Jane Fonda In Five Acts is a fascinating documentary about a fascinating person. It closely examines the life of someone who is somehow simultaneously Hollywood royalty, activist, fitness mogul, and movie star, looking back at the considerable history of Fonda’s life over eight decades. As the actor nears turning 80 years old in the film, the comprehensive documentary is also a testament to the value of looking back over the course of a life—coming to terms with failures, lost connections, and the healing power of forgiveness that can hopefully accompany life’s final chapters.

Longtime American Masters executive producer Susan Lacy has recently expanded into directing more extensive biographies, like her 2017 documentary Spielberg. To cover the life of Jane Fonda, Lacy conducted hours of interviews with the actor, as well as her son, friends, ex-husbands, and co-stars. Lacy decided to break Fonda’s life down into five acts: Henry (for her legendary Hollywood father), Vadim (her first husband, French director Roger Vadim), Tom (second husband, Tom Hayden, Chicago Seven activist), Ted (third husband, Ted Turner, billionaire media mogul), and finally, Jane herself. Lacy spoke with The A.V. Club about the difficulty of crafting such a complicated life story into a two-hour-plus documentary, and lessons we can all take from Fonda’s remarkable yet often-rocky journey. Jane Fonda In Five Acts premieres on HBO, Monday, September 24 at 8 p.m. Eastern.


The A.V. Club: What was most surprising for you during the project? The fact that Jane Fonda is so open about everything? 

Susan Lacy: Actually, that really wasn’t a surprise. [Laughs.] She’s written a book [My Life So Far, 2005], so I knew that she was not shy about telling her story and confronting the truth about her life. But I do think it is quite different to write a book in the solitude of your writing room, and talk to a person with a camera there, knowing millions and millions of people are going to see you talk about these things. Also, it was many years ago that she wrote the book, so it was a reliving of many stories.

I did lots of interviews with her. While it wasn’t an all-in-one moment, I prepared for it pretty carefully, so we had what I would call an extended conversation. But it is still surprising when someone is that candid and that open and that able to look at their life with completely open, unvarnished eyes. It didn’t really surprise me, but it pleased me enormously. And it’s always a little bit surprising. Even though I’d read the book, it was also a revelation to see the archive, to see who she was at different points in her life and to put that together with her story, which you can’t do in a book. That commitment, and that bravery—she’s a brave woman. I love that moment when Tom Hayden says, “She’s brave.”

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And that moment of becoming, as she said, fierce [as she became an activist]. That’s one of my favorite moments in the film. Anybody can be fierce. But she’s still vulnerable, you know? She’s still got very tender spots in her, and I was very touched by her. I was surprised by how touched I was by her.

AVC: What did you find so touching?

SL: Her vulnerability. Both her son and her best friend say she still battles her insecurities [and has for] her whole life. She’s a work in progress. We had moments—we had very emotional moments in the interview, in our conversation, where we were both teary. Her ability to go to some difficult and dark places—anyway, she’s a very touching person. And I love when her best friend says, “There’s no one that touches me more than Jane.” I really understood what she meant by that. And I’m not her best friend who’s known her her whole life. I felt the same way about her.

AVC: How many hours did you spend talking with her over the course of the project?

SL: I would say about 20 hours—more than that, actually. It was 20 hours of interviews, but, you know, in between interviews we’d have lunch. I was with her when she went to [her former boarding school] Emma Willard, which I thought was an important moment for her. I was with her on the set of Grace And Frankie—not that much of it made it into the film, but I was there. So there was a lot of hanging out time, things like that beyond the normal, sitting-down interviews. But I did about 12 interviews with her, and each one was close to two hours.

AVC: It’s wonderful seeing her hang out with Lily Tomlin on the Grace And Frankie set, and realizing in that best-friend relationship on the show, they’re just playing themselves.

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SL: You know what people don’t know, is that, in that early footage, that scene in the film with her and Lily and Lily’s teasing her, “You aced me out of the cover on that Vanity Fair.” So Annie Leibovitz shot that cover, and Lily said, “Well, I’m going to call her and tell her.” It was a joke, of course. I said, “Well, I have her phone number.” Which I did, because I made a film about Annie a while ago, and we called her! And she was in Japan. [Laughs.] And Lily said, “I’m really mad at you for acing me out of the cover of Vanity Fair.” And I think it took Annie a while to realize that this was fun and that we had the microphone on listening to her. Anyway, we didn’t use that part, but it was a fun moment. We were all laughing really hard.

AVC: Can you talk about the decision to frame the documentary with her marriages?

SL: Well, her father, and her three marriages—Jane really kind of set that stage in her book. She didn’t label it that way, but, in the book, she said that she wanted to understand her first two acts so she knew how to live her third. So this notion of acts was embedded in my head from reading the book. And then she talks very honestly about how she was shaped. She became who each husband wanted her to be, and the first part of her life trying to please her father and be who he wanted her to be. To me, it was a very logical structure, leading to the actualization of Jane. You know, no longer feeling a need to please everybody all the time, becoming herself and not needing a man to feel whole. I think it’s not just that realization. That self-actualization of the whole Jane is not just that she doesn’t need a man in her life, but also that she can just be herself. That she doesn’t have to be perfect.

