Jane Fonda Is Still Pushing Boundaries

There’s a scene in an early episode of Netflix’s comedy Grace and Frankie where co-star Jane Fonda (Grace) has finally realized that yes, her husband is divorcing her for … a man.

It could have been a pretty straightforward scene. Distressed, soon-to-be-ex throws fit. But Fonda played it differently.

“In the dialogue, she’s saying things that sound like she’s being sarcastic, like ‘You aren’t going to take my house,’ and a whole litany of things. The words sound strong and angry. But if you look at her eyes, she’s hoping he’ll be gentle and loving. You see her vulnerability and that she still loves him,” said Stephen Rosenfield, founding director of the American Comedy Institute in New York.

15th Annual NATPE Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards

“That’s big time acting.”

Fonda is set to be honored with the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award by NATPE as a “leader in the field; a legend in the industry.” The award, named for the former NBC executive, comes as no surprise.

Jane Fonda, though, has been surprising people her whole life.

On the Cutting Edge

As an actor, activist, and advocate, Fonda has been part of the American dialogue for more than six decades. Now she’s part of the latest TV revolution as newer digital services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon get into the content creation business with shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, Grace and Frankie and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Her black-and-red-striped leotard became ubiquitous with the exercise craze she helped popularize in the 1980s in her video series and book, Jane Fonda’s Workout— still the nation’s best-selling exercise book. Her anti-war actions stirred controversy during the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Her movie career evolved from light-hearted comedies like Barefoot in the Park in 1967 to a gritty profile of a prostitute in Klute in 1971, which won her the first of two Oscars for Best Actress. Then she bought the rights to a play, On Golden Pond, and co-starred in the 1981 movie. Her famous father Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn won Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars for the movie, and Jane was nominated.

She’s been married to a TV mogul (CNN founder Ted Turner) and played one on TV (Leona Lansing on the HBO series The Newsroom).

Now, at 80, Fonda is once again challenging stereotypes of what women can do and how they can live — this time, as they age.

“If there’s anything about Jane Fonda, it’s that she has stamina,” said Robert Bianco, former television critic for USA Today. “She is one of our great actors and she’s proving she can still do it.”

The characters on Grace and Frankie, including Lily Tomlin as Frankie, Sam Waterston as Frankie’s ex-husband, Sol, and Martin Sheen as Fonda’s ex, Robert, are all past 65 and loving and living with humor and style. She recently joked to People magazine that she thought she’d never live to 30; “I thought I’d die lonely and an addict.”

But from her untouched cover shoot in Town & Country to her walk down the runway at the L’Oreal Paris Fashion Week show last October, Fonda is giving the world a new picture of what aging can look like.

Fonda’s impact goes far beyond being a first-rate actor and comedian, though.

She co-founded The Women’s Media Center in 2005 with feminist icon Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan, poet, novelist and former editor in chief of Ms. The center advocates for more inclusion of women in the media, including use of women experts in news reports.

“From the moment Jane entered our lives, on screen and off, I think women identified with her as authentic, someone we could trust,” Steinem said in an interview. “That increased with her choice of roles like 9 to 5, Klute, A Doll’s House, Julia, The China Syndrome — and many more. For instance, 9 to 5 gave voice to women working by the millions in the pink-collar ghetto. It named and surfaced a movement.

“Off-screen, Jane has always been supporting other women, from the movies she made to the causes she spoke out about and worked for,” Steinem said. “Instead of isolating her or making her into a sex symbol, I think her public image has made her into someone who women especially feel is a friend and champion.”

When she left acting for a while after marrying Turner in 1991, she founded the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power and Potential (GCAPP) in Atlanta. She saw the acute need for housing and services for young unwed mothers when she met a 12-year-old girl who had a baby and no place to live.

“Jane spent days trying to locate places where this young woman could live,” said Kim Nolte, president and CEO of GCAPP. “She got on the phone and called and called.”

Hands-On Support

In her efforts for GCAPP, which provides housing and social services for about 30 young mothers in Georgia, Fonda has been very hands-on, testifying before the state legislature and advocating for teen sexual health, said Nolte. Now she serves as chairman emeritus. Fonda just helped raise $1.3 million for the nonprofit, which also provides sex-education training for teachers in public school districts including those in Atlanta and Savannah.

Her friends, singer-songwriters James Taylor and Carole King, performed.

Fonda’s focus on using her celebrity for positive change is inspiring, GCAPP’s Nolte said.

“She’s multidimensional,” she said. “Being a celebrity, being an actress, is a small slice of what she does. She says, ‘It’s just my day job.’”

But Fonda doesn’t take herself too seriously, either. When Nolte mentioned that she couldn’t wait to retire, she said, Fonda scolded her: “You can’t retire! You have so much to give. You can’t kick back. You can’t diminish your voice.”

Nolte said she laughed and thought to herself, “I’m getting yelled at by Jane Fonda!”