REVIEW: Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018 – Documentary)

Release Poster – HBO

The following is a review of Jane Fonda in Five Acts — An HBO Documentary Film.

Documentary filmmaker Susan Lacy, who directed last year’s Spielberg, has with her newest HBO documentary film — Jane Fonda in Five Acts — pointed the camera at Jane Fonda, one of the most fascinating and controversial American movie stars of the last sixty years. The film takes you through her career, which included both ups and downs, and attempts to make the argument that she was defined by others until she found herself down the road.

The controversy surrounding Jane Fonda and activism is a bit before my time. Although I have been aware of her political activism, I don’t think I ever realized how big of a deal her activism was in the past, which is why I was really excited to learn more about Jane Fonda’s career outside of film with this documentary.

And Lacy doesn’t wait to present just how discussed Jane Fonda was in the 1970s. Jane Fonda in Five Acts opens by playing a tape of President Richard Nixon saying that he felt sorry for her father — legendary actor Henry Fonda — because while he thought that she was pretty and a great actress, Nixon said that “she’s often on the wrong track.”

The quote that best describes the thesis of the documentary comes early on when it is suggested by Fonda that: “A lot of other people were defining me. All of them men.” Whether true or not, the documentary is designed by this suggestion and, indeed, the title is also inspired by this idea.

The documentary is structured around the five people — four of them men — that supposedly defined her or specific stages of her life. The first act revolves around her father, Henry Fonda. The second act is named after her first husband, director Roger Vadim. The third act is named after her second husband, Tom Hayden. The fourth act is named after her third husband, media mogul Ted Turner, before the final act is named after the documentary subject — Jane Fonda.

Jane Fonda in Five Acts features talking-head interviews with Robert Redford, Nathalie Vadim, Troy Garity, and more, but it is, for the most part, the interviews with Jane that are the most effective (even though I was impressed with the understanding comments made by Troy Garity). In many of these, Jane Fonda shares brutally honest and insightful observations about her family and its practices. In reality, the picture-perfect Fonda-family was nothing more than a cruel myth.

I was impressed by how unafraid the documentary was of addressing complex issues even when these were uncomfortably close to its interviewees. Although Robert Redford is interviewed for the documentary, Lacy smartly keeps the note in the documentary about how he may not have fought for Jane Fonda enough when she didn’t get a specific role. Henry Fonda and Roger Vadim are also handled fairly honestly.

It is noted how she chose an idea over her man, and later Garity and Fonda discuss the idea of using film as a platform to affect change. These are all very compelling moments in the documentary, as is the section where she comments on her history as a political activist and her visit to North Vietnam. She admits to having some regrets, even though she is proud of some of her achievements as an activist.

What I was the most struck by was a small section about her and her father’s time playing in a father-daughter relationship in On Golden Pond. Here she discusses how she used the film to get closer to her father before it was too late, and we get some great information about an improvisation that got an emotional response from her father.

The one major problem that I have with the documentary film is that I don’t think its structural thesis is well-founded as some of the documentary’s own statements, I thought, contradicted the central thesis. Generally, I think the structure of the film doesn’t quite work as well as intended. The thesis of the documentary seemed to me like somewhat of an artistic over-exaggeration.

I think that the influence of some of the men in her life has been overvalued. One of the talking heads addresses this towards the end when he shares the idea that the men didn’t define her, but that her mother’s death did. Indeed, the clearest influences on her life came from her parents, which is not really that unique.

In spite of a curious, and not entirely convincing, structural thesis, Jane Fonda in Five Acts stands tall as a brutally honest documentary about a controversial actress gaining an understanding of her familial roots as she delivers insightful commentary on the instances in her career that came to define her public persona.

8.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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