Jane Fonda & Other Political Thinkers
In the late summer of 1970 I was riding in a chauffeured limousine in New York with Jane Fonda. Her discovery of the world of radical politics was brand new, her previous enthusiasms, as I recall, having been for things as varied as the Actors’ Studio, cooking, and the sybaritic life as conceived by her first husband, the French film director Roger Vadim. Her political awakening had come with great suddenness, rather like a religious conversion, just a few months earlier after a trip to India and Sikkim to visit her socialite friend Hope Cooke, then Sikkim’s Gyalmo (queen) and wife of Chogyal Namgyal, since deposed. Now Miss Fonda, whose maître à penser of the moment was Mark Lane, was on fire with all the standard radical causes of the time.
She was filled with enthusiasm for Peking, where the Cultural Revolution was in full swing. Although she had never visited China (but her “friends” had told her), she assured me with a kind of emotional marveling—very moved—that there was “no coercion” there. It was a land of peace, humane values, and benevolent persuasion. In the realm of American domestic affairs, she said that a historic turning point was about to be reached in the history of U.S. race relations. Her intimate informants within the Black Panther party (Huey Newton was a demigod) had revealed to her that a Black Panther group about to go on trial for conspiring to bomb two New York department stores would not plead innocence but would take as its defense the pitiless repression American society exercised over blacks, which left them no possible recourse but violence. (The group did no such thing, but pleaded not guilty.)
Although Miss Fonda talked, sporadically, the language of peace, violent images appeared repeatedly in her conversation (“I’d pick up a gun this minute and . . .”). Her flow of speech was singular, interrupted by odd bursts, clusters of unrelated prepositions (and propositions). She asked me what my politics were and when I said “wishy-washy liberal,” she took it, with no smile, as a fair appraisal. Unassuming in many ways, appealingly unguarded, she admitted to being a “learner” in politics. People talked to her about Karl Marx but she hadn’t read him; what did I advise? I gave her a copy of Isaiah Berlin’s book on Marx, for which she thanked me warmly. (I have no idea if she ever read it.)
Over the years I have encountered a number of “revolutionary” artists and intellectuals who I was convinced would turn tail and run at the first whiff of the grape, but this was not my feeling about Jane Fonda. Despite the recentness of her conversion to radicalism, she seemed ready to sacrifice everything for it: career, money, position, respect. (It should be remembered that at this point, 1970, despite the ferment of the 60′s, no Hollywood star had ever openly espoused any cause ideologically more radical than Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and lived, professionally speaking, to tell the tale.) When the limousine pulled to the curb, and Jane Fonda leaped out for a short errand, I asked the uniformed chauffeur what he thought of her politics. “I used to work for her father, a real gentleman,” he said. “This one?” He shook his head sourly. “She’s going to ruin her career.”
Eight year later, in the summer of 1978, I was riding in another limousine in New York with another film star. Suddenly I realized that it was the same chauffeur who had driven me about with Jane Fonda, although his looks had certainly changed. Gone were the cap, the uniform. He now wore a flowered sport shirt, and his hair was longer. “Jane?” he said (the last time it had been “Miss Fonda”). “Sure! It was just before she won the Academy Award for Klute!” Of his prediction that her career would be ruined by her radical politics, he had no recollection.
Because of course Jane Fonda’s politics did not ruin her career at all. By the early 70′s, an appreciable portion of the young, affluent segment of the population that had come to dominate the movie audience quite possibly agreed with her views, selectively presented. But, probably more important, a general tolerance had been growing about an entertainer’s personal politics. (A clear-cut recent example of this was the voting in 1978 of a major acting award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a large portion of whose membership is Jewish and in all likelihood in sympathy with Israel, to a notorious anti-Israel agitator, Vanessa Redgrave.) And even in 1970, Jane Fonda’s public political positions quite failed to provoke a storm of public hatred. Indeed, she and a number of other “political” actors have over the last decade not only been able to pursue rewarding careers as movie stars but, more significant, have been successful in presenting their political views to the public in an extensive number of large-budget commercial movies.
It is interesting that John Cogley, in his study of the Hollywood blacklisting of the 50′s, concluded that despite the lurid tales told the House Un-American Activities Committee by Gary Cooper and Ginger Rogers’s mother, no “subversive” material ever got by the autocratic Hollywood studio heads of the period and into American movies. Today, by contrast, without a squeak of protest, millions of dollars of big-studio money regularly go into films so bitterly critical of traditional American values that the moguls of the old Hollywood would have avoided them like leprosy. There are few witticisms in the history of Hollywood that have been quoted more often than that of the mogul who said: “If I want to send a message, I’ll use Western Union.” Repeated for decades with gleeful philistinism, this is now the most out-of-date epigram in Hollywood, where there’s hardly an actor or director who doesn’t want to make a “statement” (the present preferred term).
