From Vietnam to Video:
Notes on Jane Fonda’s Films
and Activism, 1970-1982
by Peter Krämer
At the beginning of 1970, Jane Fonda, who had recently turned 32, received her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for the Depression-era drama They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, one of the 20 highest grossing films of 1969 in the United States. While Fonda did not win the Oscar, the New York Film Critics selected her as the Best Actress of 1969, thus confirming that she was a highly regarded actress as well as a major star. If any further confirmation was needed, it came after she completed work on the noir thriller Klute in October 1970. The film went on to become one of the twenty biggest hits of the following year and earned Fonda her first Best Actress Oscar.
Also in 1970, Fonda began to receive a lot of publicity as a budding political activist. She first visited Native American protesters who occupied Alcatraz, and then participated in various marches, got arrested and used every opportunity to address large crowds as well as the media about the plight not only of Native Americans, but also of African Americans, women, workers and, increasingly, the Vietnamese people and US soldiers having to fight in Vietnam.
Twelve years later, at the beginning of 1982, the now 44-year-old Fonda was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the family drama On Golden Pond, the second biggest hit of 1981 in the United States and the seventh most rented video of 1982. On the basis of this she was also listed in Quigley Publishing’s annual poll of exhibitors as one of the ten biggest box office attractions in the US. Furthermore, the TV spin-off of her huge 1980 hit comedy Nine to Five, which, like On Golden Pond, had been produced by Fonda’s company, IPC Films, was among the 20 top-rated shows of the 1982/83 season on American television.
Perhaps most importantly, in 1982, Fonda released the first of her workout products. Jane Fonda’s Workout Book became the biggest non-fiction hardcover bestseller of the year in the US, while the video Jane Fonda’s Workout was simultaneously the tenth bestselling tape. Fonda used her income from IPC Films, from her work as an actress and from her workout enterprise to fund the political campaigning of her then husband Tom Hayden, one of the leading New Left activists of the 1960s who was elected to the California State Assembly that year.
Fonda’s achievements in 1970 and in 1982 are certainly impressive in their own right, but what is even more astounding is her sustained public impact as a cultural producer and political activist across the period 1970-82. During the first phase, from 1970 to 1976, Fonda’s political activism had a negative impact on her film career – partly because her energies were focused on politics rather than films, partly because she refused some attractive film offers for political reasons, and partly because she was being ‘greylisted’ by the film industry. In effect, she lost her status as a major Hollywood star during this phase and instead became arguably the most famous female political activist in the country. In the second phase, which began in 1976 with Fonda talking to the press about her forthcoming movie comeback, she managed to integrate her activism and her filmmaking to become a bigger film star than ever before, while maintaining her work as a political campaigner.
Put another way, in the early 1970s Fonda had a claim to being the most famous of all anti-war campaigners in the US; in the mid-1970s she was hated by many but also served as a role model for millions, regularly being voted one of the most admired women in the country; in the late 1970s and early 1980s she and Tom Hayden were, next to Ralph Nader, probably the highest profile liberal grass roots campaigners in the US. At the same time, in addition to being the country’s biggest female star, in the late 1970s and early 1980s Fonda, both through her production company, IPC Films, and her input as an actress into non-IPC productions, was one of the most successful and most powerful filmmakers in Hollywood, and certainly Hollywood’s most powerful woman.
Here, then, is a woman who probably made more of an impact on the American political landscape than any other female during this period, while from 1977 to 1982 she also was involved – as an actress and as head of IPC Films – in an impressive string of commercially successful and critically acclaimed movies. Indeed it is difficult to think of any other person – male or female – with a comparable string of critically acclaimed hit movies during this period, or indeed any other period. In other words, from 1970 to 1982, Fonda was an absolutely exceptional political and cultural phenomenon, a force shaping American culture and politics like few others. This phenomenon cries out for investigation.
Indeed, in recent years there have been quite a few books examining Fonda’s role in American politics, and there have also been several essays and an excellent PhD thesis on her film work during this period (references to these can be found in my own publications on Fonda; see below). Over the last few years, I have contributed to this examination with a series of conference papers and two essay publications. The first of these essays was entitled ‘When “Hanoi Jane” Conquered Hollywood: Jane Fonda’s Films and Activism, 1977-1981’, and was published in James Chapman, Mark Glancy and Sue Harper’s edited collection The New Film History: Sources, Methods, Approaches (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007). The second piece is entitled ‘The Politics of Independence: The China Syndrome (1979), Hollywood Liberals and Anti-Nuclear Campaigning’ and is published in Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media (no. 6, December 2013).
It seems to me that, as scholars, we have only just begun to explore the career and impact of this remarkable woman. To support this point, I want to end this blog by looking at a few developments of the years 1982-1989. I have already mentioned that in 1982, Fonda’s first workout book and video became bestsellers. The former was not only the top-selling non-fiction hardcover book in the US in 1982, but was still ranked at number five
the following year. The latter, after being number 10 in 1982, became the top-selling video of 1983, 1984 and 1985, before yielding the top spot to Jane Fonda’s New Workout in 1986 and Jane Fonda’s Low Impact Aerobic Workout in 1987. As far as sales directly to consumers (rather than to rental shops) were concerned, Jane Fonda’s Workout was the top-selling video of all time until the mid-1980s.
Fonda’s dominance of the video sales charts was overwhelming. The number of Fonda workout videos in the annual top tens of bestselling videos was as follows: one in 1982, one in 1983, two in 1984, three in 1985 and 1986 (including both top spots), two in 1987 (the top spots) and 1988, and one in 1989. One would be hard pressed to find any other example of a whole media industry being so dependent on the output of a single person. What is more, in 1983, Jane Fonda’s Workout Record was the seventh biggest album in the US.
In addition, rather than leaving her political activism behind, as well as funding Tom Hayden’s political campaigning, Fonda’s exercise business also served to extend her feminist agenda by helping women to physically empower themselves. Whatever the merits of this particular claim, Fonda continued to be widely perceived both as a role model and as a highly influential cultural operator. Thus, a 1985 Gallup poll ranked her fourth on a list of “America’s Most Admired Women”, while in 1984 World Almanac listed her as the country’s third most influential woman.
Peter Krämer is a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of East Anglia. He has published several essays on female film stars and producers (Audrey Hepburn, Sherry Lansing, Jodie Foster and Sandra Bullock) and on female audiences. one of His latest publications on female protagonists in Science Fiction cinema and adventure stories can be found here. His recent books include The New Hollywood: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars (2005), 2001: A Space Odyssey (2010) and A Clockwork Orange (2011).
If you want to read more from Peter Krämer on the subject of Jane Fonda, see his newly-published article ‘The Politics of Independence: The China Syndrome (1979), Hollywood Liberals and Anti-Nuclear Campaigning’ in Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media (no. 6, December 2013)