ingenue with whom you could empathize.
I think she is delicate and lovely in Barefoot in the Park. Her comic timing is off, but she fills her lines with such cadence and light humor that she affects anyway. In Roger Vadim’s films, especially La Ronde and La Curee, she is treated as mere window-dressing, yet she is capable of expressing passion. She is unexpectedly sexual and slightly dangerous. You could not predict what she would do, how she would twist a line or use her body. I love her even more in her early films. Joy House, Sunday in New York, The Chapman Report, Any Wednesday. She is so game and quite funny. It was clear that she treated acting as an art. She tries, tries, tries in her early performances. We see her trying. For this reason, we connect with her. She invests us in what she does.
She had reached a level of technical proficiency by the time of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, a performance that left me, if I'm allowed to hyperbolic, at a loss for words upon first viewing. Even though the character was frighteningly damaged, she rattled off her lines with confidence. There was an eloquence to her acting I hadn’t seen before. Her voice was changing, and she used its husky, guttural qualities to inform the character’s self-contempt and history of trauma. We could see an emotionally dilapidated soul lurking beneath upon first meeting Gloria, but Fonda carefully (though, also, seemingly, without much effort) revealed her character’s hurt as the film progressed. She had somehow managed to make her vulnerability so palpable, so affecting, even when the character seemed abrasive and defensive.
I don’t need to talk much about Klute. It is both her finest performance and, I believe, one of the finest of its medium. She calculates everything, but it flows organically from her. Though her movements, diction, and mannerisms are studied, she makes them feel natural. They are in character, and this works because the character feels full. Fonda is expunging personal demons with the performance. You can tell that she is exposing us to truths she has not come to terms with herself. Even if the performance is a showcase for her technical achievements, it is also an exploration of her obsessions. She trusts the audience, and she asks us to move forward with her. Even when the performance feels too calculated, such as in the oft-praised and improvisatory psych scenes, she projects a sense of being. The minor flaws in her performance do not matter because Fonda has internalized, and thus projected, such a complete sense of who the character is, what she feels, and what disturbs her. She is self-aware, but not offensively so. Klute was her peak.
She was there in Julia, but you could tell something was amiss. It wasn’t the same Fonda. The Fonda we knew could be forthright, daring, and vulnerable without having to think about it. Fonda’s life was so rich, complex, and contradictory in her early years that she did not need to try so hard. What she gave us in her early performances was an extension of her baggage and persona. She suddenly began to calculate her feelings; nothing seemed to emerge naturally. She developed a number of unmistakable, trademark affectations that made it difficult to see her in character. Sally Hyde was never the naive, apolitical housewife Fonda, Ashby, and the screenwriters wanted us to believe; she was Jane Fonda, deep voice and careful diction and all. She brings considerable feeling to the role, but she cannot overcome the fundamental deficiencies in her casting. This can be interesting to some – an unorthodox way of playing this sort of role. For me, it is a performance one can appreciate only upon second, third, and fourth viewings, only after one has developed a full appreciation for Fonda the artist and woman. Otherwise, she is miscast. You can tell she is actively playing against her mannerisms and the wised-up type she has excelled at, and you can see the effort, yet there is an element of self-congratulation in what she does. We no longer root for her. We merely see Jane Fonda, the proud actress who has achieved mainstream satisfaction, the one who has already won an Academy Award and expects to win her second. And we see her trying. She thinks she is there, but she isn’t; she is damagingly self-aware. She uses the character to further her political agenda (a political agenda I quite admire, mind you), yet she invests it with little feeling, passion, or conviction. Her expression of political awakening is half-hearted. She is so nuanced that she barely registers.
She is quite fine in The China Syndrome, yet that performance is more the type we expect to see from Meryl Streep today – a technically accomplished, highly acclaimed turn that is more dependable or serviceable than anything. It is of rote and nothing of major consequence: minor Fonda.
The nadir of her career is, of course, the distressing On Golden Pond, an embarrassment for just about everyone involved. (At least Henry is not terrible in it.) Fonda does not ground her character. She overflows and overemotes. This performance is also, as she and many others have reminded us time and time again, a personal exorcism for Fonda with regards to her father. Yet she overburdens the simplistic source material. It cannot carry the weight of this lifelong struggle she has weathered with her father. The film borders on the unwatchable, and it is largely because of her unmodulated work.
I know I have praised her performance in The Morning After on parts of this blog before, but, truth be told, I now find her too earnest in that role. She relies on affectations that seem out of character. She has too much self-awareness. Nothing flows from her. Everything is contained and deliberate.
Fonda’s career is interesting to study, and, for this reason, she is one of the most endlessly fascinating figures of her era. The seamless, yet also contradictory, convergence of politics, public persona, and a highly personal sense of vulnerability has made her my chief inspiration over the years. I love her because I connect with her, even when she condescends to her roles or tries in earnest.
But, objectively I have always hesitated before putting her on the same level as Redgrave, Stanwyck, or Magnani. These actresses, even when wrong for a role, are consistently fascinating and skilled. They possess an authority that intrigues. Redgrave has a similar political history to Fonda, yet I am simply in awe of her each time I see her. She has such a dazzling, wondrous quality. I do not see the Redgrave of the Workers Revolutionary Party, the Redgrave who protests on Trafalgar Square, or the Redgrave who supports PLO when I watch Julia. Such readings could enrich her performances, but I simply find myself trying to sift through her puzzling, quixotic qualities whenever she appears on screen. Fonda is fascinating when she is miscast for other reasons, ones that have more to do with her well-established public persona than for the complexity and breadth of her screen presence. Watch Fonda doing a backflip for her dad and, well, you might understand why I have some problems.
BEST ACTRESS 1986Kathleen Turner, Peggy Sue Got Married
Sigourney Weaver, Aliens
Sissy Spacek, Crimes of the Heart
Jane Fonda, The Morning After
Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God
(SOME OF) MY FAVORITE BEST ACTRESS LOSERS, POST-1970Julie Christie, McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judy Davis, A Passage to India
Jane Fonda, Julia
Valerie Perrine, Lenny
Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
Liv Ullmann, The Emigrants
Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
CreditsLayout by daphne/cadmium.
Banner/Icons by collapsingnight.
Winona drawing from Fanpop.