It is worth noting that filmmakers with a political message find feature films a far freer medium to work in than television. According to Mike Gray, maker of The Murder of Fred Hampton and originator of The China Syndrome project, “The really essential [documentaries] you can’t get on TV. The advertisers control the news.” But “you can say anything you want in feature films”—provided, as Michael Douglas (who produced and acted in The China Syndrome) puts it, “you’re into profits.” But the oddity of the whole business is that for a producer to convince the institutions which finance movies that his film will be profitable, he has to line up a “bankable” star; and if he has a project for a political movie, the star is unlikely to sign on if he doesn’t agree with the film’s politics. Which means that the political movies the public is getting from Hollywood today represent, by and large, the political thinking of actors.
In the old Hollywood of long-term contracts and sharply demarcated jobs, directors directed, editors edited, actors acted, writers wrote what they were told to write, and the studio chiefs made all major decisions as to content and everything else. Clark Gable, despite his fame and money, was a hired hand. If a burning idea on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War had come into his head, he could no more have set it before the American public in a Hollywood movie than a young Detroit automotive engineer could have marketed his own self-designed automobile.
The rise of the new Hollywood system changed all this. In the late 50′s, “studios” began confining themselves to bankrolling and distributing films, while leaving the artistic initiative and packaging to independent producers. But when an independent producer brought his package to a studio to seek its financial support, the decisive factor was usually whether he had lined up a major star. Soon many stars became producers themselves.
Overnight the movie business was transformed, with the stars now making the big decisions. If a star said go, a movie was made; if he said no, it was not; if he felt the script needed a rewrite, he got a rewrite. But at the beginning, the stars still felt constrained about using their newly acquired power to influence public affairs. They remembered the days when film actors had been destroyed by political as well as sexual scandals. As the 60′s progressed, public attitudes on these matters were changing swiftly, but the old habits of caution lingered on. Then came Jane Fonda. If an entertainer could volubly and profanely take on the President, Congress, the Army, and other sacred institutions of the country and still win an Academy Award, things had clearly changed. After Klute, film actors began pouring into the arena of public debate.
Of course, the intellectual and educational level of the Hollywood acting corps has risen immeasurably over the last generation. (I wonder if it ever entirely deserved the low marks given it by F. Scott Fitzgerald when he worked so unsuccessfully in Hollywood. He found Errol Flynn “bestially” stupid. But when I met Flynn, in his last years, I found him intelligent, witty, self-deprecating, literate. He read Gibbon; had Fitzgerald?) Today’s leading film actors are often children of lawyers, college professors, successful businessmen. Many of them have gone to the country’s elite colleges (Jane Fonda, Vassar; Jack Lemmon, Harvard; Paul Newman, Kenyon and Yale; etc.). In matters beyond their particular field of expertise, they tend to be not the mindless narcissists of the stereotype but creditable examples of the “intelligent layman.” Nonetheless, they are actors. Henry Kissinger once said he loved actors for their “generosity,” their “spontaneity,” their “wholeheartedness.” He did not mention their political sophistication. To examine actors as political thinkers is not to examine them in their most impressive capacity. But this is exactly what their newly decisive role in determining what political ideas are to be presented in American movies compels us to do.
There is hardly an actor in Hollywood who does not have his political coloration. Clint Eastwood is a “law-and-order” man. Burt Reynolds is an ardent regional advocate: the South. (His girl friend, Sally Field, has just had a triumph in Norma Rae as a militant union organizer in a Southern mill town, a role Reynolds urged her to take.) Jack Nicholson was thrown into national prominence by the counterculture (Easy Rider), and without his support, the movie version of that counterculture icon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—a decade and a half in the birthing—would probably never have been made. Every Hollywood producer has his list of “liberals.”
The search for a star for The China Syndrome is as good an example as any of the way the game goes. Soon after reading Mike Gray’s original screenplay, Michael Douglas—who had made his name producing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—sent the script to Robert Redford (in the earlier versions the Jane Fonda character was a man). Redford replied that the project was a “very viable” one, “probably next to the Karen Silk-wood story, the best in the genre,” but that as an actor he was looking for something different. Then Douglas proposed the role to Richard Dreyfuss, who accepted, but subsequently developed “reservations” about Gray and “fell out,” for whatever reason, leaving the project dead in the water. Fortunately for the film, Jane Fonda’s own production company had just lost out in its attempt to get the rights to the Karen Silkwood story, and she leaped into the Syndrome project with gusto, changed the main character to a woman, got rid of Gray as the director, and brought in her own rewrite men. The ship was running before the wind again, with all canvas spread.
