Actor. Activist. Fitness guru. Author. Over a career that is entering its sixth decade, Jane Fonda has seen and done it all. Now that the 77-year-old legend is starring in her juiciest role in years — playing one half of the title duo in Netflix’s new comedy series Grace and Frankie — we figured the time was right to remind you why we should care about Fonda.
Co-starring Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston, the show revolves around Grace (Fonda) and Frankie (Tomlin), seventysomethings who’ve spent the better part of their lives as rivals. But, after their husbands announce that they’re in love with each other (and have been for some time), the frenemies must redefine themselves and their relationship with each other. After all, only Grace can relate to Frankie’s new reality and vice versa.
None of us should be surprised that Fonda was interested in a series that rejects ageism (how often can you say that about a Hollywood project?) and celebrates self-discovery, friendship, and equality. Those values have been integral to Fonda’s own world view since day one.
After making her film debut in the 1960 comedy Tall Story, Fonda worked diligently throughout the decade, appearing on Broadway (she earned a Tony nomination for There Was a Little Girl) and in movies like the sci-fi classic Barbarella (1968), which turned her into a sex symbol for the space age. She earned her first Oscar nomination for 1968’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) and three years later, won her first Best Actress statuette for playing a prostitute in the seminal crime thriller Klute.
It was around this time that Fonda began strengthening her activist voice by speaking out against the Vietnam War — and becoming a polemical figure. In 1970, after returning from an anti-war protest in Canada, customs officials in Cleveland mistook her vitamins for drugs and arrested her. And, an iconic mugshot was born — one that took on a life of its own, cementing Fonda as a crusader for peace, civil rights, and women’s equality. (Years later, in 2009, the actress gave permission for her charity, the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention to use the mugshot on mugs, tea towels, and T-shirts to help raise funds.)
The real trouble came in 1972, when she traveled to North Vietnam. It was there that the now infamous photograph was snapped of her smiling and sitting atop a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun (a weapon used against U.S. forces). The controversial image offended many Americans and earned her the nickname “Hanoi Jane.” Fonda has spent the better part of the last 40 years apologizing for what she has called “a two-minute lapse of sanity that will haunt me forever.”
“I will go to my grave regretting the photograph of me in an anti-aircraft gun, which looks like I was trying to shoot at American planes,” she said in 1988 on 20/20. “It hurt so many soldiers. It galvanized such hostility. It was the most horrible thing I could’ve done. It was just thoughtless.”
Fonda continued to work steadily throughout the 1980s, starring in one of the best feminist comedies of all time, 9 to 5, with Tomlin, as well as the drama On Golden Pond, opposite her father, Henry Fonda. And, of course, she got a nation of Reagan-era couch potatoes moving. Transforming once more, Fonda slipped on a leotard and legwarmers and the launched Jane Fonda’s Original Workout in 1985. Her desire to promote health came from an all-too familiar place: She later admitted with characteristic frankness that she had struggled with eating disorders and body issues her entire life. In 2007, she told a reporter that after learning of husband Ted Turner’s affair a month after their wedding, she began a series of cosmetic surgeries to improve her sense of self-worth. (The two divorced in 2001.) Her openness about her experiences made other women feel less alone. 'Cause if even Jane Fonda can feel less-than, maybe it’s not just us.
In the '90s, Fonda devoted herself almost entirely to her activism, championing numerous causes. She was named the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund in 1994, and in 2000, she and the Women’s Health Coalition produced Generation 2000: Changing Girls’ Realities, a 15-minute documentary about schools in Nigeria that help foster girls’ self-esteem through education. Five years later, Fonda worked alongside Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem to co-found the Women’s Media Center and the talk-radio network GreenStone Media. Their goals? To create a safe, accessible space for women to share their stories.
Fonda’s still telling hers — as ever on her own terms. In 2008, she dropped the C-Word on Today while promoting The Vagina Monologues. NBC issued an apology, but Fonda herself did not—at least not directly. (Host Meredith Vieira said, “She apologizes and so do we.” Sure, Meredith. Sure.) Since, as Monologues playwright Eve Ensler pointed out, the whole point of the play is for women to reclaim the c-word (and its many variations), we like to think Fonda’s refusal to act contrite over her slip was just another bold act of protest.
So, go forth and dig into Grace and Frankie. Let the Let the Fonda binge begin.