Jane Fonda's best 20 performances
Over her long and storied career, Jane Fonda has earned countless monikers from icon to activist to fitness maven to Oscar winner. The descendant of a Hollywood dynasty (also populated by her father, Henry, and brother, Peter), Fonda has made a career of reinventing herself to reflect and comment on the eras in which she is performing, while always remaining true to the core of who she is. With Fonda receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 2021 Golden Globes, we look back at her most essential performances over the years.
Tall Story (1960)
After earning a Tony nomination for her acting debut on Broadway, Fonda made her screen debut in this romantic comedy opposite Anthony Perkins. Yes, that Anthony Perkins. It’s somewhat of an inauspicious start for Fonda, given that her role is that of a college cheerleader obsessed with going to school not to learn, but to find a husband — in this case, Perkins’ Ray Blent. But in spite of its stark divergence from the independent women that would typify Fonda’s career, it still marked a notable debut with award-winning director Joshua Logan.
Sunday in New York (1963)
The most winning of the early-1960s light comedies that helped bring Fonda to prominence, this rom-com gives her a charming role as a naïve music critic Eileen Tyler. Riffing on the sex farces popular in this era, the film follows Eileen, who bemoans her virginal state and its role in her recent break-up. When she clumsily tries to seduce a man, Mike (Rod Taylor) she meets in New York City, it results in a series of misadventures and mistaken identity ultimately leading to romantic bliss. Fonda is absolutely winning here, despite her own feelings that the character’s obsession with her virginity was “a bore.”
Cat Ballou (1965)
Fonda finally broke out into major stardom with this comedic feminist riff on the Western genre. She’s the titular outlaw, who has come to her career of crime via her attempts to avenge her father’s death. Lee Marvin pulls double duty as the drunken, bumbling gunslinger Kid Shelleen Ballou hires to protect her father and her father’s assassin, Tim Strawn. A Greek chorus in the form of Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye provide additional levity, but the joy of the film lies predominantly in watching Fonda come into her own as a schoolmarm-turned-outlaw.
Barefoot in the Park (1967)
Starring opposite Robert Redford, who was reprising his role from Broadway, Fonda proved herself a comedic force to be reckoned with in this adaptation of one of Neil Simon’s most beloved plays. Fonda indulges the free-spirit she’d come to be known for as vivacious Corie, a newlywed whose marriage to Paul (Redford) descends into chaos as a result of the comic discord sparked by the wacky denizens of their apartment building. Fonda absolutely sparkles against Redford, and their comedy is the tops. But above all, she proves she could infuse the romantic comedies that defined her early career with far more sensuality and bite than she’d ever been permitted to play before.
Look, Barbarella, isn’t necessarily a good movie, but it would be impossible to make a tribute to Fonda’s roles without including it. As the titular space traveler, Fonda rocked some cosmically mod looks, while also leaning fully into the script’s eroticism. Directed by her first husband Roger Vadim, the film can verge on exploitative with its sequences that involve near-nudity, including the opening zero gravity striptease and plot devices like the excessive-pleasure machine that induces death by fatal orgasm. Fonda herself was not a fan of the project, but it became a campy cult classic with a lasting influence on pop culture, not the least of it being Fonda’s enduring status as a sex symbol.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
This psychological drama directed by Sydney Pollack marked a major turning point in Fonda’s career, resulting in her first Oscar nomination. Based on a 1935 novel of the same name, it follows a group of desperate individuals who will stop at nothing to win a grueling Depression-era dance marathon. Fonda upended her sunny, sexy image as the cynical, misanthropic Gloria. It also marked the first time Fonda felt she had seminal input on a character, as well as the start of more serious films that grappled with the same types of social issues she was passionate about in her personal life as an activist. Fonda is heartbreaking and utterly unglamorous in a film laced with brutality right to its end, and Pollack himself praised her no holds barred performance.
Fonda continued her pivot to more socially conscious filmmaking and earned her first Oscar for her portrayal of call girl Bree in this tense psychological thriller. When detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is hired to investigate the disappearance of an executive, he ends up shadowing Fonda’s Bree, following her through her life as a call girl and aspiring actress/model. But when two other women disappear, she becomes embroiled in a mystery. She herself described her experiences playing Bree as a “melding of souls,” having been initially reluctant to take the role after shadowing real prostitutes in New York. Tapping into the 1970s pervading sense of paranoia and Fonda’s growing interest in exploring the psychology of gender dynamics, Klute is one of her all-time best.
