Some Personal Advice From Jane Fonda: "Don't Settle"

Photo: Courtesy of Steve Schapiro/HBO.
Jane Fonda has lived many lives. She is a two-time Oscar winner. A fitness guru and home video pioneer. An activist with a megaphone. A recipient of targeted, wide-spread ire. A mother. A wife to three larger-than-life men: director Roger Vadim, activist Tom Hayden, and media mogul Ted Turner. But only now, in her fifth and final act of life, can Fonda confidently feel that she is herself, too. Jane Fonda in Five Acts, which premieres on September 24 on HBO, is a documentary about one woman's quest to achieve self-actualization. To emphasize the phases in Fonda's journey, director Susan Lacy divided the documentary into five chapters, the first four defined by her relationship to the men in Fonda's life, and the final devoted to Fonda herself.
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Beneath Fonda's fame, fortune, and fascinating marriages are the essential yearnings and gnawing questions many women may hear echoed in their own minds: How can I achieve the same freedom within a marriage my husband experiences? How can I be true to myself if I'm also contorting myself to please my partner? Because of its emphasis on these near-universal questions, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, directed by Susan Lacy, is essential viewing for all women. The documentary might compel you to cast a reflective gaze on your own history and habits —which is exactly what Fonda would want. Last week, I had the privilege of speaking to director Susan Lacy and Jane Fonda about their collaboration.
Refinery29: How did you shape this documentary around Jane's life, specifically?
Susan Lacy: "Jane says her book and in the film that she wanted to understand her first two acts in order to live her third. That notion of acts was rolling around in there. When I started in the edit room putting this together, I said, 'This really is a five-act story, beginning with Henry and next the three husbands.' Jane had go through these chapters, learning something each time, looking for approval and feeling like she needed to be who each person wanted her to be. Until she didn't need to anymore."
Jane Fonda: "By choosing to do it that way, Susan consciously or unconsciously made it a gendered journey. The first four acts are men. The men who I was trying to please and get to love me and had a huge influence on me, starting with my father and three husbands. And the fifth act is Jane. Just the fact she did it that way made it a gendered journey."
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Lacy: "Which it very much is."
Jane, has seeing your life separated into these five acts affected the way you think about your past?
Fonda: "No. I wrote my book. I spent a lot of time thinking about my life, which I highly advocate to people. The importance of living an examined life. We don’t get wise by experiencing a lot of things. We get wise by reflecting on those experiences. Especially as you get older, it’s true that it’s important to know where you were before you can know where you can go, to make it all add up."
Lacy: "Also, Jane, you're remarkable. A lot of people can go to therapy their whole lives and they don’t come to the kind of realizations that are freeing in the way you have. I think it’s tough, what you’ve done. Not everyone gets there."
Fonda: "Having smart friends who goad or encourage you to go deeper and to go further — that’s a huge thing. Reading. Because I have always been on a searching journey, I’ve always read a lot of books about that. I have always studied Christianity and Buddhism. I meditate. I’m always searching. I think that's hugely helpful if you’re trying to figure life out and figure yourself out. Just for example, my last husband was the absolutely incredible Ted Turner. When we split up, I needed to try to understand why he was the way he was. Someone recommend I read Alice Miller’s book The Drama of the Gifted Child. That book not only helped me understand Ted, but all of my husbands and my father and myself. If you know why you’re reading a book and what you’re trying to get the answers to, you can really grow and improve yourself."
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This documentary reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. How women need independence; how they need to carve out space in their lives for themselves. How has your life been fueled by that need for independence?
Fonda: "On the outside, you'd think, 'This is the life I want,' for all kinds of different reasons in each phase. But there was always a feeling in me that something wasn’t quite finished. Something was missing. Like maybe, me. I kept trying to see into the future with the particular marriage and I would have a hard time."
So have you find yourself?
Fonda: "Work in progress, but yeah. Given the fact that we live an entire lifetime longer than our parents and grandparents, it’s very advantageous to be a late bloomer. I certainly was."
After 15 years in retirement while being married to Ted Turner, you've returned to Hollywood and have taken roles that depict the complexity of older women. Your characters Grace and Frankie, Book Club, and Our Souls at Night are all so memorable. Can you speak to these roles, and why it’s important to show women as sexual beings at all ages?
Fonda: "I vowed when I was in my 40s I would give a cultural face to older women, then I left the business for 15 years and that never happened. But now it is. It should be a choice. If you’re 70 or 80 and still have it in you to get it on and still have a partner to get it on with, do it. You have to understand your body. There’s a lot more things involved. Spontaneity goes out the window, but planning can be made sexy. I personally am not active anymore by choice. But I want to show we’re still alive and vibrant and we matter. We tend to get braver as we get older. Women do. We’re living. We’re the fastest growing demographic in the world, older women. Let’s hear it for older women. Let’s show us in our rainbow colors. The traditional view of age is you’re born, you peak at midlife, then you decline into decrepitude. I see it as a staircase. If you’re constantly curious and searching, if you stay healthy and get enough sleep and don’t drink too much, you can evolve upwards."
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What do you hope young women take away from this documentary?
Fonda: "I hope they don't settle. I hope they say, 'You know something? I don’t quite feel that I’m all I can be.' Look at who your friends are. Look at how you spend your time. Find ways that you can grow and become smarter, deeper, and braver. In the documentary, one of the things that I really like, although it's very painful for me to watch, is that Susan showed me in all of my early flibbertigibbet, numbskull, shallow personage. I cannot believe that I looked that way and said those things. ‘Oh, I think my husband knows me better than I do,’ I say, turning to [Vadim] as he’s kind of leaning away like, ‘I don’t want anything to do with this.’
Lacy: "It’s very painful, even for me to watch."
Fonda: "You can go from that to someone who owns who they are. Don’t give up. It’s never too late. That's number one. Number two, learn to take responsibility for your mistakes. You can never grow if you don’t own your mistakes. There are a lot of people in the world who say the world is full of assholes and it’s everyone else’s fault. You never grow unless you say no, I was wrong. Learn from those mistakes. And then, the importance of forgiveness."
Lacy: "That’s exactly what I would’ve said. I think Jane is an incredible role model. I don't make the film because I thought that. I came to see it in making this film. I learned a lot of life lessons in Jane’s story. You have become an elder."
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Fonda: "Oh, I feel like an elder."
Lacy: "And you feel the responsibility that comes with being an elder."
Fonda: "Those things don’t come automatically. They come when you commit yourself. I want to understand who I am and what my life is about as deeply as I can. It's not narcissism. It’s about examining your life."
The documentary highlights your activism. Can you speak to how the climate in today’s America compares to when you began activist work during the Vietnam War in the ‘70s?
Fonda: "I’ll focus on the positive. I haven't ever, in my 80 years, lived through a time when people, especially women and young people, are surfacing and saying, 'We're not going to take it sitting down. We are mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.' Including running for office and becoming real activists. This is unparalleled. They're not the usual suspects. It's so beautiful."
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