“What in the world is the matter with Jane Fonda?” Nixon asks. “I feel so sorry for Henry Fonda.”
The excerpt suggests how much the Hollywood star, who had become prominent in the anti-Vietnam War movement, nettled the president of the United States. But Lacy, who has directed and produced numerous films about major American artists, also uses it to send a subtle message about the nature of her film Jane Fonda in Five Acts.
“The reason I started the film [that way] is that I wanted to signal from the very beginning,” Lacy tells Deadline, “that this wasn’t a film about a movie star, because her story goes way beyond being a movie star.”
Jane Fonda in Five Acts, now contending for Emmy nominations, is really the story of one woman’s journey of self-realization across eight decades—albeit an undoubtedly famous woman.
Of the five acts of the title, the first four probe the impact of Fonda’s relationships with men who defined her life for years, starting with her father Henry, then successive husbands Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden and Ted Turner.
“Part of her life is trying to get her father to love her, and then she escapes from under the shadow of Henry,” Lacy states. “And the next three acts were about her husbands, because she became, in fact, a very different woman with each husband, very chameleon-like. It didn’t happen until late in her life that Jane realized that she could just be Jane.”
Fonda proved remarkably candid with Lacy, speaking frankly about her life, including an emotionally-constricted childhood with a distant, judgmental father.
“We looked like the American dream,” she tells the director about growing up in an ostensibly storybook family, with a Hollywood icon for a dad and a beautiful though secretly troubled mother. “But a lot of it was simply myth.”
When Fonda was 12 her mother committed suicide by slashing herself with a razor blade, although the true story was kept from Jane.
“Her father told her she had a heart attack,” Lacy notes. “Jane found out about how her mother really killed herself through reading about it in a movie magazine.”
Early in Fonda’s film career she mostly played ingenues or sex kittens, as in 1968’s Barbarella, directed by Vadim, her first husband. But she graduated to more substantive roles with 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and 1971’s Klute, which earned the actress her first Oscar (the second would come for 1978’s Coming Home).
It was during her time with Vadim that she became more politically active, especially in opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1972 she made her infamous solo trip to North Vietnam, where she was filmed on an anti-aircraft weapon, earning her intense criticism back home and the sobriquet “Hanoi Jane.”
“I will go to my grave regretting that,” Fonda tells Lacy in the documentary. The film suggests Fonda’s youthful fervor and naiveté made her vulnerable to exploitation by North Vietnamese propaganda interests.
“It was really a humanitarian reason that she went…to expose the bombing of the dikes,” Lacy asserts. “Now, whether that was a wise decision? No, it was probably foolhardy to go to Vietnam by herself with nobody there, nobody to make sure she didn’t get conned. And she was young, and naïve, and foolhardy, and rash, and brave too, all those things.”
After her marriage to Vadim ended in 1973, she married Tom Hayden, the noted ’60s radical and protest organizer. He brought credibility to her leftist activism, and Fonda bankrolled their political reform programs through sales of her mega-successful workout videos and book. But that marriage ended too, in 1990. Lacy interviewed Hayden shortly before his death in 2016.
“That was the last interview that he gave,” the director reveals. “I don’t think Tom Hayden had ever publicly acknowledged his part in the breakup of that marriage. It wasn’t just that he fell in love with somebody else, it was that he had a hard time with her fame, and he was womanizing and drinking to handle it…I think he was, in a way, apologizing to her through the interview I did with him.”
Lacy interviewed Fonda’s third husband as well, billionaire media mogul Ted Turner, whose wealth gave her complete freedom to pursue her interests. Their marriage lasted from 1991-2001 but Fonda ultimately felt compelled to live her life as a truly independent woman.
“When she left Ted, as she says in the film, there were two voices,” Lacy notes. “One voice was saying, ‘Oh, come on, Jane. He’s handsome, he’s rich. You’ll never have to work again. You have fun with him.’ And the other voice was saying, ‘If you don’t leave now, you’ll never become a fully realized person.’”
The Fonda of Jane Fonda in Five Acts is a restless, driven soul.
“She’s a seeker,” Lacy observes. “I was very, very impressed with how courageous she is… She’s always hoping to learn something new about herself and about everything.”
The documentary shows it hasn’t been an easy life for Fonda, between the tragic loss of her mother, her struggles with body image and eating disorders, and a yearning for validation.
“Jane can appear to be very brittle, and she’s not,” Lacy maintains. “And what I saw with her story…was that there will always be a ‘little girl blue’ in Jane that she’s dealt with her whole life and always will…I found her very moving.”
Viewers too have been moved, Lacy says.
“I just have been so struck by how it has touched so many women,” she comments. “They had no idea somebody like Jane Fonda could experience so many of the things they’d experienced…There are issues that she dealt with in her life that are universal.”