By CHARLES McGRATH
Published: February 19, 2009
JANE FONDA, it's hard to believe, is 71. While the rest of us have
just about managed one life, she's had half a dozen. She has been a
sex kitten, a fashion model, a radical and war protester, an
Oscar-winning movie star, an exercise impresario and the consort of a
billionaire. Her marital history alone has made her a kind of
cultural bellwether. Her first husband, the French director Roger
Vadim, introduced her to threesomes; she first made love with her
second husband, Tom Hayden, after he showed her some slides of
Vietnamese peasants (this was back when people took foreplay
seriously); and her third husband, Ted Turner, told her on their
first date, "I have friends who are Communists."
These days Ms. Fonda is revisiting an earlier incarnation, Broadway
actress, and next month she will star in "33 Variations," written and
directed by Moisés Kaufman, almost 50 years (46 if you want to be
fussy) after she last appeared on Broadway, in "Strange Interlude"
with Geraldine Page.
She looks great, not that you were the least bit curious. She has had
a new hip installed, and a few years ago she had her breast implants
removed. But she is still willowy and glamorous; she still has that
smoky, velvety voice; and age has brought out her bone structure
something that the director Joshua Logan used to fret about. When she
was 21, she resisted his suggestion that she have her jaw broken and
her back teeth pulled so that her face would have more definition. No
longer the chubby-cheeked vixen of "Barbarella" and "Klute," Ms.
Fonda has at last achieved a sort of Hepburnian elegance. She even
looks a little like her father now.
As it happens, Henry Fonda has been on her mind lately, she said
recently, sitting in her dressing room at the Eugene O'Neill Theater,
where "33 Variations" opens March 9. With her was Tulea, her Coton de
Tuléar, a tiny, Bichon-like dog that is part of her accommodation to
life without Ted.
"You can have a big dog when you're married to a rich man with a
plane," she explained. Even after their divorce in 2001, though, she
has continued to live in Atlanta, where she runs a couple of
nonprofit organizations and stays in touch with an extensive net of
mostly female friends, including Eve Ensler, Gloria Steinem, Robin
Morgan and the writer Patricia Bosworth.
About her father, she said: "I'm becoming obsessed with his presence
in my head, because my dad adored theater. He didn't talk much, but
he would talk about how he loved the immediacy of a live audience. I
was never comfortable enough in my own skin 45 years ago to be able
to understand it. I just wanted to escape. And now it's like, 'Oh
Dad, I wish you were here and alive, so I could say to you: "I get
it! I'm finally able to experience what you were talking about." ' "
In the early '90s, after she married Ted Turner, Ms. Fonda officially
announced her retirement from acting. She had more or less quit years
before while still married to Tom Hayden, who gave her a hard time
about it. He thought her film career called too much attention to her
at the expense of "real" people who deserved more credit.
"When I was really, really unhappy with myself and my life, which
happened in the second half of my marriage to Tom, I just stopped,"
she said. "Acting became too painful. I just couldn't. All the joy
leached out of it."
In 2005 Ms. Fonda resumed her movie career with "Monster-in-Law," in
which, starring with Jennifer Lopez, she played with great relish a
nightmare version of Jane Fonda: a TV star who has burned through
four husbands, gone bonkers and can't accept that she's getting old.
It was slammed by the critics but was nevertheless a popular success
and introduced her to a new generation of fans.
"That movie was the single smartest move I ever made," she says now.
She has two more films in the works, but in the meantime, when "33
Variations" came her way, she embraced the chance to return to the stage.
"I am not the same person I was," she said. "I really am a different
person. And I feel now that I could really be better than I have ever
been in acting. It felt like something I had left prematurely. I
didn't complete it, and I wanted to see if I could find joy in it
again." She added: "It's been 45, 46 years since I was last on
Broadway, and it feels like it too, in the sense of my personal
trajectory. I feel that in terms of my personal development there has
been at least half a century in there. Thank God."
A large part of why Ms. Fonda feels like a different person is that
she is always working on herself. She is like a relentless home
improver who adds a new wing, tears down the back porch and replaces
it with a deck, puts a cathedral ceiling on the family room and then
goes back and rips out all the wiring and replaces the plumbing.
As she documents in "My Life So Far" (Random House), her 2005
autobiography, she has, with the help of therapists and even a
psychic or two but mostly by rigorous self-examination and ponderous
mental burrowing, labored through a daunting list of issues: a
disastrous childhood (her mother, Frances Seymour, slit her throat
when Ms. Fonda was 12; her father was famously icy and remote),
anorexia, bulimia, sexual insecurity, stage fright, fear of intimacy,
excessive need to please and more than one midlife crisis. She has
become a feminist, an environmentalist, a student of Zen, a
practicing Christian and, just lately, a blogger. (On the evening of
the first preview of "33 Variations" she even blogged during
intermission; the blog is at janefonda.com.) At one point in "My Life
So Far" she talks about being "pregnant with myself," about to give
birth to a new Jane, and the reader can practically feel the pangs.
