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ACTING IS BACK IN THE FONDA REGIMEN

Jane Fonda continues to be her own best advertisement for the workouts: She is lithe, vigorous and very beautiful at 47. (She calls herself 48, but statistically won’t be until Dec. 21.)

Now, she said, her exercise empire is in very competent executive hands and runs itself with minimal input from her. Having written two, she plans to write no more books, but there are four more new or improved workout tapes that will be coming to market, reflecting state-of-the-art video technology and five years’ worth of experience and perspiration.

The unexpectedly huge success of the workout phenomenon diverted her for a while from acting and producing, Fonda said. She was finishing her first book just as she was completing her last film before the new “Agnes of God,” “Rollover,” with Kris Kristofferson, which came out four years ago.

(“Rollover” could well prove to have been ahead of its time thematically. But its glimpse of the American banking system at the mercy of foreign lenders and depositors was so set about with feverish and unlikely romantic melodrama that it did not succeed.)

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The notoriety that crackled around Fonda because of her anti-war activities in the ‘60s and early ‘70s tended to obscure the fact that she was getting better as an actress and was working constantly. The sex kitten of the early romantic comedies and the melodramas (“A Walk on the Wild Side”) has survived some awesome foolishnesses (“Barbarella” and “Hurry Sundown”) to become one of the most intense and subtle actresses of the day. She has also become one of the most persistent producers.

“ ‘9 to 5' took four years to get onto the screen,” Fonda said the other day. “ ‘Coming Home’ took six years. ‘The Dollmaker’ took 12 years.”

“The Dollmaker” was a film for television in which Fonda played a Kentucky hill country mother who gathers her family and follows her husband to wartime Detroit. Her performance won her an Emmy and the script, by Hume Cronyn and English writer Susan Cooper, won the Humanitas Prize for its celebration of family values.

The project was another developed by Fonda and her partner Bruce Gilbert in their IPC Films Co. Gertie, the hill woman, was also an inspired woodcarver, and the story’s central symbol was a Christ she was sculpting from a block of cherry wood.

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“Television is probably better today if you want to do a movie about an issue,” Fonda said. The economics are better, the one-night impact is there; the performances are there although the production values are inevitably not the same. “The Dollmaker” does not look the same on the big screen, she said, but on the television screen it is powerful.

“It’s very, very challenging these days to do a film that is about a real issue in the society and that is also real art and not just holding a mirror, like a documentary.”

“Coming Home” was a story behind the headlines, or perhaps the story was still there when the headlines had moved on to something else. “The China Syndrome” was a story that anticipated the headlines in an eerily prophetic way. Fonda said she suspects that the country today is probably less receptive to issue-oriented films.

“It seems to be a cyclical thing and it has a lot to do with the state of the economy.” (It seems true that art flourishes in difficult and testing times, as in the German ‘20s and the American ‘30s) but that audiences, understandably, opt more heavily than usual for easy and diverting fare when the real world is in a jam.)

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“I don’t think people are searching for discussions of the society,” Fonda said. She also perceived in what she has read about “Rambo” (which she hadn’t seen when we talked) that there are revisionist tendencies around. “We’re rewriting history because we don’t like what history is saying, it would seem.

“But I don’t despair easily; never have.”

“Agnes of God” was produced and directed by Norman Jewison and this time Fonda was, as she said, a hired hand, playing a hard-edged psychiatrist assigned by the court to investigate whether a young nun (the excellent Meg Tilly) charged with murdering her newborn child is capable of standing trial.

The film and Fonda have received wildly divergent reviews, from rave to rant, partly reflecting the nature of the story and the philosophical conflicts posed but not tidily resolved by John Pielmeier’s script.

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It is a minor societal footnote that chain-smoking (by Fonda) is the film’s metaphor for the obsessive personality, as it was the play’s. The cigarette becomes an offensive weapon as the psychiatrist, bearing her private luggage of anti-Catholicism, invades the cloistered convent. Later the cigarette becomes an item of temporary truce between Fonda and the outspoken mother superior, played by Anne Bancroft.

Fonda, who doesn’t smoke, searched and finally found a vegetable substitute that tasted indescribably bad, she said, but did at least burn and yield smoke and was not tobacco. Still, the incessant lighting-up looks neurotic rather than enjoyable, inducing no nostalgia whatever in a former smoker. It seems even more obtrusive than it must have on stage, given the curious magnifications and concentrations that are part of film language. The device may well distract attention from the larger shape of Fonda’s passionate and interesting portrayal of a character who is undergoing personal changes even as she makes her discoveries in the convent.

For Fonda, the lure of “Agnes of God” was the best and most eloquent script she’d been offered in four years, she said; that, and the opportunity to work with Bancroft, one of whose great stage successes had been with Henry Fonda in “Two for the Seesaw.” They talked about what it was like to work with him, Fonda said, and she found it fascinating to have a firsthand, objective report on her father as a stage actor.

The whole question of faith, which is central to “Agnes of God,” also intrigued Fonda. “There are people who for their own reasons develop a well-defined philosophy to justify their atheism, as the psychiatrist has done in ‘Agnes.’ But many more people obviously have a need to believe, some deep need to believe in something outside themselves.” Fonda, reared as a Protestant, understands it. The script’s lack of tidy answers, and its somewhat ambiguous loose ends, struck her as possibly dangerous commercially but right and provocative as story. And that is the way it appears to have worked out.

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Now back in the acting mode again, Fonda will next do “The Morning After,” in which she will play an alcoholic former B-movie actress, in a film she thinks may have certain resonances with “Klute,” the remarkable film for which she won one of her Oscars.


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