Tout Va Bien (1972)
Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, Fonda maintained a unique connection to France, both via her first husband Roger Vadim and her involvement in the youth revolt that seized the country in 1968. Tout Va Bien gives her an opportunity to engage with it firsthand with its examination of the May 1968 student protests in Paris. Codirected by French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, the film stars Fonda as an American reporter who covers a strike at a sausage factory alongside her French husband (Yves Montand), himself a director of television commercials. Using self-reflexive cinematic techniques, it critiques capitalism while also giving Fonda a film that reflected her own relationship to activism abroad.
Fun With Dick and Jane (1977)
After a series of misfires throughout the ‘70s and Fonda’s predominant focus on activism, this socially conscious comedy marked a comeback of sorts for the actress. The film spears American materialism with its tale of Dick (George Segal) and Jane (Fonda), an upper middle class couple who turn to a crime spree to maintain their lifestyle. For Fonda, it was a return to the type of comedy that helped establish her career, and she earned comparisons to Myrna Loy in The Thin Man for her charming, smart-alecky take on Jane.
Fonda received her third Oscar nomination for her portrayal of playwright Lillian Hellman in this Holocaust drama. Based on a chapter of Hellman’s own memoir, it follows Hellman’s friendship with the titular Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), an anti-fascist activist in Nazi Germany. It earned Fonda raves for her authenticity, particularly in taut sequences where she is attempting to smuggle Lillian money to assist her cause. While perhaps uneven in its portrayal of Julia, the film gives Fonda a stellar platform, in both Hellman’s interactions with Julia and her longtime lover Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards).
Coming Home (1978)
Coming Home marked another turning point in Fonda’s career as the first film produced by her production company, IPC Films. At this time, she pledged to only feature in films about important issues and Coming Home was a resounding model of that new policy. Inspired by her own friendship with activist and Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, Fonda set out to make a film about the impact of the war on veterans returning homes and the people who loved them. She won her second Oscar for her portrayal of Sally Hyde, the wife of a Marine who begins a love affair with a paraplegic veteran, Luke Martin (Jon Voight), that she meets volunteering at the V.A. hospital while her husband is in Vietnam. A frank, emotionally raw performance from Fonda, it also allowed her to delve deep into issues close to her heart: namely ending the war in Vietnam and the struggle of veterans when they returned home.
The China Syndrome (1979)
Fonda earned yet another Oscar nomination for her role in this thriller about a cover-up at a nuclear power plant. When television reporter Kimberly Wells (Fonda) inadvertently witnesses a near meltdown at a nuclear power plant alongside her cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas), they become obsessed with exposing the truth to the public. Assisted by plant supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), they race against the plant’s operatives to expose the truth. Fonda nails her character’s vacillation between integrity and her own ambition, tapping into the era of America’s first cultural reckoning with television news as entertainment. At time of release, the film was eerily prescient, hitting theaters only 12 days before the infamous nuclear incident at Three Mile Island. But today, it still remains a taut thriller speaking truth to power with a bevy of stellar performances, not the least of which is Fonda’s.
9 to 5 (1980)
Fonda mastered the art of marrying activism to commercially bankable content with this epic feminist comedy about three women living out their fantasies of revenge against their sexist boss, Franklin Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman). With its central dream team of Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton, alongside Parton’s iconic title song, the film became the second-highest grossing release of the year. It was based on an original idea of Fonda’s and remains a classic for its pro-labor, feminist take on making the workplace a more equitable space for all. Fonda intentionally wanted to focus on women who might’ve entered the workforce later in life, as reflected in her character’s need to find work after her husband leaves her for his secretary. Alongside Parton and Tomlin, it reestablished Fonda as an iconic comedic force.
