It was announced late Thursday that Jane Fonda has been chosen to receive the 42nd annual American Film Institute Life Achievement Award. The AFI has come under fire in years past for the timing of their honor of certain stars. Tom Hanks received it in 2002 when he was only 45 and the blowback was devastating. But Jane Fonda is 75 and she’s had a film career since the ’60s, thus she’s not only old enough to receive a career capper, but she’s also done plenty of quality work that has stood the test of time.
Work that has longevity, and a distinct imprint on the cinematic world, are supposed to be the main criteria for the award, and there’s no 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. Her screen persona was one of passion, intensity, vulnerability, and usually strong intelligence and equally attuned modern sexuality. Fonda did nothing half-rate, she never slummed, and she always gave every project she was involved in 100%. When she was on the screen, you couldn’t take your eyes off her.
She excelled in some early comedies like CAT BALLOU (1965) and BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1967) before breaking through in her devastating turn as Gloria, the marathon dance contestant in Sydney Pollack’s drama THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (1969). From there she moved easily between comedy (FUN WITH DICK & 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 provocative yet brittle prostitute in KLUTE (1971) and then as the GI wife coming to understand the hell that was the Viet Nam War 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 (A TV-movie in 1984 for which she won an Emmy Award), AGNES OF GOD, and THE MORNING AFTER (1986), her last Oscar nomination and her 7th. 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. This last year she had a high-attention cameo, playing Nancy Reagan of all people, in LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER. But her return to acting hasn’t been exactly exemplary, despite a terrific Emmy-nominated turn on HBO’s THE NEWSROOM.
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 outstanding 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. But it’s rather daring of the AFI to choose her, especially when her output has been so spotty or absent for the last 25 plus years.
One of the reasons that she has lasted in their consciousness and ours is that she was a woman so tethered to her times, and her choices of films reflect that. She was a world-famous political activist, protesting Viet Nam and all sorts of injustices throughout the globe, and 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 issue of discrimination against women out into the open.
That’s a lot of do-gooding too, but many have despised Fonda for her politics. Few on the right can ever forgive the activist actress for her ‘Hanoi Jane’ days. And others, including yours truly, wonder why she never made a bigger stink about her third husband Ted Turner colorizing black and white films back in the 1990s. Preserving the original vision of the artist would have seemed like a cause tailor-made for Fonda, but she was surprisingly mute during the controversy, remaining a stalwart and somewhat silent wife to her corporate titan husband.
It’s daring of the AFI to choose her, considering her politics, and they’ve shied away from giving out their Life Achievement Award to others with a troubled political history many times before. Charlie Chaplin missed the cut back in the 70’s when the award was in its infancy. And during the 80’s, the AFI notoriously chose to not honor Elia Kazan, enraging many on the AFI committee including Charlton Heston and Karl Malden, who had been lobbying for the accolade. The AFI also skipped over Heston, likely due to his outspoken words about the Kazan snub, as well as his right-wing views on politics and guns.
The recognizing of Fonda does two other significant things. It furthers the legacy of family in the industry and the AFI awards, as now both she and her father Henry have been honored, as have father Kirk Douglas and son Michael. Brother and sister Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine were honored as well.
And second, it continues to move the AFI in the right direction regarding just whom they are honoring. There was a run after Hanks where the AFI honored a number of recipients who were certainly worthy, but they were all receiving it rather early. Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, George Lucas, and Al Pacino were still in their 50’s or 60’s.
Those inclusions also prevented older stars with longer careers from getting their due, and to this day it’s utterly ridiculous that the award has not yet been bestowed upon Robert Redford, Woody Allen, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Peter O’Toole or Francis Ford Coppola, just to name six. One could easily make the case for honoring all of them, as well as stars from before then who shockingly have been overlooked as well. It’s likely that Mickey Rooney, Olivia de Havilland, Lauren Bacall, Sophia Loren, and Shirley Temple will never be called, but they should have. And they should have been named before someone like Harrison Ford, who was honored in 2000 when he was only 57.
Still, I’ve picked on the AFI many times before on this blog and I’m not going to be too hard on them now. Jane Fonda is an obvious and correct choice and one that I lobbied for last year. She should be commended for her amazing career, even with the dark periods, and the American Film Institute has chosen wisely in getting past some of those blemishes. And it will be exciting to hear what Fonda says upon receiving her prize. I’ll bet her acceptance speech will be filled with politics and her trembling passion. In other words, vintage Jane Fonda.