Sundance 2015: Jane Fonda calls for shaming of 'gender-biased' studios

The coffee was running low. Women in their 50s were sitting cross-legged on the floor. Even Maria Bello and Ava DuVernay could barely find a seat.

The organizers of the Sundance Film Festival had vastly underestimated how many people would turn up to see Jane Fonda in conversation with Lily Tomlin on Monday.

“But when you invite Lily and Jane to come talk to women and enlightened men, what did you expect?” moderator Pat Mitchell asked the crowd.

The two actresses, who are co-starring in a new Netflix comedy due out in May, came together to discuss their careers and how their gender has affected them in Hollywood.

At 77, Fonda -- the more outspoken of the pair -- said she had regrets about the way she’d handled herself when she first became an actress.

“I took the easy road for a while,” she said. “Though I like having been someone that caused a certain generation of men to have their first erections.”

Things changed for Fonda when she began coming up with her own ideas, finding writers and casting herself in projects. As she put it: “No agent ever got me a job.”

And yet she’d do it differently if she could, she acknowledged.

“Relationships are important. You don’t have to sleep with [men], but you have to be friends with them.”

“No one ever asked me to use the casting couch,” Tomlin quipped.

Tomlin, 75, recalled feeling inferior in rooms filled with men when she was with her partner, Jane, whom she considers to be the more beautiful one in the coupling.

“It was like, ‘Too bad the blond’s not the actress,’” she said with a laugh. Instead of relying on her looks, Tomlin said she found ways to make herself “usable” -- good at something others weren’t.

But that lack of control seemed to prove more frustrating to Fonda, who was vocal about her desire for more women to be running film studios.

“The studio heads are mostly men and they have to meet their bottom line,” she said. “They’re scared to take a chance on people who aren’t like them. But there are men who have not directed multimillion-dollar films who are given those movies even though they don’t have the track record. It’s a matter of gender -- it’s not just you don’t have the experience.”

Fonda encouraged the enthusiastic crowd to keep talking about the lack of diversity in Hollywood -- to “shame the studios for being so gender-biased.” Women, she noted, see the world differently than men and tell stories differently too. They even have different kinds of friends.

“Women’s friendships, I think, are one of the reasons women live longer than men,” Fonda asserted. “There are hormones that are released in women with other women that are healthy. They help with our longevity, and that doesn’t happen with men.”

Tomlin, she noted, is one of those friends -- one she doesn’t have to drag out of the house to go to lunch.

“No matter how old you are,” she said, “You have to fight to create new ones. That’s where we get ideas. It’s my women friends who keep starch in my spine.”

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