In The China Syndrome (1979), plucky young news anchor Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) wants nothing more than to be seen as a real reporter. She wants to be given opportunities like any other person in her field of employment, but when she asserts her willingness and desire to do “hard news” she’s often met with chuckles for men who reassure her that her current job is fine. Kimberly is stuck putting on a fake smile in front of bozo the happy dancing hippo and celebrating the latest local “who gives a shit” excuse for culture in Southern California. Men tell her that they love her new buoyant red hair and that the ratings have gone up since she’s joined the network’s carousel of idiots hypnotizing the mom and pop middle class into a false sense of security. She knows she can report on hard news, and dammit she’s going to do it even if she has to drag them kicking and screaming into a world where a woman can do anything a man can. It’s a second wave feminism kind of sentiment and one Jane Fonda consistently tangled herself up into in the 1970s, because for her the work was a political statement. There would be no extraction of the political self from her artistic expression. They would be one and the same, and because of this, she proved to be one of the most radical, controversial figures in all of the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s.
This month the Metrograph is running a retrospective series put together by former senior film critic of The Village Voice, Melissa Anderson, immortalizing this period of the activist/actors career with a comprehensive look at her work from the entire period with the additional inclusion of the Dziga Vertov Group's misogynist essay film, Letter to Jane. The inclusion of the Godard-Gorin short is important, because it gives additional of the moment context at how Jane Fonda was perceived at the time. Even with the Academy Awards, heaping praise for her acting ability from critics and audiences alike, she was still a woman, and that meant her activism (in this case protesting the Vietnam war) could be second guessed by anyone. One question that comes up frequently in the films Jane Fonda starred in during the 1970s is whether or not a woman is someone to be believed or if she is sincere in what she is expressing. This is a question we’re sadly still grappling with to this day, and is especially relevant in the wake of the #MeToo movement. That Jean-Luc Godard found time to make a film specifically about whether or not Jane Fonda is a good enough actor in the first place to pull off a believably empathetic portrait of someone who is looking at the horrors of the Vietnam War is in and of itself akin to not believing her in the first place. Her sincerity has to be proven rather than taken at face value. Women are all too familiar with this feeling, in the micro and macro sense of believeability.
The thing about Jane Fonda, though, is that she wears her activism on her sleeve. It’s right there in the text of her films and was proven with her own actions in the 1970s. During the 1970s Fonda crusaded for the end of the Vietnam War (this sowed both good and bad fruit, most notably a photo with an NVA anti-aircraft gun she regrets to this day), the elevation of the status of women everywhere through second wave feminism and stated additional support for the Black Panther party and Native American activist groups. Merely looking at Jane Fonda’s acting work during this period does not give full context for her entire activist story (one would be wise to check out Karina Longworth’s navigation of her life and career on her Jean and Jane podcast series instead), but it does give a quick glance at the flavor of her heart and soul during this period and where her passions were during this tumultuous time for civil rights in the United States of America.
Her best film from this time period, Klute, directly addresses the question of whether or not a woman is someone to be believed. The film, directed by Alan J. Pakula, shrouds itself in the underbelly of a conspiracy theory surrounding the recently missing Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli). John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is asked to investigate the case after the FBI turn up empty and from there he goes down the rabbit hole. He finds an obscene letter in Gruneman’s office addressed to one Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), and he gets in way over his head, finding himself deep in the soup of a cult of misogynist sexual destruction of women. Fonda is particularly electric in her role as Daniels, tapping into the physical state of her character in the frame in a way that only a directors actor can. Daniels is a sex worker still trying to figure herself out after a bad experience with a violent client a few years ago left her in a fragile state. She plays everything fake tough, but the movie is punctuated by scenes with her analyst (Vivian Nathan) that are formally little more than medium shot, one takes, but give Fonda the space to flesh out her character’s vulnerability amidst all the chaos of her life. These dissonant colliding qualities come together beautifully in one scene at a fruit stand later in the film when Fonda starts to fall for Klute, because he offers her a sense of protection and a chance to have meaningful sex. During this scene at the fruit stand she lets her guard down, allowing herself to stare up and down John Klute’s arms and back. She flutters her eyes, but in the frame she pulls back as if to relay to audiences that safety is something unattainable for her even when presented with the notion of love. It’s smart framing and Fonda plays it marvelously with the full understanding that the trauma Bree experienced still lingers within her body.
