It’s hard to think of someone in public life who has had more disparate phases and identities than Jane Fonda.
There’s the brilliant actress, the polarizing political activist, the exercise maven, the rich celebrity wife, and now, once again, the working actress. Fonda admits that this last phase – what she calls her third act – has taken her by surprise.
On Thursday, Fonda is receiving the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. She is only the eighth actress to receive the award. Her father, Henry Fonda, won it in 1978.
The show will air June 14 on TNT and in August on TCM. Those paying tribute include brother Peter Fonda, Michael Douglas, Meryl Streep, Catherine Keener, Sally Field and Penny Marshall.
Even after a lifetime of honors, Fonda is thrilled about the AFI salute. “If you had asked me three years ago if I thought this was in my future, I would say I can’t even hope for such a thing,” she said.
The award, she said, “is not for one film. It’s for a body of work. It’s very competitive and very important, serious longtime heavyweights in the industry make the decision about who gets it. It’s like a major stamp of approval and respect from your industry peers.”
Whatever the role, Fonda invests it with fierce determination and ambition, so it’s not surprising the age-defying 76-year-old hit the ground running when she returned to acting, after a 15-year sabbatical, in the 2005 comedy hit “Monster-in-Law.”
After wowing the red carpet at the recent Cannes Film Festival as an ambassador for L’Oreal, she went to Switzerland to play an 80-year-old diva in “Youth.” Earlier this year, Fonda made “Fathers and Daughters” with Russell Crowe and will be seen this fall with Tina Fey and Jason Bateman in “This Is Where I Leave You.”
In August, she and her “9 to 5” costar Lily Tomlin begin filming the new Netflix series “Grace and Frankie,” and she’s returning for at least one episode in HBO’s “The Newsroom,” for which she received an Emmy nomination.
Fonda never wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps. And if not for acting teacher Lee Strasberg, she probably wouldn’t have.
It was Strasberg who told her she was talented. “I needed someone who was not a parent or an employee of a parent to say, which he did, ‘Wow, you have got something.’ My life changed. … That was when I committed myself.”
That commitment led to her becoming a leading actress of her generation. She won Oscars for 1971’s “Klute” and 1978’s “Coming Home,” and nominations for 1969’s “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” 1977’s “Julia,” 1979’s “The China Syndrome,” 1981’s “On Golden Pond” and 1986’s “The Morning After.”
But she wasn’t happy.
“I didn’t know who I was or where I was going,” said Fonda. “I’d really kind of gone off the track and I can’t act when I feel that way. So I left.”
She was divorced from second husband Tom Hayden in 1990 and moved to Atlanta in 1991 when she married media mogul Ted Turner. “That was an important thing for me,” she said. “Ted taught me how to laugh. I come from a family that is very serious, so Ted was a very important part of my healing.”
So was writing her candid 2005 memoir, “My Life So Far,” in which she talked about her three-decade struggle with bulimia, her failed marriages, her mother Frances’ suicide when the actress was 12, her father who was often cold and distant, and her anti-Vietnam War activities that nearly derailed her career in 1972 when she was photographed in Hanoi on an antiaircraft gun – an action for which some still can’t forgive her today.
“She has all of this energy and she puts it out all the time for everything she is into,” said Peter Fonda, adding that his sister doesn’t dwell on the past but is “in the now, really.”
A major philanthropist, Fonda has been an advocate for the welfare of teenagers. She founded what is now known as the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power and Potential in 1994 and recently published “Being a Teen,” a best-seller that discusses all aspects of being an adolescent including body image, sex and bullying.
‘I feel very blessed’
Fonda also is a popular presence on Twitter – she has over 600,000 followers – and reports she has had “tremendous feedback” from her website, at www.janefonda.com, and her blog posts on subjects including a butternut squash recipe, her music producer boyfriend Richard Perry’s battle with Parkinson’s disease and the infamous “Hanoi Jane” photo that she “will regret to my dying day.”
Fonda knows she has defied the odds in a youth-obsessed Hollywood that is especially unkind to actresses over 40, let alone over 70. “I feel very blessed,” she said. “I did not think my third act would be as rich professionally, and as varied.”