And that she can live her own life satisfying her own needs and her own goals and not tabling them necessarily because of who she’s with. I think when she was with Roger, he wasn’t very into politics, and that became a kind of dead end for her. Tom, I think that comes through in the film, it was hard for him when she went back to acting and she had a bestselling book and he was kind of beginning to lose his luster, his star as an activist. And she felt a need to tamp that down to please him and, then of course, he fell in love with somebody else and left her. Isn’t that an amazing moment in the film when she says, “If I’m not married to Tom Hayden, who am I?” In that moment I was so shocked about that. I couldn’t believe that Jane Fonda would feel, “If I’m not married to Tom Hayden, who am I?”

AVC: She seems so formidable, like when she coached so many women through various exercise videos. It’s surprising to see all of those insecurities come through. 

SL: I think that’s one of the reasons that people were so receptive to the film, is her vulnerability. Because it is a surprise to find out that this magnificent, statuesque, always beautiful, still beautiful, intelligent, talented woman was hampered for a good bit of her life by insecurity. And not knowing her worth. I think that’s a real surprise.

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AVC: It’s interesting in the film that you weren’t constrained by going chronologically. During the Vadim chapter, she starts talking about her eating disorder, which was an interesting way to frame it. Then she discusses what it means to be a woman, and starts talking about her mother, way past the Henry chapter. How did you thread all that together? 

SL: [Laughs.] It’s called storytelling—I mean, listen: The first cut of the film, we had it all laid out. Her whole childhood, her mother’s suicide, and everything. I thought, “Oh my god, this is so sad. I’m going to have to parse this out.” And it made sense to me to put the suicide of her mother when she is channeling her mother when she’s making They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and playing a woman who wants someone to kill her, to put her out of her pain, and channel her mother. And putting that around her going back to her school, which is where she found refuge from her mother’s suicide and where she discovered bulimia. You have all these pieces, and it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. How am I going to tell this story? And parse out things—I did the same thing with the Steven Spielberg documentary. I didn’t deal with the anti-Semitism of his youth until I was talking about Schindler’s List. You can’t put it all out there at the beginning, particularly when there are so many tough, emotional moments in it. That’s just storytelling.

AVC: What do you hope people take away from it? It brings to mind thoughts of when we’re all facing 80, hopefully—what will we look back at? Is there a specific lesson in the movie that you’d like people to take away from it? 

SL: Well, it’s a very clichéd answer, but: Stay active, stay interested, stay learning. That’s why Jane is so energized—she’s always learning something new. She doesn’t rest on her laurels; she’s going to talk about climate change and know every goddamn thing there is to know about climate change.

I think another very important element in the film for me, would be the power of forgiveness as liberating. It’s liberating to forgive. It was a huge lesson for me and had a big effect on me. When she is able to come to terms with her past, and forgive her parents and forgive herself—it’s tremendously liberating to do that.

And also, we don’t have to be perfect. There’s a reason I ended the film on that, which is that she says, “I spent my whole life thinking I had to be perfect in order for someone to love me.” And then she says, “I realized perfection is a toxic journey. We have to learn to love our shadows and live with our shadows.” That’s a pretty big message.

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AVC: The biggest shadow in the film seems to be her controversial work protesting the Vietnam War and the Hanoi Jane issue when she visited North Vietnam. She received so much vitriol.  

SL: I know she didn’t love being hated. But I also think she’s proud of what she did in Vietnam. She’s not proud of sitting on an anti-aircraft gun. And she readily admits that that was a huge mistake, and she will take it to her grave, the regrets about that. But she went there with a purpose. She went there to save lives, both American soldiers’ lives and Vietnamese lives. And I think it’s fascinating how few people know why she went there.

She went there to find out if they were, in fact, bombing the dikes [in North Vietnam, which would have flooded and killed hundred of thousands of people], to bring attention to it, and to keep Nixon from doing it. And she succeeded! Wow! That’s pretty amazing. Tom Hayden says the reason they stopped bombing the dikes is because Jane Fonda was brave enough to stand up there and take the vitriol and point the finger. It’s a very brave thing to do.

AVC: You’ve covered so many legends in your career. Who’s next on your wish list?

SL: Oh, I can’t say. I wish I could. I’m in the middle of making another film right now, but it hasn’t been formally announced, so I can’t tell you. It’ll be announced by the end of the month. There are many things in play. I still have a lot of people I’d like to make films about. And I’m really happy about that, because I’m only 10 years younger than Jane. I still have a lot of work in me. I wish I was as thin as Jane, but she works harder at it than I do!