Five things we learned about Jane Fonda at her AFI tribute

Jane Fonda accepts her lifetime achievement award from AFI as presenter Michael Douglas applauds.
Jane Fonda accepts her lifetime achievement award from AFI as presenter Michael Douglas applauds.
(John Shearer / Invision / Associated Press)

She had worked with most of them. She was related to some by blood, and had protested with others. She even appeared in a cheesy hair commercial with one.

However tenuous, everyone in the Dolby Theatre on Thursday had some connection to Jane Fonda. Dressed in their finest black tie garb, celebrities, studio executives and activists arrived in Hollywood to fete the 76-year-old actress, the recipient of AFI’s 42nd Life Achievement Award.

Fonda -- who pointed out to the crowd that she had been outfitted in a custom black-and-white Vera Wang gown for the affair -- was given a special seat in the center of the room. After being introduced, she waded through the crowd of her adoring fans, embracing most on her long walk to her chair. Fonda was greeted by Oscar winners -- Meryl Streep, Sandra Bullock, Sally Field -- her “Newsroom” costars and Eva Longoria, who joked she met Fonda on a L’Oreal commercial, “twirling our hair, saying ‘because I’m worth it.’”

Surrounded by massive replicas of Fonda’s most memorable magazine covers, the night’s big speakers -- including Cameron Diaz, Lily Tomlin and Michael Douglas -- shared touching anecdotes about the industry veteran. Flanked by her brother, Peter, and son, Troy, Fonda was often teary-eyed as she looked on over the course of the three-hour event.

But who really got the tears flowing? And who stunned the room into silence? Here’s a rundown of the evening’s five most memorable tidbits:


1. She’s just as insecure as the rest of us.

Yes, she may look decades younger than her age, but Fonda has always been insecure. In perhaps the most emotional toast of the evening, Streep recalled showing up on the set of 1977’s “Julia” straight out of Yale’s drama school. Fonda took the newbie under her wing, kindly advising her to hit her mark if she wanted to actually appear in the film. One day, the costars spent an afternoon together improvising, and a costume designer observed them from afar. “You’re having a ball,” the designer later told Streep. “I’m glad she’s feeling better.” Taken aback, Streep asked what had been wrong with Fonda. As it turned out, the actress had watched dailies of herself on set and was so dismayed at how old she looked -- at age 38 -- that she spent the entire night crying. “She deflected her own anxiety to make a day player -- a nobody -- feel fantastic,” Streep shared.

2. Fonda’s costume from “Barbarella” is available at every adult store on Hollywood Boulevard. In sizes 2 through 46.

Or so says Wanda Sykes, who turned up in a slightly more demure version of Fonda’s outfit from the 1968 movie. The comedian served as the lone so-called roaster of the evening, giving Fonda grief about her choice to star in the iconic film. But her venom wasn’t directed solely at the evening’s honoree. She also took aim at Douglas -- who was with his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones -- asking him, “How’s that throat thing? Doing all right?” The room went quiet, because she was referring, of course, to Douglas’ recent bout with throat cancer -- which the actor in one interview said may have been caused by oral sex.

3. She served as a mentor to fellow actresses.

After “Julia” wrapped, Fonda apparently flew back to Hollywood to tell everyone she knew about “the girl with the weird last name,” Streep recalled on stage. But she also lent a helping hand to Field. After seeing the actress in “Norma Rae,” Field received a kind note from Fonda praising her work and asking her to lunch. Field said she promptly wrote back, saying she was too shy. Seriously. Fortunately, the two crossed paths years later on the Fox lot, where Fonda forced Field to sit down with her and trade stories about working as a female producer. She was often so busy that she could only meet from “12:50 to 1:24,” Field noted, and she’d order nothing but orange juice. “But she always wanted to know everything,” Field said. “She wanted to share her struggles, and show that nothing was never, ever as smooth as it looked.”

4. “On Golden Pond” eerily mirrored her own life.

The AFI presentation was peppered with pre-recorded clips of Fonda reflecting on her life, and in one she talked about why she opted to star in 1981’s “On Golden Pond” with her father, Henry. He was sick, and she knew he wouldn’t live much longer, so she wanted to make a movie with him. But like her character, she’d also never been able to tell her dad that she wanted a closer relationship with him. While filming one emotional scene, Fonda unexpectedly decided to touch her father warmly on the arm before uttering the line, “I want to be your friend.” He ducked, but she could still see that the gesture made him cry. “He hated emotion,” she said, “but I saw it. And it meant the world to me.”

5. She has regrets.

Given all she’s done in her life, you’d think Fonda would be pretty pleased with herself. Not so. In reflecting for the big evening, she said, she came to realize she’d worked with a handful of geniuses whom she had not asked enough questions of. She agreed to present an AFI Award to Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, but she never asked them to lunch to ask them how they dealt with failure, or how important their personas were in relation to their work. “So stay curious,” she advised her onlookers. “It’s much more important to be interested than interesting.”