Review: Documentary ‘Jane Fonda in Five Acts’ worthy of its length and, perhaps, an encore

Jane Fonda in the documentary "Jane Fonda in Five Acts."
(HBO Documentary Films)

Jane Fonda has, as they say, lived a life. More than a few, in fact, as evidenced by the highly enjoyable and immersive HBO documentary “Jane Fonda in Five Acts,” receiving a brief theatrical opening ahead of its Sept. 24 premiere on the premium network and its streaming platforms.

For as much as Fonda’s fans and observers may already know — or think they do — about the legendary actress, activist and daughter of venerable actor Henry, director Susan Lacy (she also helmed last year’s well-regarded HBO documentary “Spielberg”) places as much if not more focus on Jane the woman and soul-searcher than on her famed movie career, giving this lengthy piece an effectively intimate, deep-dive quality.

It certainly didn’t hurt that Lacy had a reported 21 hours (shot from 2015-17) of meaty, candidly reflective interviews with Fonda to form an absorbing spine for this mostly chronological retelling of the now-80-year-old’s starry life.

While it’s not an entirely warts-and-all portrayal — despite her frank yet also laudably rueful approach here, Fonda can come off as studied at times — the film deftly unpeels and contextualizes the actress’ many achievements, setbacks and transformations against the eras in which they took place; an intriguingly human mirror of eight decades’ worth of whirling social, political and cultural change.


Given Fonda’s famed feminism, it may seem odd that the first four of the five “acts” would be titled for the man that dominated each period: “Henry,” “Vadim” (for first husband, French director Roger Vadim), “Tom” (second husband, activist-politician Tom Hayden) and “Ted” (third hubby, media mogul Ted Turner). The fifth part, significantly, is called “Jane.”

As her story unfolds, one of the film’s main themes takes shape: Much of Fonda’s life was spent attempting to please controlling men and molding herself to their wants and needs, often losing her own identity in the process. It makes for intriguing and often revealing personal dissection, particularly for those unfamiliar with her 2005 autobiography, “My Life So Far.”

Fonda discusses at length the lasting effects of her complex childhood in the spotlight, which included her beloved but emotionally distant father and manic-depressive mother, Frances, who committed suicide when Fonda was 12. Fonda’s privileged but often lonely youth led to her shaky confidence, uncertain self-image and the self-described belief, “If I’m not perfect, no one can love me.”

Lacy then explores Fonda’s early stage-and-screen career, her move to France, where she met ladies’ man Vadim (he directed her in several films, most notably 1968’s sci-fi sex farce “Barbarella”), her controversial plunge into the Vietnam-era anti-war movement, which brought on the wrath of conservatives and the nickname Hanoi Jane (she expresses deep regret for her missteps back then but defends her overall mission), and her bohemian, activism-centric life with Hayden.


It’s also a kick to revisit “Jane Fonda’s Workout,” the 1982 exercise video produced to raise money for her and Hayden’s political causes, which startlingly became the top-selling VHS tape of all time.

Although the documentary, which is studded with an evocative cornucopia of archival news, film and TV clips, plus home movies and personal photos, spends ample time recalling the seven-time Academy Award nominee and two-time winner’s key big-screen roles — “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” “Klute,” “Coming Home,” “The China Syndrome,” “9 to 5,” “On Golden Pond” and several earlier and more recent efforts — it offers a far from comprehensive look at her film career, focusing mainly on seminal roles and/or pictures she had a hand in getting made.

The film features chats with such co-stars as Robert Redford and Lily Tomlin; son Troy Garity, stepdaughter Nathalie Vadim and adoptive daughter Mary Luana Williams; best friend and producer Paula Weinstein; and others, but doesn’t overdo the celebrity testimonials. Noticeably missing are input from daughter Vanessa Vadim (an apologetic Fonda suggests difficulties between them) and any non-archival bits with brother Peter.

All in all, “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” proves a captivating, extremely well-told and crafted, decidedly fitting tribute to a Hollywood legend, fighter and survivor who just might surprise us one day with a “sixth act.”



‘Jane Fonda in Five Acts’

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes

Playing: Starts Sept. 21, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Sept. 24 on HBO