Reel Dad: Jane Fonda In Five Acts a fascinating look at a legend

The lady simply fascinates.

And she has since first stepping in front of a camera in a comedy called Tall Story in 1960.

Back then, if anyone had asked Jane Fonda if she would still be making movies today, she would have scoffed at the thought. Never could she have predicted the potential of her talent or the endurance of her career. As she describes in the documentary, Jane Fonda In Five Acts, the actress continues to be a student of the craft, always believing there is more to learn, forever searching for new ways to bring characters to life.

This film, meticulously curated by filmmaker Susan Lacy, refuses to follow a traditional narrative to review Fonda’s life and career. Instead of a standard “and this happened next” approach, Lacy uses Fonda’s own words to reveal moments in a remarkable life that we may only know from what we have read, as the actress discusses situations so intensely private they demand deeper explanation, from causes she supported to wars she protested, men she married, movies she made, and awards she gathered.

Yes, the lady fascinates.

In the film, as Fonda recaps her privileged childhood, she sets a stage for rebellion that defines her, as she leaves the security of a career in movies to study acting at the famed Actors Studio; escapes the confines of Hollywood to explore French life and movies with Roger Vadim, who would become her first husband; departs the confines of life with Vadim to return to the U.S. to protest the war in Vietnam; reaches beyond success as a film star to become a video exercise queen; leaves show business to marry Ted Turner; says goodbye to Turner to fulfill her aspirations to star on Broadway (in 33 Variations); and ultimately returns to films and television to acclaim. At age 80, Fonda can still surprise with the power of her work.

As much time as the film gives the actress to explain her views, it also celebrates the range of her movie work, from her thrilling exploration of depression during the Depression in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, to her revealing look at a life of prostitution in Klute (for which she won her first Oscar) to her meaningful take on the challenges of being a military wife during a period of change in Coming Home (for which she won her second Oscar).

Fonda pays special attention remembering the experience of filming On Golden Pond with her father, Henry Fonda, near the end of his life. She candidly describes the tension on the set as life begins to imitate art as father and daughter, on film and in life, struggle to find the words to express their feelings. She recalls, when he won an Oscar for his performance, the pride she felt for producing the film that delivered such a gift to her father.

Still, as serious as Fonda may be about her work and beliefs, she refuses to take herself too seriously, never letting herself claim too much credit for what she may accomplish, and always wanting to do and be more.

Yes, the lady fascinates. And, thanks to this marvelous film, we can savor every moment.

Film Nutritional Value: Jane Fonda In Five Acts

  • Content: High. With content so rich and surprising, Jane Fonda In Five Acts reveals the life behind the screen we may not have imagined.
  • Entertainment: High. Despite the details in this history lesson, the creative filmmaking of Susan Lacy makes this an entertaining journey inside a woman we have admired for decades.
  • Message: High. With its layered examination of how this actress thinks and works, the film reminds us of the power of Fonda’s performances.
  • Relevance: High. At a time when authenticity seems in short supply, the truth in Fonda’s work is refreshing.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Consider using this film to introduce your older children to a fascinating life and career. This lady simply fascinates.

Jane Fonda In Five Acts runs 2 hours, 13 minutes, and is available on HBO, HBO Now and HBO Go. For more about the movies, check out The Reel Dad online at arts.hersamacorn.com. 4 Popcorn Buckets. 

Jane Fonda creates movie memories in On Golden Pond

A joy of any family is the chance to celebrate across generations.

And, as Jane Fonda recalls in the documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts, making On Golden Pond was a most memorable experience for the actress and her father, Henry Fonda.

But, as we age, we change, and some changes can challenge others in the family. Some may get impatient with older aunts, uncles or grandparents. Some may wonder why they can’t always hear what is said, the first time, or walk as quickly as they once did, or don’t always seem to understand what you are talking about. Aging can be frightening to those who personally experience the changes, those who care for them, and those who seldom visit. And while older people may not appear to be as capable as they once were, they still feel, they still need and they can still love.

On Golden Pond takes us into the lives of Ethel and Norman Thayer as they spend what may be one of their final summers at their cottage on a lake in New England. They love this place, filled with memories and traditions, and they treasure their time. But they also know that time is passing, and any unfinished business may need to be tended before their lives come to an end.

They look with eager anticipation to a visit from their daughter, from whom at times they have been estranged, hoping for a new beginning, as they welcome her, and her boyfriend and his son, for a summer visit. Soon they are surprised when the young boy is left behind with them for the rest of the summer. Through the routine activities of their summer on the lake, these people from different generations learn how to live together, how to become more patient, and how to let the love they feel overcome the differences they experience. The family reminds us to cherish each moment we experience with anyone special.

Visually, the film’s setting on Squam Lake in New Hampshire perfectly captures what a summer cottage should be. Emotionally, there is not a false moment in the marriage between Ethyl and Norman, beautifully played by Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, nor between the two parents and their estranged daughter, essayed by Jane Fonda. And, theatrically, the introduction of the young boy as a foil to Norman gives the piece a welcome narrative energy.

What brings this film to life, beyond the authenticity in its words, is the energy these performers breathe into every moment. Seldom can we sit back and savor what emerges on a screen when acting artists go to work. The interactions between Hepburn and Fonda are thrilling. We believe this couple has traveled thousands of miles of together and endured moments of heartache and happiness. And that comes through in such quiet moments, as she looks for him in the lake out of fear, as he rushes back to her after getting lost in the woods, as they cling to each other when realizing they may have limited time together. At the heart of this couple, and this film, is a thoughtful portrayal of a marriage, and what it takes to go to the distance together.

On Golden Pond takes an unflinching look at the issues so many experience with aging parents and grandparents. As they go through their familiar summer routine, we quickly see how their capabilities have diminished, but their love for life and family are as strong as ever. We may age as time passes, but how much do we actually change?

And, thanks to Jane Fonda, the meaning of this story is forever preserved.

On Golden Pond was released in 1981, runs 1 hour and 49 minutes, and is rated PG.