This is a guest post by Caitlin Moran.
Private life, public life –at 608 pages I was surprised Patricia Bosworth’s biography of Jane Fonda didn’t speculate about possibilities for the author-turned-activist’s afterlife. A good biography needs ample room to examine the range of its subject’s life, but Fonda, while an intriguing figure, is not nearly fascinating enough to justify a doorstop-sized tome, and Bosworth is not a nimble enough wordsmith to make the reader want to use the book as anything other than a doorstop.
Straight out of the gate, an over-emphasis on Fonda’s thoroughbred lineage hampers the book. Bosworth is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and the attention she lavishes on Henry Fonda brings to mind the magazine’s blush-inducing enchantment with the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The first section of the book is called “Daughter,” but would have been more accurately titled, “An Account of Henry Fonda’s Career and Paramours in the Years Before Anybody Cared About Jane.” The early pages are heavy with Fonda senior’s biographical details and rhapsodic descriptions of Tigertail, the idyllic estate Henry and his second wife Frances Ford Seymour, Jane’s mother, built in LA’s rarefied Brentwood enclave.
More than anything else, Jane Fonda’s story as told here is the tale of how her unmet emotional needs as a child shaped her professionally and romantically. Fonda was profoundly affected by the strained relationship she had with her distant father. He was gregarious and effusive on film and stage, and could be a charming romantic with his many conquests, yet was withholding and taciturn with Jane and her younger brother Peter. Fonda states in the book that she began to act out of a desire to please her father and to get closer to the luminous version of himself that his audiences always saw. Later, her quest for male approval led her into the arms of various sexual partners whose egos and identities subsumed her, a habit she has attributed in interviews to her dysfunctional relationship with her father.
There is much more in the book, of course: the arc of Fonda’s journey from wealthy New York dilettante dabbling equally in theater and cocktail parties, to celebrated actress, to polarizing political figure, to returned prodigal in clunky Lo-vehicles (J.- and Li- in “Monster-in-Law” and “Georgia Rule,” respectively) is amply documented. Still, the focus on Jane’s relationship with her father and her lovers feels too pat and too Freudian. There are 130 pages devoted to her work as a political activist, but precious few of those deal with Fonda’s feminism, an oversight of what could have been a particularly compelling topic given her fraught relationships with men and her role as an international sex symbol. Despite Fonda’s efforts to claim attention on her own terms, it’s the ghosts and shadows of the men in her life that define her in Bosworth’s book.
This is Caitlin Moran’s first book review. Currently, she has “gone rogue” with her undergraduate degree and her feminism, and is working in retail. Complaints about run-on sentences may be direct messaged to her on Twitter @caitlinamoran.