"Variations" is about a woman who is in many ways the complete
opposite of Ms. Fonda someone who has shut down and is out of touch
with herself. Ms. Fonda plays a character named Katherine Brandt, a
musicologist who is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or
Lou Gehrig's disease, and is determined before she dies to solve the
mystery of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations: why he spent the last
years of his life obsessing over an ever-expanding set of variations
on a waltz theme, written by the music publisher Anton Diabelli, that
was clunky and banal. Beethoven called it a schusterfleck, or so the
story goes a cobbler's patch. (Beethoven is a character in the
play, along with his assistant, Anton Schindler, but his music is
played offstage by Diane Walsh.)
Distant and controlling, Katherine also has a difficult relationship
with her daughter, Clara (played by Samantha Mathis), and the
eventual thawing of it, Katherine's opening herself up, proves to be
the key to the musical mystery. On the one hand, Katherine fits
neatly into the long Fonda tradition, going back to "Cat Ballou" and
even "Barbarella," of women who are tough and self-possessed. But
unlike, say, the seemingly buttoned-up Gloria Beatty, Ms. Fonda's
character in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," or Bree Daniels, the
prostitute turned sleuth in "Klute," Katherine doesn't seem to have
that Fonda-like inner edginess or hint of stridency. She's such a
perfectionist she has erased even that.
"In some ways she's a cipher," Ms. Fonda said of the character,
talking about her struggle to find a way to play the part. She
thought she had figured it out, she said, when she was on a plane one
day and, finding the nearby seats unoccupied, had a glass of wine and
began to rehearse with herself.
"It's always great to rehearse on a plane," she said, "because people
think you're mad. Anyway, I thought I had found a way to be emotional
in the part. I thought, 'Man, I've got this nailed.' I took it to the
first rehearsal, and I thought I'd really wow them. Moisés said,
'Strip it all away.' "
Mr. Kaufman, when reminded of this, said: "That is very funny.
Because what I remember is thinking: 'Oh, this is really, really
right. How do we sculpt it?' " He added that he had chosen Ms. Fonda
in the first place for both her emotional range and her comfort with
intellectual ideas, and that she understood the play in a profound
way right from the beginning.
"Emotionality is really easy for me," Ms. Fonda said. "My father
always said that Fondas can cry at a good steak. And so on a personal
and professional level it's great for me not to have to do that. The
hard part is to try to clarify why she's so obsessed with Beethoven
and what the problem with the daughter is. That's what we're working
on in rehearsal."
The play sometimes made her painfully aware, she added, of how
withholding her father had been, on the one hand, and, on the other,
of her sometimes complicated relationship with Vanessa, her daughter
with Roger Vadim, who is now 40 and a producer and cinematographer.
(When Ms. Fonda proposed making a video about her life to help her
discover its many themes, Vanessa said, "Why don't you just get a
chameleon and let it crawl across the screen?")
"In some ways it's very easy for me, this part," Ms. Fonda said. "I
guess it's because I've lived it from both sides. I know what it
feels like to have a relationship with a child where you sometimes
feel it's two ships passing in the night and the signals can't quite
reach one another and you don't quite know why."
What was hard about the part, Ms. Fonda said, was that it sometimes
felt like a blow to her vanity. "I remember joking with Moisés," she
recalled. "I said: 'You've taken away all the emotion, you don't want
me to have a sense of humor. You've taken away my sense of style.' "
He wouldn't let her turn up her collar, she complained, or wear a
brooch that had originally been part of her costume. "Would I like to
get a few laughs?" she went on. "Of course. But that's not my role.
It was hard in the beginning, and I doubted myself a lot, but what
I'm doing now is I'm viewing it as a Zen challenge: to lose the ego
and view myself as the carrier of the message."
At that point "Variations" was still a work in progress. Mr. Kaufman
was cutting some passages, adding others. Ms. Fonda, who according to
Mr. Kaufman had memorized her part by the first day of rehearsal,
said she relished the whole process: the rehearsals, the improv work,
the cuts, the new pages, the daily notes from the director. "Notes,"
she said. "I love notes. I'm going to be sad when this part of the
process is over, and the whole thing is locked into place."
Stage acting, at least if you're Jane Fonda, turns out to be like
swimming or riding a bike; it all comes back to you. "Vocally it
seems easy," she said. "I feel very comfortable. For me the only
trick is figuring out the dosing of energy. You can't really have a
social life. I'm a person who gets up with the sun and goes to bed at
9, and now I'm going to bed at 1."
She mentioned, with a laugh, that a friend had fixed her up with a
blind date for the following week. "But that's not something I spend
a lot of time thinking about," she said. "Nor do I miss it, frankly."
She went on: "I feel 71 years old. I do. I'm really aware of the
miles that have been logged and of the life that has gone under the
bridge and how it has made me grow. I'm someone who has always tried
to think about what it has all meant. I'm a quester. So I feel my
age. I feel grown up."