Friday, February 27, 2009

Quote of the Day (Vanessa Vadim, on Jane Fonda)

“Why don't you just get a chameleon and let it crawl across the screen?” –Filmmaker Vanessa Vadim, advising her mother, Jane Fonda, about making a video to explore her life, quoted by Charles McGrath, “Spring Theater Preview: A Radical Vixen Retakes the Stage,” The New York Times, February 22, 2009

Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, and Jane Fonda’s gotta act. This is what she was born to do—not to mount political soapboxes, not to become an exercise guru, not to become the trophy wife of a crazy capitalist. With a father (Henry), brother (Peter) and niece (Bridget) also in the profession, it’s in her genes, for heaven’s sake.

Sure, Fonda returned to the big screen after more than a decade’s absence with Monster-in-Law and Georgia Rule, but the general critical consensus seems to be that they were unworthy vehicles for her talent—sort of like Audrey Hepburn closing out her magical film career with the TV film Love Among Thieves and Steven Spielberg’s Always.

That situation promises to change with 33 Variations, a drama written and directed by Moises Kaufman, in which she plays a professor simultaneously afflicted with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and the desire to ferret out why Beethoven became obsessed with an obscure piece of music called the “Diabelli Variations.”

I understand that protestors have already staked out the Eugene O’Neill Theater in Manhattan to vent their disgust with “Hanoi Jane.” I don’t approve of the actress’ past excuses for Communist atrocities in the Sixties and Seventies. (I’m not only talking here about her notorious visit to North Vietnam but also about her later refusal to sign a petition circulated by Joan Baez and published in four major American newspapers condemning the Khmer Rouge for their genocide in Cambodia.)

But at least one of the excesses ascribed to Fonda on her North Vietnam trip—passing off messages slipped to her by American POWs, who were subsequently beaten and, with the exception of one who lived to tell the tale, died—is an urban legend, according to a Richard Snow article in American Heritage eight years ago. Nor was she even the only American entertainer who visited North Vietnam during the war—I don’t recall anyone picketing Pete Seeger or Judy Collins for their trips.

Moreover, if I don’t excuse Fonda for her past inability to see evil in a Marxist, neither do I excuse John Wayne’s penchant for noticing it everywhere he turned. In neither actor’s case does their constitutionally guaranteed right to be politically mistaken interfere with my enjoyment of their work on screen.

And Fonda’s work, from 1969 (after she jettisoned first husband Roger Vadim, in horror over her appearance as a sex kitten in Barbarella and his outlandish sexual demands offscreen) through 1979 (The China Syndrome), constitutes perhaps the finest collective work of an American actress during that decade. She won two Oscars during that period, for Klute and Coming Home, and might easily have won for another, in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Fonda has admitted her naivete about her North Vietnam trip. I don’t agree with much of her politics, but I think it’s well past time to forgive and forget. If I’m lucky enough to catch her on stage or screen soon in the near future, I won’t be seeing “Hanoi Jane,” but someone who I value for her extraordinary ability to create characters and make you care about them.

It’s been 45 years since Fonda last stepped on a New York stage, in Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude. Welcome back, Jane.

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