The most striking thing about Patricia Bosworth’s new biography of Jane Fonda (Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 608 pp., $30), which took her a decade to write but is only slightly better than those straight-to-paperback junk books Fawcett Crest used to publish in the 1970s, is that it comes to an end in 2001. The last 10 years of Fonda’s life so far are taken care of in a brief epilogue. Indeed, since her divorce from Ted Turner, Fonda has cast no cultural shadow whatsoever. She was absent from the screen for more than 15 years before appearing in a third-rate comedy called Monster-in-Law in 2005, then made a bomb in 2007 called Georgia Rule, and now has a new movie called Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding. It’s been 32 years since she won her second Oscar for Coming Home; three decades since the biggest hit of her career, 9 to 5; and more than a quarter-century since she helped kick off the aerobics craze with her workout book and video.
Americans under the age of 35 might have difficulty picking her out of a lineup. Her work has not aged well. (Yes, the work she’s had done on her has been spectacularly effective, but I’m not talking about that.) The movies that made her the most celebrated actress of her time—They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in 1969, the Oscar-winning Klute in 1971, Julia in 1977, the smash comedy Fun with Dick and Jane in 1977, Coming Home in 1978, and The China Syndrome in 1979—are not considered among the classics of the richest period in American cinema aside from the 1930s. And yet, despite her relative invisibility in recent years, and the fact that her work has not stood the test of time, Fonda is, even now, probably one of the three or four most famous living American actresses.
Why? The blazing irony is this: Fonda’s enduring fame probably has more to do with the rage provoked by her unutterably disgusting political conduct 40 years ago than it does with the degree of admiration her work onscreen earned her. In other words, were it not for the fact that she advocated the defeat of the United States and had herself photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi used to shoot down Americans—and had she not agreed to be paraded in front of American POWs held under monstrous conditions in the Hanoi Hilton—she would have the cultural standing today of Julie Christie.
Patricia Bosworth is clearly sympathetic to her subject’s views on the Vietnam War, but that sympathy is only possible today by coating the pages on these matters with sugar. Fonda, she says several times, only wanted to save the lives of American troops fighting in a senseless conflict. But that is simply not true. Fonda wanted the North Vietnamese to defeat the United States, to swallow up South Vietnam, and to spread Communist rule throughout Indochina. She and her second husband, Tom Hayden, named their son Troy not after Troy Donahue but in honor of Nguyen Van Troi, who was executed by South Vietnam in 1964 after he attempted to assassinate Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
As for Fonda’s notorious visit to North Vietnam, Bosworth excuses her conduct: She injured her foot, she was jet-lagged, she thought it would be rude to demand of her Stalinist tour guide that they change the plans they had made for her.
Bosworth makes it sound as though Fonda immediately reaped the whirlwind for her detestable behavior upon her return to the United States; but that is not true, either. Fonda returned to the United States to the acclaim of the radical left, which viewed her both as savior and a cultural force to be exploited for the greater good of the movement. She continued to submerge herself in causes almost psychotic in their pointlessness—one big confab in Los Angeles centered on the need to nationalize and expropriate the Hollywood studios—and then, only because she was running out of money to let her husband Tom Hayden waste on his own preposterous political ambitions, she got back in the game.
It took years, after the shock of the American defeat in Vietnam had passed and after the world could no longer shield its eyes from the evil of the Hanoi and Cambodian regimes, with millions murdered by the Khmer Rouge and millions of Vietnamese fleeing in leaky boats, for Fonda to receive the cultural shellacking she so profoundly deserved. She became the national symbol of the evil done to Vietnam veterans—and it is as that symbol, and not as an actress, that her legend has endured.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.