The main reason I wanted to read Prime Time, which is Jane Fonda’s latest book—there have been others—about Jane Fonda, is because of its cover. On the right-hand side, next to a large color photograph of the actress, her lips painted the precise color of her sweater (tangerine) and her hair abundantly streaked, ’70s-style, are the following words, punched out, perhaps, in order of their importance to her:
Well, who doesn’t need help with all of that, especially when you have a guru like Jane Fonda, who’s extremely fit, spiritual, and friendly, helping you navigate the shoals? Jane didn’t use to be friendly at all. I know this because years ago, I—along with about seven other reporters at the Cannes Film Festival—had to interview her, and trust me, she was about as warm as a penguin. One thing she said did affect me, however, because of its unusual and striking vulnerability: Someone asked her why she’d made a sudden return to filmdom (Jane was forever leaving and returning to movies), and she replied: “Because I wanted to be pretty again.”
I’ve thought about that ever since. Who knew Jane Fonda worried about her looks? Or whether she was attractive to men? Who, for that matter, knew she believed that, somehow, only in the movies could she be pretty?
So naturally, the first chapter in Prime Time I turned to was not ACT III: BECOMING WHOLE, which contains the phrase “It takes work and intentionality to continue to grow, to ascend that staircase,” which really threw me because I honestly don’t understand what intentionality is. Instead, I flipped, first, to something I suspected might be, like Jane’s concerns over beauty, more revelatory and even touching: THE CHANGING LANDSCAPE OF SEX WHEN YOU’RE OVER THE HILL.
Jane is 73, and so what she wants to tell us comes as something of a surprise. She’s joking. You are never, she promises the reader, over the hill. Ever. You can have sex forever because, although Jane herself didn’t have sex for seven years after she found out Ted Turner (who was husband No. 3) was not for her, now she has it. All the time, it would appear. Not only does Jane have “a honey,” as she persists in calling the music producer Richard Perry, her longtime boyfriend with whom she initially hooked up five days before knee surgery; but she rummages through two chapters’ worth of a terrifying collection of sex aids, each one of which she recommends with considerable authority to the reader.
And yet—and yet—all that hard-won authority seems to be bogus. Practically every one of her observations, be it on aerobics or yoga, Christianity or penile injections, arrives in a crowd, accompanied by a vast backup chorus of either those Jane considers expert in the field or, when necessity dictates, the whole damn field itself. These include “a pioneering neuropsychiatrist,” all of quantum physics, “a 1995 study by the National Opinion Research Center,” the exhausting Gail Sheehy, and someone actually named Dr. David Schnarch, who believes that “the brain is our biggest sex organ.” Well, maybe for Dr. Schnarch it is.
Even the recommended sex toy called “The Eroscillator,” which, as its name might imply, “oscillates rather than vibrates,” needs massive support, in Jane’s view, from someone more knowledgeable than she. It has, she points out, “been highly recommended by Dr. Ruth Westheimer.” (Full disclosure: My mother’s best friend is Dr. Ruth and I kind of grew up with her and her escorts at our dinner table. Best I remember: Ruthie always went in for the real deal, rather than synthetics.)
So what’s going on here? Why does Jane—Jane who went from Barbarella to bulimic, from hip to hip replacement, from antiwar to Auntie Mame—need all these backups to tell us stuff? Also, why the rigid insistence, implied in every sentence, that geriatric sex is infinitely more satisfying than youthful abandon? That senior brains are somehow more agile and welcoming than youthful ones—or in Jane’s words, “I realized that my being able to experience Positivity is, in part, simply because I’m older”? That in your dotage “new neural pathways” will somehow lead you out of what Jane really does call “sourpussness”? That in order to acquire these pathways you should “Smile! That’s right.” Because by smiling, Jane writes, “you actually change the pattern of information going from the muscles in your body—in this case, the muscles around your mouth and eyes—to your brain.”
Why, in other words, the recitation of lie upon endless lie? Of muddled thinking? Why, for that matter, Jane’s tired opinions on the political landscape, all of them inexplicably delivered in italics and accompanied by bullets? “We deserve to see our political leaders resolve the solvency issues that will burden future generations,” for example. Or: “Women deserve equal pay for equal work.”
We need Jane for this?
Jane wants us to know that she has “become a much more inviting and optimistic person since I entered my Third Act.” And honestly, given what I remember of an earlier act, maybe Act II starring the Cannes Film Festival Jane, I do believe her. But the trouble here is that there have been so many previous Janes, and they all, in every incarnation, professed themselves a huge improvement on whatever Jane preceded them. And then, with the passage of years and husbands, the last Jane would be renounced and invariably replaced. Jane was babe-Jane with the French director Roger Vadim, and then serious-and-strident Jane with the political activist Tom Hayden, and after that, with Turner, she was prop-Jane who appeared at Atlanta Braves games, always in a baseball cap. It really is hard to keep up.
And now she’s just plain-Jane? No husband, just a honey? No future, just a past? Some movies, but not many, and no good ones. I think she still wants to be pretty again. And that’s about the end of it. That is the fulfillment of her desires, that is her newest book, and all she has ever wanted.
Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.