‘Jane Fonda in Five Acts’ Film Review: Doc Explores the Many Lives of the Actress-Activist

Like Fonda’s 2005 memoir, the film shows a woman bouncing back brilliantly from tragedy and regret

Last Updated: September 19, 2018 @ 1:48 PM

“Jane Fonda in Five Acts” could easily have been a 10-hour miniseries; it would take at least two hours merely to go through each of her 50 or so film performances. As a second-generation star, an outspoken activist, an entrepreneur and feminist icon, Fonda almost seems like a living metaphor for the uneasy and constantly changing post-WWII era.

If she didn’t actually exist, Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin would have had to make her up as a character in “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.” But she does exist, and she’s still here, and documentarian Susan Lacy (“Spielberg”) digs deep into Fonda’s life to create a film (for HBO) that’s an audio-visual supplement to the actress’ fascinating 2005 memoir (“My Life So Far”), a frank examination of Fonda’s personal evolution, and a celebration of her role in popular culture.

It’s a story of highs and lows, successes and regrets; yes, Megyn Kelly, Fonda wishes she hadn’t had plastic surgery, noting that she loves “lived-in faces,” like the one on her dear friend Vanessa Redgrave, after whom she named her oldest daughter. Her relationship with her daughter also counts as a regret, but it’s taken Fonda a lifetime to understand her own mother, and she hopes that it’s not too late to make up for her own mistakes.

The first four acts of the title refer to the men who guided Fonda through most of her life: her father, Henry, an iconic screen presence in his own right; her first husband, French filmmaker Roger Vadim, who guided her through her Euro-sex kitten period (and it’s a delight to hear her trill part of the “Barbarella” theme song); her second, activist Tom Hayden, whom she met during her own agitation against the Vietnam War and for the rights of indigenous peoples; her third, billionaire Ted Turner. The final act belongs to Fonda herself, who left her final marriage when she realized she was finally ready to guide her own destiny.

It’s a whirlwind trip through the Actors Studio, Paris, Hanoi, Beverly Hills, Three Mile Island, aerobics studios and Montana, among other stops, and we see the progression from a little girl who felt distanced from her parents (dad cheated, mom was diagnosed with what we now know as bipolar disorder), to a young ingénue who had chops but not confidence, to a vocal spokesperson for causes that had meaning for her.

Fonda admits that during the early years of her activism, she was “starving and speedy,” eating very little and taking Dexedrine to suppress her appetite. And even as a vocal feminist, she still spent much of her life craving validation from men.

While “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” in no way acts as a substitution for the book, it does allow for other voices; we hear from Hayden and Turner, friend and producer Paula Weinstein, and Fonda’s son (with Hayden), Troy Garity, who supplies some of the film’s most hilarious and poignant observations on its subject.

It was surprising to see, at Sundance no less, interviews with Robert Redford about his decades-long friendship and collaboration with Fonda, particularly since Weinstein calls him out at one point; according to her, it was Redford not fighting for Fonda to get the role in “Legal Eagles” over the younger, newer Debra Winger that made Fonda realize that her years as a big-screen leading lady were behind her.

But Lacy and Fonda aren’t afraid to go to the uncomfortable places: We see footage of angry Americans who demanded exile (or execution) for Fonda after her visit to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, and Fonda herself admits that allowing herself to be photographed with an anti-aircraft gun was a huge mistake and her one regret of the trip.

She’s also got a lot to be proud of: Besides her work as an actress and activist, she produced “Coming Home” and “The China Syndrome” and “9 to 5” to tell stories she felt were important, and it would be hard to find someone working in movies now who is similarly committed to marrying issues and entertainment. And at the age of 80, she’s still getting laughs (opposite Tomlin) on Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie” and showing up at Standing Rock and other hot spots to loan her spotlight to causes that need them.

The movie opens with makeup artists attaching Fonda’s false eyelashes before her appearance at a recent Golden Globes, and that scene lets us know that the film’s subject is going to let us in on pretty much everything. Hers is a lot of life to try to capture in one movie, but “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” certainly covers her emotional arc with thoroughness and compassion.