It didn’t take long to bring up the controversial side of Jane Fonda during AFI‘s Lifetime Achievement Award tribute Thursday night. AFI Board Of Trustees Chairman Howard Stringer addressed the elephant in the room almost immediately upon taking the Dolby Theatre stage: “What not a lot of people know is that Jane Fonda attended the very first AFI tribute in 1973 to director John Ford. She didn’t actually make it into the ballroom that night because she was out front picketing. That’s right, she was there to protest the appearance of one of that night’s presenters, Richard Nixon. Jane, what are we going to do with you?” he said to much knowing laughter and applause. A little while later, AFI CEO and President Bob Gazzale picked up on the theme. “Yes, Jane picketed the AFI Life Achievement Awards. But it wasn’t the first time that she’d marched on AFI,” he said. “Some years earlier outside the gates of the AFI conservatory there was a protest led by Jane and another Life Achievement recipient, Shirley MacLaine. They were there to draw attention to the lack of women in roles in the AFI Conservatory and they were right. Their effort led to the establishment of the AFI Directing Workshop for women which this year is celebrating its 40th anniversary. And they also helped to ensure women were admitted to the AFI Conservatory where women have flourished over the years.”
But as it became abundantly clear this evening was much more than about Fonda’s well-known activism. It was about a film career that has brought her two Oscars from seven nominations — that started in 1960 with Tall Story and is still going strong all the way up to next September’s This Is Where I Leave You. Both are from Warner Bros and both show the remarkable career journey this daughter of a very famous star, Henry Fonda, and sister of another twice-nominated actor/writer/producer Peter Fonda, has taken. Among studio heads that included 20th’s Jim Gianopulos, Sony’s Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton and Disney’s Alan Horn, Warners’ Kevin Tsujihara was also there. As Fonda was introduced and took the traditional march through the crowded room of stars, friends , executives and industryites, she seemed genuinely touched and teared up. Shortly afterward I caught up with her and asked if she was actually crying. “Do I look like I was crying? You bet I was.” she told me. It made a later clip they showed from her 1965 Western Cat Ballou even more prescient. “You won’t make me cry. You’ll never make me cry,” Cat Ballou says. It clearly didn’t apply to Fonda on Thursday night as she appeared overwhelmed by it all. And actually a couple of weeks ago in Cannes she told me she burst into tears when she got the phone call saying she received this award. “They asked me to present to Bette Davis and I did. They asked me to present to Barbara Stanwyck (her Walk On The Wild Side co-star), and I did. And of course my father, and I did. But I never dreamed I would be getting this award, ” she told me. Well she did, and in a ceremony that was a rich as any of these has ever been — and I’ve been coming to them since Frank Capra got one in 1982. It was a special night as Fonda became the only daughter of a previous winner to receive the same award. Father and Son Kirk and Michael Douglas and brother and sister Warren Beatty and MacLaine also have made the family connection for AFI in previous years.
The room was decorated with lots of iconic magazine covers featuring Fonda but the most interesting was a Time agazine cover featuring all the Fondas: Henry, Jane and a silhouetted Peter from his Easy Rider days. “I am not so sure about that cover,” Peter Fonda told me as he stared at the blowup during a break in the proceedings. “I remember that interview very well. They had three different writers interview us separately and then we did one together. I recall the writer told me ‘the little brother with the big mouth might take it all’,” he said, recalling that he dominated the conversation. But then he added that he was so proud of his sister. “She has achieved so much for so many.”
A few tables away, Sandra Bullock told me she was excited to be there. “She’s the real thing, a good egg,” she said of Fonda. She later presented a tribute from the stage. The first onstage after the dinner break though was Meryl Streep, who made her film debut in Fonda’s 1977 Best Picture nominee Julia, where she had a small role but really bonded with the star, who gave her sage advice about hitting her mark. “If you land on it you’ll be in the light and then you’ll be in the movie,” she recalled that Fonda told her. Cameron Diaz also appeared to talk about 9 To 5, a landmark comedy in which Fonda not only starred but produced. Diaz talked about how it showed inequality for women in the workplace and might have changed things forever.