As Klute progresses John unravels more and more missing persons that turn out to actually be deaths, but because they’re sex workers the public doesn’t do anything to memorialize these women or honor them in any way. They’re tossed aside with all the rubble while nameless men who were hangers on in their lives say things like “she had it coming” or “she was a junkie,” placing the blame firmly on these women, instead of the society which forced their hand or reacted violently to their existence in the first place. Fonda, works as an antidote to the assertions of those men. From her perspective, these women who died were valuable and she takes the time to mourn for them, say they were her friends and hug those who are still around to live and breathe (most notably a warm, wordless interaction between transgender superstar Candy Darling). Fonda went on to say in an interview with Brie Larson published by Porter that "One of the great things the women’s movement has done is to make us realize that [rape and abuse is] not our fault. We were violated and it’s not right." Jane Fonda actively worked toward that achievement with a film like Klute which demands viewers to look at which people we toss away, and who we believe.
Outside of her acting choices and performances, Jane Fonda is probably best known in the 1970s as an activist who protested against the Vietnam War. After the war was over, Fonda made a message picture with Hal Ashby entitled, Coming Home, which sought to show the terrors of post-traumatic stress from the viewpoint of American soldiers with a definitive anti-war slant. As is, this is the sort of movie we’d call Oscar bait today if not for the fact that it’s made with a genuine artistic touch from Ashby’s tactile direction and oftentimes weird or abstract choices in the context of "message" movies.
Jon Voight plays Luke Martin, a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps., who has come home from Vietnam paralyzed from the waist down. Jane Fonda plays Sally, a young woman who has just taken a job with a local veteran’s hospital after her own husband (Bruce Dern) has been shipped off to war. Over time Luke and Sally form a connection. The heart of this movie is the romance between the two of them and the plight of the war from a woman’s perspective. Specifically that of the army wife. Ashby treats their emotions and concerns as an important part of the physical and mental makeup of America during the 1960s and gives every woman in the film the space to express herself without being treated as minimal in comparison to the struggles of men.
Shot in 35mm by the great Haskell Wexler, the film has a rich, milky texture and a hazy glow surrounding the interactions between Fonda and Voight which elevates their blossoming love, but Wexler smartly undercuts the romance at times with colder, to-the-point images that disrupt the burgeoning momentum of their romance when matters of PTSD arise. These images are occasionally emblematic of the more muted work of Clint Eastwood’s complicated American Sniper, a film that similarly deals with the trials and tribulations of PTSD, but to much more startling effect. Wexler’s work in this film is sadly overlooked due to his other collaboration that year as the cinematographer of Terrence Malicks’ Days of Heaven—but when witnessing a film where a creator so clearly has been touched by the hand of god for one perfect moment, who can complain? There is one moment in this movie that is comparable in its cinematographic excellence to Wexler’s other creation that year though, and that is the sex scene between Sally and Luke, which to this day is still one of the most beautifully complex portraits of consenting sex between adults ever put to film. Because Luke is a paraplegic there is a need for conversation, Sally wants to take things slow and do things right, and because of that there’s an open dialogue between the two that alluringly illustrates their mutual understanding of each others wants and needs. In contrast to an earlier sex scene between Fonda and Dern which is shot like a brief late night fuck that meant nothing, this is romantic. Right from the onset they keep the light on, which gives Wexler an excuse to emphasize the beauty of their bodies. The camera leans in when Luke suckles Sally’s breast before gripping it firmly. They go slowly, building toward moments of intense aural and visual pleasure, while still carrying a dialogue with one another. The scene ends with a close-up of Sally’s face as she has an orgasm, something she later states she’s never felt before. Jane Fonda’s father, Henry Fonda, would call it pornographic, but in truth it is one of the most powerful images of sex to this day, because it isn’t afraid of a woman’s body, and it isn't terrified of Luke’s disability either. That is how you get across your stronger messages through image. Luke is still a man, even with his disability, and despite his trauma, and men and women can experience fulfilling love if we’re willing to listen to one another.
Jane Fonda would win an Academy Award that year for her portrait of Sally, but she’d raise a fuss over the supposed pro-Vietnam War slant of Best Picture-winner The Deer Hunter, a film she has reportedly not seen to this day. While it would be shaky to say that The Deer Hunter is pro-War (I’d argue it isn’t), it is admirable that Fonda stuck to her morals and what she believed in at all costs. It’s a trait that is present in the entirety of her work in the seventies, outside of the relative breezy comedy of Fun with Dick and Jane, and it is why her films from that decade remain as relevant as ever. As a full portrait of an artist who committed herself fully to her political beliefs in her work and in her day-to-day life, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than Fonda in the seventies. In 2018 she still carries activism in her heart, even if she’s now doing lighter fare like The Book Club, with her outspokenness of the #MeToo movement. We need more like her. We always do. Oh, and if you were wondering: Kimberly Wells ended up being the best damn reporter of hard news her station had ever seen in The China Syndrome. They should have listened to her.