A general, if variegated, picture of the film star as political activist can perhaps be put together by examining four of the most “committed” personages of the American movie world: Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, and, again, Jane Fonda.
Redford had his finest hour with All the President’s Men. According to one account I have heard, he was on to Woodward and Bernstein even earlier than the publishers, and the triumph of All the President’s Men was in part his triumph. (Earlier, he had made The Candidate, an interesting skeptical film about American politics.) His reforming ardor still high, Redford went straight from Woodward and Bernstein into Three Days of the Condor, his anti-CIA movie. Unlike All the President’s Men, Condor had an entirely invented plot, showing the CIA slaughtering whole offices filled with American citizens, on American soil, because these hapless people had inadvertently come across some CIA secret. But Redford had crossed some shadow line. The film was a failure, possibly because its attack on the CIA went too far to be credible even in an anti-CIA climate. (It was a great success in France, however, where audiences found it thrillingly realistic.) Redford is now finishing The Electric Horseman, with Jane Fonda, apparently about the corruption of native American virtue by the debased values of modern, commercial society, and we have clearly not heard the last from him as a social critic.
I do not know how Robert Redford now feels about Three Days of the Condor, but I know how Paul Newman feels about WUSA, his own most extreme venture into political polemic. He now thinks the film, an attack on super-patriotism of the Texas-H.L. Hunt sort, was “over-politicized.” “We went off the deep end,” he said recently. Newman and Redford share the same problem. They are the spiritual descendants of Gary Cooper and John Wayne: clean, clear-eyed, handsome, seemingly serene, “perfect” American men. The public seems to expect them, like John Wayne, to wear the American flag in their buttonhole (which is, in effect, what Redford was doing even in All the President’s Men). It might well turn out that moviegoers will only accept them in this role, as some kind of national male ideal, and that whenever they present themselves as left-wing agitators, audiences will have none of it.
According to his reputation, Warren Beatty is a far more calculating individul than either Newman or Redford—shrewd, persistent, manipulative. He is wonderfully effective at getting what he wants. Of the whole crowd out in Hollywood he would seem the most likely to make a go of real politics if he should ever decide to throw his hat into the ring. He has been very active in Democratic party politics, particularly during the presidential campaign of 1972, when he raised millions of dollars for George McGovern. (Paul Newman gave precious support to Ramsay Clark in 1976 in his forlorn bid in New York for the Senate seat won by Daniel P. Moynihan.) Beatty later expressed vague disappointment in the role of fund raiser since “afterward you have no control” (presumably meaning even if your candidate wins). When told he would only really have control if he ran for office himself, he did not rule it out.
Beatty clearly thinks of himself as well within the American political mainstream, and, except for a few anti-Nixon swipes in Shampoo and his flirtation with the mentality of the assassination buff in The Parallax View, he has been rather cagey and has so far not attempted to present his political thinking in his films. But for at least ten years now, he has cherished the idea of doing a movie version of the life of John Reed—the young American radical who in 1919 published a pro-Bolshevik account of the Russian revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World—and, as it happens, a hero of Beatty’s. Now, with the huge rentals pouring in from Heaven Can Wait, Beatty is moving fast on his John Reed film, to be called Comrades. With all the upgrading of the intellectual level of film audiences in recent years, it is still doubtful that many moviegoers are conversant with the details of the seizure of power by the Petrograd Soviet, and it will be very interesting to see the version of these events that will be given to U.S. cinema audiences by a popular movie star. Beatty at one time hoped to shoot the film in the USSR, so it can hardly be very anti-Soviet. Does Beatty feel that the Russian revolution is so far back in history, and has so little bearing on present-day issues, that its protagonists can be presented as dramatic figures stripped of ideology—as if they were, say, Julius Caesar? Will his film show too great an approval for the nascent totalitarian regime? Will it all come out romantic adventure? We shall see.
In any event, the conception of the Russian revolution which will soon be propagated to the American public in the compelling medium of the cinema will not be determined by government officials in Washington, or local school boards, teachers, or historians, or even a Hollywood studio chief, but by a movie star.
