Since the announcement of Jane Fonda being chosen as the newest recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award last Thursday, it’s not surprising that there have been protests. Various blogs, like the Veterans Benefits Network forum over at Yuku.com, have been filled with vitriol towards the liberal activist the last few days (http://bit.ly/15YmvpN). Some still regard her as a 'traitor' for her protesting the Viet Nam War the way she did, but no matter how polarizing Fonda’s politics may be, her achievements on film cannot be argued.
Work that has stood the test of time, and has left a distinct imprint on the cinematic world, are supposed to be the criteria for the AFI award, and there can be little arguing with Fonda’s impact as an actress. She was the actress of her generation with a string of films that would be the envy of any resume. She excelled in some early comedies like “Cat Ballou” (1965) and “Barefoot in the Park” (1967) before breaking through in her devastating turn as the beleaguered marathon dance contestant in the drama “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969). From there she moved easily between comedy (“Fun with Dick and Jane”, “California Suite”) and drama (“Julia”, “Comes A Horseman”) and even farce (“9 to 5”). She won two Academy Awards for Best Actress in the 70’s, first as the edgy New York prostitute in “Klute” (1971) and then as a soldier’s wife who has an affair with a crippled Viet Nam veteran in “Coming Home” (1978).
She also made a number of impressive films after that decade such as “The Electric Horseman” (1979), “On Golden Pond” (1981), “The Dollmaker” (She won an Emmy for this 1984 TV-movie), “Agnes of God” (1985), and “The Morning After” (1986). Then in 1990, she took a 15-year sabbatical from film and did not return to the big screen until the middling comedy “Monster-in-Law” opposite Jennifer Lopez in 2005. This last year she had a high-attention cameo, playing Nancy Reagan of all people, in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”. The casting of her in that role got her raked over the coals once again by conservative media (http://fxn.ws/10NZaoz) to which she retorted, “Get a life.”
The fact that she has been chosen for the AFI award says a lot about her reputation from those first three decades of her career. Arguably, she hasn’t really been superb in anything since “The Morning After”, where she played a drunken actress trying to solve a murder she was involved in. We will never know what kinds of work she may have done during that self-imposed exile from film, but her record as it stands is enough for the recognition, despite that huge hole in her filmography.
One of the reasons that she has remained in the AFI's consciousness as well as ours is due to her being so tethered to her times. Indeed she was a political activist, protesting Viet Nam and all sorts of injustices throughout the world, and during that time she chose vehicles that reflected her interests in such topics. And they were nothing if not timely. “Coming Home” helped open the door to America’s understanding of what it was like to fight in that controversial war. “The China Syndrome” (1979) warned about the dangers of nuclear power and a few months later Three Mile Island happened. Even a fall-down farce like “9 to 5” made the case for equal pay in the workplace and helped bring that shameful discrimination out into the open.
Still, many on the right will never forgive the activist actress for her ‘Hanoi Jane’ days, being photographed sitting on that NAV anti-aircraft gun (http://bit.ly/gniuj). Others wonder why she never made a bigger stink about her third husband Ted Turner colorizing black and white films back in the 1990’s. Preserving the original vision of the artist would have seemed like a cause tailor-made for Fonda, but she was surprisingly demure during the controversy, remaining a stalwart and somewhat silent wife to her husband at that time. (She and Turner have been divorced since 2001).
It’s daring of the AFI to choose her, considering her controversial politics, as they’ve shied away from giving out their Life Achievement Award to others with a troubled political history. AFI members like Karl Malden and Charlton Heston lobbied for the award to be given to Elia Kazan, but it was blocked by others on the AFI committee who could not forgive the maverick filmmaker for his testimony in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952.
The recognition of Jane Fonda highlights two other significant items in addition to her body of work on film. It furthers the legacy of family in the motion picture industry as the AFI award has honored both Fonda and her father Henry. Other family members honored by the AFI Life Achievement Award have been Kirk Douglas and his son Michael, as well as brother and sister Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine. And second, it continues to move the AFI in the right direction regarding the age and resume of whom they are honoring. The choice of Tom Hanks in 2002, when he was merely 45, struck many as premature. Since then, the AFI has also awarded a number of recipients only in their 50’s or 60’s, like Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, George Lucas and Al Pacino.
Those inclusions also prevented older stars with longer careers from getting their due, and Robert Redford, Woody Allen, Michael Caine, John Williams, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall have yet to be honored. One could easily make the case for honoring all of them (http://bit.ly/SEzt8g), as well as stars from way before their time. It’s likely that classic Hollywood veterans like Mickey Rooney, Olivia de Havilland, Lauren Bacall, Sophia Loren and Shirley Temple will never be given the award, but they are all still alive, and frankly, should have been called.
However, Jane Fonda, at 75 years of age, is an obvious and correct choice both for her lengthy, substantial career and her age. And when she’s bestowed the dinner and the award, it is likely that Fonda will have a provocative thing or two to say about all these matters. In other words, love her or hate her, it will be vintage Fonda.