Jane Fonda’s career played before a crowd of around 300 hundred or so at the Baraca Resort in Santa Barbara. She was being honored last night by the Santa Barbara Film Festival with the Kirk Douglas award. The clips showed an always engaged Fonda who had the ability to keep her emotions just under the first layer, always threatening to burst through but never quite getting there. The beautiful Fonda over many decades of career highs and lows expands upwards and looms large like the greatest of redwoods. How do they stay so long? How do they remain so beautiful? Fonda, it’s worth mentioning, has never looked better than she did last night. Like the redwood she is all the more beautiful because she has settled into herself by no one’s definition of what she should be and how she should look.
When the montage finally arrived at her most recent performance in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, a stupefying career moment of sheer genius, it was apparent that this was also among Fonda’s very best incarnations. There is a permanent flame, like the one that peeks up from the mountain range on the drive back from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles. It burns there inexplicably, hot and dangerous. This actress who tells Harvey Keitel the god’s honest truth about his career, her career and the future of Hollywood threatens to burn everything that comes near it. It stood out among the many permanent fixtures of Fonda we fans carry around with us.
Before the ceremony began, a few of us were invited to meet Jane Fonda. My date was my old friend Michael Grei who knows everything about the Oscars, movies and especially Jane Fonda. She politely shook our hands. I did not ask to take Michael’s picture with her but I regret that now. After all, she would not have cared. We blew the moment. I also blathered on about a podcast I remember hearing Jane Fonda interviewed for. I told her it was called “Death, Sex and Taxes.” She said she didn’t remember it. “Death and sex I know,” she said. “But taxes? I know nothing about taxes.” It took me a few hours of restless sleep to remember it was actually called “Death, Sex and Money.” Oh, how my inferior brain disappoints me at crucial moments like that one.
She then talked warmly with Jeff Wells, whom she really seems to genuinely like talking to. Jeff asked her if she went back to Vietnam ever and for a second, a brief flicker of fear washed over her until she realized he was just speaking generally about the country and the people. He wasn’t going to go “there.”
What I noticed about her was that she was sturdy. She knew who she was and she suffered no fools. She was direct and honest. Before long, Michael and I scurried away and back to our table where there was probably too much wine.
Two women were there to pay tribute to Fonda. Diane Lane and Elizabeth Banks, both of whom had witty, inspirational words. Sure, they were kids or not even born for much of her career but the thing about Fonda — and we know this because of Grace and Jackie where she makes fun of herself by saying things like “I look pretty when I cry” — she redefines herself each year. She is not left behind but is very present in the lives of actresses today who battle the kind of shit Fonda and her gang help kick down way back when. Those walls were built back up and this time with bricks. Fonda’s presence will teach Banks and Lane to help teach others to find the right strategy to tear them down again.
Fonda’s speech was appropriately humble and to the point. She thanked Kirk Douglas and paid tribute to Santa Barbara, not to mention Lane and Banks. Throughout Fonda’s life people have always referred to her in terms of how she looks. That’s the first question everyone asks and the first way people describe women, especially older women. The next question is how old she is. Fonda has worked hard to look that good and she’s always been honest about it, guiding women into physical fitness for decades. Here, she was dressed up for the glamorous world of gods and goddesses. I suddenly remembered back a year or two prior when I’d been flying back from Cannes and there was Jane Fonda waiting to board the plane. She wore big glasses and street clothes. She stood quietly unadorned and unnoticed in the corner. I remembered that podcast where she talked about how much she loved being alone.
As I watched her last night, I was reminded of how divided she is as a person between wanting to be alone, high up in the mountains, and wanting to be vibrantly social:
“Well, the mother that I remember is very different than the mother I researched. I remember her as a hypochondriac, febrile, nervous, scared, insecure person. And she was all of those things. But then I also discovered that other people’s impressions of her were: vibrant, like, men were attracted to her like moths to a flame. She was very social. I have her and my father in me, I’m like a bear. I hibernate and like to be alone, and that’s my father. That’s the bigger part of me. But then when I come out of hibernation I like to party real hard and that’s my mother.”
Hollywood hasn’t made room for someone like Jane Fonda. She’s full of vitality. She refuses to snuff out her sexuality and in so doing, she’s making room for herself and anyone else who follows gracefully, forcefully, and willingly behind her.