Jane Fonda has donned so many personas over the years—Hollywood starlet, Barbarella sex kitten, Hanoi Jane, workout queen—it doesn’t even seem possible that the same person lived through all of these seeming disparate eras. Jane Fonda In Five Acts, Susan Lacy’s new HBO documentary, expertly breaks down Fonda’s different stages with solid through-lines between the false-eye-lashed bombshell, science-fiction pinup, and the fresh-faced mini-commune dweller only a few years later. Significantly, the first four “acts” of the film are titled by the name of the significant male influence in Fonda’s life at that particular time: Her father, Henry; first husband, director Roger Vadim; second husband, activist Tom Hayden; third husband, mogul Ted Turner; until we and Jane finally arrive at the fifth act of Jane finding herself.
While that setup is chronological, Lacy’s thematic detours are not. For example, Fonda specifically remembers how her striptease opening credits of Barbarella were filmed—“I drank so much vodka to do that”—only to have to do it all over again when it’s discovered that a bat flew in, ruining the footage. Fonda had her daughter Vanessa while married to Vadim, and that Barbarella phase also brings up for her what it means to be a mother and a woman, without having had much of a role model herself (her mother took her own life when Fonda was a child). Fonda also reveals how her mother’s suicide helped inform her breakthrough role in the Depression-era dance-marathon movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, calling it the first time she made a film “that was about something.” She credits director Sydney Pollack for actually asking her opinions on set (something her own husband never did), helping her tap into a strength she hadn’t realized existed in herself. She becomes, as she puts it, “fierce,” even transforming her bombshell blondness to the Klute shag she was so aligned with for much of the ’70s: “I had my first hair epiphany,” she says of the first of many such transformations.
Throughout, the documentary offers glowing praise of Fonda that falls just short of fawning. Frankly, it’s difficult not to be impressed. Seventy-eight at the time of filming, the formidable Fonda personifies courage and strength in her interviews, even as she reveals tremendous vulnerabilities. She’s repetitively contrite about the darkest chapter of her life—the Hanoi Jane photo that showed her laughing while sitting atop an anti-American aircraft in North Vietnam. She’s apologized for that behavior before, and Lacy gives her ample time to double-down on that explanation—maybe too much time, as the doc stretches past the two-hour mark. Fonda herself sums up that time period rather succinctly: “I’m proud of most of what I did, but I’m very sorry for some of what I did.”
The doc also offers surprises as well, even for longtime fans, like the fact that Fonda’s considerable workout video empire was started to help fund her activist work with Hayden, the Campaign For Economic Democracy, resulting in the No. 1 bestselling home video of all time. Or the fact that a closer look at her filmography reveals the causes she was most passionate about: helping Vietnam vets in Coming Home, fighting for women office workers in 9 To 5, and highlighting the dangers of nuclear power in The China Syndrome. Or that she considers her third marriage to Ted Turner the most valuable, and when she visits him at his Montana ranch in this film, he’s obviously still smitten. Fonda is so solid throughout the documentary that an enthusiastic reference to a prophetic psychic reading sticks out as a flighty departure.
Fonda’s daughter Vanessa refers to her mother as a “chameleon,” and this film clearly indicates how she is near-unrecognizable from husband to husband. The makeup-less Earth mother shopping in a co-op is a far cry from the glamorous actress in Paris with Vadim, or the woman who went hunting grouse right after her third wedding. That’s why the fifth act, with Fonda alone but the happiest she’s ever been, arrives not just as a relief, but a triumph. Fonda bravely unfolds to Lacy how she finally came to her ultimately empowering realization: She eventually became the most important person in her life, instead of her father or husbands: “None of my marriages were democratic, because I was too worried about pleasing.” As her “last act”—as she puts it—begins, Fonda leaves the husbands behind and learns to embrace herself.
To do so, she has to face her conflicted past. Even nearing the age of 80 in the doc, Jane Fonda still wrestles with insecurities, her unfulfilled relationship with her father (reaching some solace through the filming of On Golden Pond), the devastating loss of her mother. Through this cinematic journey, she finds forgiveness to have its own healing power, feeling empathy for her parents, and their parents before them. Fonda has her own regrets about the neglectful way she treated her daughter while she was on the activist circuit, and says she continues to try to repair it. She maintains that the only way out of that cycle of family dysfunction is to break it.
As Jane Fonda enters this late chapter of her life, In Five Acts depicts how she finally casts off the quest for perfection and accepts herself as perfect enough. It’s a valuable lesson from a life well-lived, even for the non-Hollywood-royalty among us.