I’ve always been a fan. I’ve loved your films. Your passion for social causes. And, more recently, your Netflix series with Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie, which places seniors, like me, center stage. Each episode tackles with honesty, empathy, and humor, the obstacles we face as we get older.
I’m writing to you now because you are saving my life, literally. Being confined to my apartment, unable to use the gym and finding outside walks difficult on cold, rainy days, your exercise videos are my lifeline. Back in the day, I worked out with your more challenging DVDs. You made “feel the burn” a call to arms before there was a Bernie. After watching the HBO documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, I learned the story behind those exercise videos. You made them to raise money for a cause – the Campaign for Economic Democracy which lobbied for environment protection, solar energy, renters’ rights and other issues. Little did you know that those videos, besides funding a grassroots movement, would become bestsellers and earn you the title of physical fitness expert.
Those exercise routines lit a fire under me. Although I was a cheerleader in high school, sports for girls before Title IX were virtually nonexistent, while boy athletes drew crowds and accolades. When I got to college, walking to and from class was the most exercise I did on a daily basis.
Then I discovered your videos and everything changed. I wanted to work out. I began to run and even though I was never very fast, I kept at in. When I was 55, I ran the New York City Marathon – and finished! Unfortunately, age and injuries set in and after knee replacement, I wasn’t able to run any more. I continued to work out with a trainer, Melanie, a fabulous young woman who manages to keep me in shape and keep me healthy.
Then, the novel coronavirus hit. No gym. No Mel. But the urge to workout was part of my daily routine. My son, who teaches pilates, boot camp, and yoga, suggested some videos and I did searches on my own. Then came my ah-ha moment. Your workouts on YouTube, made for a new audience. Younger people can do the videos, too, but many are aimed at a senior audience. These workout routines are still challenging, but you make them doable and fun! The dance ones – do-wopp, funk, and Latin – are never boring. Combining the three adds up to a good aerobic session for around 35 minutes. You also provide ones to tone and stretch.
Throughout these videos, you talk to your audience, adding encouraging words and dropping in facts about how exercise can help us stay strong and maintain balance as we age. Yes, 1 in 3 seniors fall each year. I’m one such senior and I know others. And you point out why falls are common and a danger as we grow older, all to help us understand that what we are experiencing is not our fault, but, at the same time, we can do a great deal to avoid tumbles.
While you inspire me and so many others, your life spent in the spotlight was never easy. The HBO documentary begins with President Richard Nixon asking: “What’s the matter with Jane Fonda?” You were an activist, campaigning against the war in Vietnam. On a visit to Hanoi in 1972, you were photographed seated on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. The photo outraged some Americans and you were tagged with the nickname “Hanoi Jane.” In the documentary, you explain that the photo happened on your last day in Hanoi and that you were manipulated into posing. And you admit that being photographed on top of that gun is something that you “will go to my grave regretting.” In retrospect, Jane, you were right. History has proved that we were lied to about an ill-conceived war that claimed so many lives.
In the mid to late 1970s, you decided that you would only make films that focused on important issues. You did just that. Coming Home told the story of a disabled Vietnam War veteran who had trouble trying to re-enter civilian life. The China Syndrome focused on dangers at nuclear power plants. Many criticized the film for being alarmist – someone called you “the Cassandra of the nuclear holocaust.” But then the meltdown happened at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Safety at nuclear power plants became a national concern and led to new regulations. The highly entertaining 9 to 5, which co-starred Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin, pointed out the disparity in salaries between men and women in the workforce, something that continues today. In other words, Jane, you have remained authentic, fighting for the causes that you believe in. We see that now with your participation in protests about climate change.
Perhaps the most poignant moment in the documentary concerns your parents. As you later learned, your mother suffered from manic depression, these days called bipolar. She died from suicide while in a sanatorium. About your father, the esteemed actor Henry Fonda, you say that you “grew up in the shadow of a national monument.” While he could portray empathetic and affectionate characters on film, he rarely displayed that side to you or your brother, Peter. In 1981, you appeared with your father in the drama On Golden Pond. In the documentary you talk about an emotional moment in that film between you and your father. When he won the Oscar, you were able to accept it for him and deliver it to him.
Did you spend your life searching for a father figure? You had three husbands – the film director Roger Vadim, the activist, Tom Hayden, and Ted Turner, who founded CNN. “None of my marriages were democratic,” you say in the documentary. But you have evolved, adding that now “I don’t need a man to make me okay.”
Perhaps others who follow your workout videos aren’t aware of your life story. For me, I see you at age 82 as a survivor and a trail blazer. Someone who made mistakes and struggled, but was unafraid to keep going. You confess that although you love to look at aging faces, you have had plastic surgery. “I wish I was braver,” you say, “but I am what I am.”
Yes, you are. And to answer Nixon’s question: there’s nothing wrong with Jane Fonda. Absolutely nothing.
The documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, can be streamed on HBO. The videos are available on YouTube and iTunes. Grace and Frankie can be streamed on Netflix. See our review.
Top photo: Bigstock