What do I think of Jane?” Henry Fonda threw up his hands in mock dismay. “First I have to find out who the hell she is today!” Father had a point. The parts Jane Fonda has played onscreen have established her as one of the foremost dramatic actresses of her generation. The roles she has enacted in real life have made her both a social force and a source of political controversy. Unlike most of her colleagues, Fonda, 46, has mastered the art of reinventing herself. Yet, she insists, “I don’t feel driven. It just evolves.”
As a pioneer of possibilities, Henry’s daughter has consistently challenged the public image of Jane Fonda—ricocheting from Hollywood brat to sex siren for soft-porn merchant and first husband Roger Vadim, to warrior maiden who denounced U.S. “war crimes” in broadcasts from North Vietnam. Even at her most strident, Fonda was stamped as sincere. So when she and second husband, California Assemblyman Tom Hayden, decided after the war to work within the system, the turnabout seemed improbable but not impossible. With a series of popular movies (Coming Home, The China Syndrome, Nine to Five) that promoted her political convictions, Jane moved into (and moved) the mainstream.
Perhaps Fonda’s most astonishing incarnation has been her latest: aerobics ambassador. Her Workout videotapes, records and books, runaway successes in 1982, have earned more than $20 million and made her the voice of a countrywide craze. The profits of this exercise have been tunneled into a Fonda-tion set up to support environmental, educational and economic causes. That same year, her film On Golden Pond brought Henry his first Oscar and Jane (a two-time winner) a sixth nomination.
“My main love, my main fulfillment,” she says, “is as an actress. But now when I walk into a room people tell me, not how much they enjoyed my last film, but ‘I do you every morning.’ I wonder, have I become somebody else? But I get incredible feedback from people telling me how I’ve changed their lives. That’s important.” It has prompted her to write Women Come of Age, a book about mid-life concerns, due next fall.
Despite past transformations, Fonda sees a new condition in her future: constancy. She runs a busy Santa Monica household for Tom, their son, Troy, 10, and Vanessa, her 15-year-old daughter by Vadim. “I’ve had many different lives,” Jane recently said. “Where I am now is where I will remain for the rest of my life. The family is solid. I feel stable and happy and lucky. I can’t take on any more, so it’s not as if I’m going to expand in any direction. Now the expansion will have to be internal.”