I confess to finding Jane Fonda the most troubling of all these political movie actors. She now refers to the time in the early 70′s when I saw something of her as her “sectarian” period, and for some years has been presenting herself as situated comfortably within the spectrum of American democratic politics. Her present husband, Tom Hayden, a former leader of SDS and a member of the Chicago Seven, has abetted her in this. With the financial support of his wife, and campaigning under the interesting slogan, “The Radicalism of the 1960′s Is Becoming the Common Sense of the 1970′s,” Hayden finished a not-disreputable second to John Tunney in the last Democratic primary race for a California seat in the U.S. Senate (Tunney losing in the general election to Republican S. I. Hayakawa). There are many who remain unimpressed with this performance—feeling that, after all, big money buys a big vote, and that if ex-movie star Elizabeth Taylor can get her husband elected Senator from Virginia, what is so wonderful about the husband of Jane Fonda, at the height of her fame, coming in second in a California primary? Nonetheless, many thousands of Californias were presumably willing to accept Hayden, and his wife, as politicians operating within the framework of the democratic electoral system.
In the early 70′s, however, Jane Fonda was a revolutionary of purest stripe. To the extent to which she thought the matter through, I suppose she would have said that all legal channels to social change having been permanently blocked, “the people” had no choice but to rebel against the American political and social system and replace it with a new order of things. (On the model of China? North Vietnam? North Korea? This was not specified.) If she felt any remorse at the prospective disappearance of any of our traditional civilities, she did not express it. Indeed, my impression was that she craved some kind of social apocalypse.
The American popular and semi-popular press now avers, however, that Jane Fonda has mellowed. In May 1977, People magazine had her picture on its cover with the bold-face headline: JANE FONDA: AMERICA LOVES HER AGAIN. Five months later, Time magazine ran a feature piece called: GROWING FONDA OF JANE: THE REBEL HAS MELLOWED. Yet reading through transcripts of hours of interviews she recorded recently, I was interested to notice that she herself specifically denied, in so many words, being “rehabilitated,” “mellowed,” “assimilated,” or any such thing. “Back in the fold?” she said emphatically. “I’m not. And I never will be.” These quotes were never published.
As for Miss Fonda’s temperamental yearning for peace, benevolence, and liberty, I noted in a transcript the remark: “The church that I relate to most is called the People’s Temple . . . [which provides] a sense of what life should be about.” A year after she spoke these words, Jonestown was a bloody hecatomb, showing at least what the People’s Temple was about.
The irony of all this is that, to date, the political movies made by the great Hollywood stars whose allegiance to democratic institutions can hardly be questioned—Newman and Redford—have so far not had large social impact. The more political their films have been, the less commercially successful. (Even Redford’s All the President’s Men appeared only after Richard Nixon had left the White House and was more in the nature of a celebration than an argument.)
Jane Fonda, however, whose attachment to democratic institutions is much more shadowy, has proved vastly more adroit at exploiting the potential of the cinema for political polemic. In the highly successful Julia, she endorsed Lillian Hell-man’s account of the 30′s, in which Communists are not shown as devotees of the regime of Stalin but as heroic “anti-fascists.” In Coming Home, for which she won another Academy Award, she presented “her” Vietnam war (during which she herself went beyond protest to enthusiastic support of North Vietnam). In The China Syndrome, a hit of truly massive proportions, she has just delivered a furious attack, not only on nuclear power, but, as she says herself, on “placing the public’s interest [in the hands of businessmen] whose primary interest is maximizing their profits.”
But the most disquieting fact of all is that Jane Fonda’s blatant—and continuing—apologias for totalitarian regimes of the harshest sort (she recently described North Vietnamese she met in Hanoi as “angelic”), have in no noticeable way diminished the indulgent public credence extended to her as a vociferous and attended spokesman on “what’s good for America.” Hours after the news of the Harris-burg emergency, with the famous hydrogen bubble still not absorbed, and President Carter touring the Three Mile Island plant, Jane Fonda and her husband Tom Hayden were receiving eager newsmen in their Santa Monica home, calling stridently for the resignation of Energy Secretary James Schlesinger. “We can never be safe in the hands of utility executives whose financial interests require them to hide the truth from the public!” declared Miss Fonda as reporters scribbled. Jane Fonda, untarnished, speaks. America listens.
The producer of The China Syndrome, Michael Douglas, it should be pointed out, was taken aback and markedly annoyed with Jane Fonda for making personal capital out of what might, he thought, turn out to be a national calamity. As for Mike Gray, considered the radical hothead behind the whole project to begin with, he was even critical of Syndrome‘s “too black” portrait of the power-company officials. But as Mike Gray knows perfectly well, without Jane Fonda his movie against nuclear power would never have been made. And if Jane Fonda wants the power-company officials in her movie to be portrayed as evil incarnate, they will be so portrayed.