Jane Fonda’s appearance in Monster-in-Law, after a 15-year absence, has inspired some extreme responses. Detractors have resurrected the “Hanoi Jane” label because of her anti-war activities during the Vietnam War; her fans treat it as the triumphant return of one of Hollywood’s screen legends. I really can’t support either view. Granted, going to North Vietnam was extremely stupid, but there is no evidence that she had a negative impact on the war. As for her illustrious career, a quick perusal of her filmography reveals few classics. My biggest problem with Jane Fonda is her unpleasant screen personality. Her likability factor may be a notch below Bela Lugosi’s.
Early in her career, Hollywood tried to pigeonhole Fonda as a sex kitten, an image that ran counter to her persona. Her romantic comedies from the ’60s are truly unmemorable, and the popular comedy-Western Cat Ballou (1965) is a forgettable relic of its era. Her occasional forays into serious drama have usually failed, and her best film of the period, The Chase (1966), was lambasted. Barbarella (1968) was a transitional film for Fonda. It was at the forefront of the sexual revolution, and it was the last of her sex-kitten roles. Her biggest fans try to make excuses for this science-fiction comic-book sex romp, but Barbarella remains one of Fonda’s best films. It was meant to be silly.
Fonda really grew as an actress with her next film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), an intense Depression-era drama that accurately captures the desperation of people trying to win a grueling dance marathon. Fonda has never been in a better film, and it earned the actress her first Oscar nomination. Fonda’s next film, Klute (1971), gained her another nomination and, this time, a win. Klute works best as a character study of an insensitive prostitute, and it is a perfect match of actress to role. Unfortunately, Klute is a murder thriller with only a weak mystery plot. Does anyone remember that Donald Sutherland played the title role?
Fonda then squandered her momentum with a bunch of nonsensical projects before making her first comeback in the late ’70s. Coming Home (1978), the Vietnam drama about a soldier’s wife who falls in love with a paraplegic veteran (Jon Voight), is her best film since that time. Both Fonda and Voight received Oscars. A few years later, Fonda derailed her career as a serious actress by becoming an exercise guru. Was it really a loss for Hollywood? Is it really a big deal that she’s back?
DVDs scheduled for release Tuesday (June 14):Hitch, A Dirty Shame, The Nomi Song, and Tarzan II.