Among others comedian Wanda Sykes showed up in full Barbarella (a campy 1967 movie that got as much attention at this gala as any Fonda has made) regalia to let loose some zingers, as did Eva Longoria whose only reason for being there she said was that they both worked in a L’Oreal commercial. And Sally Field showed up to talk about their 35-year friendship that started when Fonda barged into her 20th Century Fox office to offer advice on how to be a producer and make meaningful films. She talked about Fonda breaking through in the male-dominated world of producing films and then coming up with Coming Home and 9 To 5 among others.
Perhaps the most emotional moment of the night came when Vietnam war veteran and the inspiration for Tom Cruise’s Born On The Fourth Of July, Ron Kovic, showed up onstage after an emotional clip from Coming Home (another film he inspired) was shown. It was one of two films, including 1971’s Klute, for which Fonda won Oscars. He praised her and the courage she showed in her early activism against the war. Her Newsroom co-star Jeff Daniels also appeared and played guitar and sang a special song written about her, celebrating her “abs, buns and thighs” in a reference to her famous workout tapes. 9 To 5 co-star Lily Tomlin was lovably loopy in detailing her experiences with Fonda. “She transcends her ego, which in my view is worthy alone of receiving a life achievement award,” she said. Fonda and Tomlin begin a new Netflix comedy series shooting in August. I am hearing talk of Martin Sheen and Alan Alda as possible co-stars but that’s still to be determined.
Fonda spoke throughout the tribute in pre-recorded clips, many of them very touching and raw. But among the most interesting tidbits was her admission that her most calculated career move came when she chose to make a comeback opposite Jennifer Lopez in Monster-In-Law. A hilarious clip was shown where the pair engage in an endless slap-off. Fonda said she suspected fans would come to see Lopez and re-discover Fonda in the process. She was right on the money as that is exactly what happened.
Perhaps best of all was Troy Garrity, her son with activist Tom Hayden. He brought the house down. “So many stars have spoken tonight it leads me to believe I only got this gig because I was Jane Fonda’s son,” he said. “But if my mother thinks it was difficult being the daughter of Henry Fonda, you should try being the son of Hanoi Jane. That was a lot of fun. My first 13 birthday parties were fundraisers. We had a different life than other Hollywood families. My mother never hired a nanny to watch out for me. That’s what the FBI was doing. And if they weren’t available, I could always stay with the PLO or the Vagina Liberation Organization.” Then he spoke of his mother’s real challenge, “a journey that began when she lost her own mother at a young age and was left believing that she had to fight for her father’s affection.”
Michael Douglas, who received this award in 2009 and who is also the offspring of a major star, presented the award at Fonda’ s request. They co-starred in The China Syndrome. “You are the rare combination of a movie star and a great actress. You are true film royalty, not through birth but through talent,” he said in bringing her to the stage to the theme from On Golden Pond, the movie she made with her father and which brought him his first Best Actor Oscar just months before he died. He asked that she accept it, one of the most emotional moments of her life as she explained.
“I’m so happy to add another woman’s name to the list,” she said as she became only the eighth woman in 42 years to receive the AFI honor. “In preparing for this experience it required me to do a lot a thinking. What I’ve realized is I’ve been blessed to know many geniuses, real geniuses in our business. I have been blessed to know them and so many are gone now. I had to ask myself, ‘Why didn’t I ask them more questions?’,” she said, adding that she wished she had indeed queried the likes of Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn , even Lee Marvin. She said the only person who actually asked her for advice on movie-making was Streep, who was seen laughing in the audience. “And I gave her all my tips. She has me to thank …. Seriously I just want to leave you with this: When you’re with people who have been at it a long time ask questions. Stay curious, stay interested. It’s much more important to be interested than to be interesting,” she said.
Like I said, a special night indeed.