On Golden Pond (1981)
Fonda had long yearned to work with her famous father, Henry, when she purchased the screen rights to this play about the strained relationship between an adult daughter and her curmudgeonly, aging dad. The rift onscreen between Jane’s Chelsea and Henry’s Norman mirrored their own life, and they became the first father-daughter duo to earn Oscar nominations for their roles in the same film. The real-life tension between the two lends the film a bittersweet authenticity, only enhanced by the fact that Jane ended up accepting her father’s Oscar on his behalf only a few months before he died.
Related: Stars and their famous fathers
Jane Fonda’s Workout (1982)
With seven Oscar nominations (and two wins) under her belt, Fonda reinvented herself yet again in the 1980s as one of the leaders of the fitness and aerobics craze sweeping the nation. The video was based on her book Jane Fonda’s Workout Book and showcased a routine Fonda developed with Leni Cazden at their Beverly Hills exercise studio, Workout. Fonda helped lead a trend opening up at-home fitness to women, with gyms previously being aimed predominantly at men, and the leg-warmers she wore in the video became amplified as a fashion trend. It remains the top-selling video release of all time, and helped Fonda build a fitness empire, which she revived in 2010 with a new emphasis on exercises for older women. Continuing her dedication to causes she believed in, she used profits from the workout videos to fund the Campaign for Economic Democracy. Feel the burn!
Stanley and Iris (1990)
This quiet romantic drama didn’t make a big impression at the time, but it remains a fine showcase of both Jane Fonda and her costar Robert De Niro. Acclaimed director Martin Ritt’s final film, Stanley and Iris is the story of widow Iris, still mourning the loss of her husband, and cook/inventor, Stanley, a blue-collar guy whose life is hampered by his illiteracy. When Iris offers to teach Stanley to read, the two form a tentative romantic connection. It was panned by critics, but it’s a heartfelt love story and the only onscreen collaboration between acting legends Fonda and De Niro. It also marked Fonda’s final film before her temporary retirement from the screen
Fonda returned to the screen for the first time in 15 years in this romantic comedy that found her starring as Jennifer Lopez’s tyrannical future mother-in-law. As Viola, a former newscaster turned talk show host, Fonda attacks the role of the unhinged mother-in-law with relish, hamming it up as her attempts to sabotage Charlie (Lopez) escalate. Fonda embraced the almost cartoonish villainy of the character, winking at the audience the whole way, and elevating the film.
The Newsroom (2012-2014)
This Aaron Sorkin HBO drama centered on the behind-the-scenes events of a fictional cable news network, ACN, and boasted a stacked ensemble cast. But Fonda brought significant star power in her recurring role as Leona Lansing, the CEO of the media company that owned the network. Constantly at odds with ACN president, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) and her own scheming son Reese (Chris Messina), Leona was perceived by many as a female version of Fonda’s ex-husband and CNN founder, Ted Turner. Fonda earned two Emmy nominations for her agility with Sorkin’s notoriously wordy dialogue and her ferocious portrait of a powerful woman caught between profit, political expediency, and what’s right.
Book Club (2018)
Only the likes of Jane Fonda (and her costars Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen) could pull off a rom-com about a long-standing book club that gets a wake-up call in the form of reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Each of the four leads trades on their established screen personas and history, with Fonda playing a woman who’s mastered the art of her professional career but fears trading independence for love. When an old flame, Arthur (Don Johnson), comes back into her life, she must decide if there’s room for romantic happiness alongside her brilliant career. After decades in the business, Fonda proved she can still sell a rom-com with aplomb and remains a massive box office draw. Plus, how can it get any better than these four women drinking wine together and talking about sexy books on screen (with some Don Johnson and Andy Garcia as a bonus)?
Grace and Frankie (2015-present)
Fonda reteamed with her 9 to 5 costar Lily Tomlin for this Netflix comedy about two unlikely friends who are brought together by the shocking announcement that their husbands are in love with each other and plan to get married. Fonda is no-nonsense Grace, a retired cosmetics mogul, who never met a martini she didn’t like. Tomlin is the free-spirited Frankie, a hippie art teacher who marches to the beat of her own drum. Foisted together by romantic turmoil, the two become friends and over the course of six seasons (with a seventh and final in the works), face everything from reentering the dating pool to medical scares. Fonda and Tomlin’s real-life friendship makes the series sing, and they are still each other’s best foils.
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