Magazine | April 4, 2011, Issue

Pagan Jane

I am just now recovering from my annual battle of the clashing outlooks. It takes place around my birthday, which, by a sardonic twist of Fate, falls in the same week in which eternally optimistic Americans reinvent themselves yet again with New Year’s resolutions.

Worshipers at the altar of change, they want to lose weight, look younger, start a new career, and cobble together a personality from the quiz in the latest self-help book so they can discover Who They Are. It’s no week for a pessimist but this year it was truly remarkable. I expected the usual upbeat overkill from the ostracized Duchess of York or the ever-striving Suzanne Somers. But no. This year America’s foremost self-improvement scold turned up to give me a nostalgic shock. Except for a couple of bad movies, she had stayed more or less out of sight for over a decade but now she’s back: same desperate grin, same urgent voice, same skewed arguments, same everything: the eternally changeless Jane Fonda.

She fell out of the pile of supplements I have to throw out before I can get to the only two sections of the Sunday paper that I want to read. A January edition of U.S.A. Weekend had her on the cover, blurbed “On Staying Physically Active as You Age,” and inside as “73 and Sensational!” She’s five-foot-eight and weighs 121, which a sane world would deem ready to break in half like a dry stick, but Fonda has done everything in her power to keep the sane world at bay and she’s still at it.

In her memoir, My Life So Far, couched in that PowerPoint style that marks her every utterance, she divides her life into three acts of 30 years each. Act One was her acting career, which started with the celluloid comic book Barbarella and progressed, if you can call it that, to some of the most morbid vehicles ever filmed. The second act was her political career as a Communist, which brought about the meltdown of Act One and demands that she be shot for treason. Act Three isn’t over yet but it includes marriage and divorce with capitalist billionaire Ted Turner, born-again Christianity, and her undisguised monomania on physical fitness.

Heralded as the one-woman pioneer of the workout and the “icon” of the aerobics revolution, she went on Oprah last fall to shill her new aerobics DVDs and mark the official return to her “fitness roots.” But wait. Doesn’t “roots” sound kind of Act One–ish? Isn’t Act Three a little late for roots, or were they really in Act Two only she didn’t know it? This is the sort of question people start asking when listening to Jane Fonda talk; the questions make no more sense than she does and have to be rephrased with heavy doses of “I mean . . .” and “that is . . .” until everyone simply gives up and concentrates on untangling her next statement.

#page#Never mind where she put the PowerPoints in her autobiography. Scott Fitzgerald said that American lives have no second acts, but Fonda’s life has no third act either, just a first act, like a movie with nothing but an endless establishment shot to anchor the latest new beginning. Her so-called fitness roots belong here, and they are not so much deep as long.

She made so many aerobics videos for so many years that the VCR became obsolete before she did, so she has switched to DVDs. When, inevitably, the DVD becomes obsolete and gets replaced by a still more advanced high-tech device, it’s a dead cert that she will go on producing the same old aerobics on it so that she can keep the promise her father made in The Grapes of Wrath to be up our noses forever. “Wherever there’s knee cartilage that won’t stop hurtin’, I’ll be there . . .”

She mentions her father whenever possible, always in blithe throwaway lines that never quite hide the fear and trembling beneath. She will never marry again because three marriages are enough: “I’m trying to keep at least two between me and my father; he was married five times.” Or, as she wrote in her book: “Parents are supposed to give the child back to herself with love. If they’ve got duct tape over their eyes because of narcissism, it doesn’t happen.” It would have been better to go with the cliché, “blinded by narcissism,” than strive for clunky comic imagery and set confused readers to arguing that Narcissus had to see himself first before he could become narcissistic, and he couldn’t very well do that with duct tape over his eyes . . . could he?

To me the thing that has always ruined Jane Fonda is her voice. How she won an Oscar for her portrayal of the prostitute in Klute is a mystery because her voice is so sexless it could close a brothel and so pitch-perfect for henpecking it could fill the French Foreign Legion, but most of all it’s the voice of petty bureaucracy, flat and metallic, heard over the loud speaker in government offices crowded with lines of people all clutching forms and waiting with bovine patience when suddenly they hear her static-filled bark, “This window is closed!”

Eternal optimists who take their inspiration from Fonda and her ilk can rest assured they are moving with the times because we have gone from for whom the bell tolls to for whom the Applause! sign flashes. The long march of Western civilization from pantheons of gods for every taste to one God for all has been thrown into reverse by celebrity worship to give us a plethora of ancient deities to follow. Charlie Sheen makes the Herculean claim that he has “tiger blood and Adonis DNA” and racks up 1 million Twitter followers. Mel Gibson delivers the rage of Achilles over the telephone. Ceres hosts a vegan talk show. Ancient deities had to perform tests; we have rehab and Dancing with the Stars. And when Persephone was kidnapped by the devil, her mother, Demeter, went looking for her just as Nancy Grace goes looking for America’s vanished maiden-of-the-week.

Through it all marches Jane Fonda, the ur-celebrity, who looks literally Ur-ish in her workout poses. With legs stretched out to illustrate firm steps, and arms and hands zigzagging in various elbow-exercising directions, she looks like a figure from the frieze of an Assyrian ziggurat.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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