To celebrate her 60th birthday, Jane Fonda wanted to make a video about her life.
“Why don’t you just get a chameleon and let it crawl across the screen?” her daughter, Vanessa, sarcastically suggested.
That anecdote in Patricia Bosworth’s no-holds-barred biography, “Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman,” aptly sums up the mercurial movie star, sex symbol, social activist, exercise guru and trophy wife.
The daughter of Hollywood legend Henry Fonda has had more reincarnations than Shirley MacLaine. Her three husbands — filmmaker Roger Vadim, political firebrand Tom Hayden and media tycoon Ted Turner — reflect the scope of her interests, not to mention her lifelong search to fill the emotional void left by her prickly relationship with her distant father.
Bosworth writes about all aspects of Fonda’s life, from her struggles with bulimia and guilt over her mother’s suicide to death threats resulting from her trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War.
Fonda’s antiwar activities in the 1970s, along with her support of the Black Panthers, Native Americans and other left-wing causes, gets extensive coverage in the book.
Her 1972 visit to Hanoi, where she denounced U.S. President Richard Nixon as a war criminal and was photographed sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, led to accusations of treason (she was tagged “Hanoi Jane”) and a congressman’s call for her tongue to be cut off.
Fonda apologized for the picture years later, telling ABC’s Barbara Walters that it “was a thoughtless, careless thing to do knowing the power of images.”
The actress wasn’t as strong-willed in her personal life as she was with her politics. She tolerated years of womanizing by all three of her husbands — who knew that homely Hayden was a Lothario? — before the marriages crumbled.
Fonda was especially pliant with Vadim, agreeing (reluctantly, at first) to share their bed with other women and selected couples, including a one-time fling with Dennis Hopper and his then-wife Brooke Hayward. She even solicited ladies for their threesomes and had affairs she would describe to Vadim, according to the book.
Bosworth, a former actress who first met Fonda when they were students at the prestigious Actors Studio in the early 1960s, is sympathetic to Fonda. She doesn’t fawn, however.
The bio includes unflattering stories that point out some of Fonda’s less admirable traits, including her obsession with money and looks. (She’s had several plastic surgeries and still fretted about finances even after she was extremely wealthy.)
Bosworth does a fairly standard review of Fonda’s movie career, from her futuristic sex-goddess in Vadim’s “Barbarella” to her Oscar-winning roles as a disillusioned hooker in “Klute” and a military officer’s wife who falls in love with a disabled Vietnam vet in “Coming Home.”
Fonda finally got to work with her father in “On Golden Pond,” which earned Henry Fonda his only acting Oscar just four months before his death in 1982.
The film had special resonance for Jane because it portrayed a thorny father-daughter relationship much like the one she had with her own dad. Henry Fonda cast a huge shadow over Jane, who was always tormented by his lack of affection.
“I dream about him,” she told Bosworth. “Wonder if he’d approve of what I’m doing now.”
For many years Jane had problems connecting with Vanessa (her daughter with Vadim) and stepdaughter Nathalie Vadim. She was closer to Troy, her son with Hayden, and Lulu, whom she informally adopted during her marriage to Hayden.
Now 73 and single, Fonda is still evolving. In her senior years, she has become a born-again Christian, made a movie comeback in “Monster-in-Law,” beaten breast cancer and turned into a doting grandmother.
With Jane Fonda, there’s no telling what comes next.
“Jane Fonda” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($30, 596 pages).
Rick Warner is the movie critic for Bloomberg News.