Now it's the younger Fonda's turn to play the misunderstood elder in Bruce Beresford's iridescent bubble of a comedy, Peace, Love (opening Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse). It stars the actress, 74, as Grace, hippie mother of a Reagan-loving daughter, Diane (Keener), whom she hasn't seen for 20 years. (Grace provoked Diane's wrath by peddling pot at her wedding.) A life-changing event brings Diane and her children (Elizabeth Olsen and Nat Wolff) to Woodstock, where for 40-odd years Grace has partied like it was 1969. And it's where Grace and Diane build a bridge over the deep river of estrangement that separates them.
As Fonda is the first to admit, she has been many things. "But I've never been Grace, " she declares by phone from New York. With a throaty laugh she says, "It was fun to play someone I've never been."
Consider the differences between her and the Granola Grandma she plays. While the fictional Grace listened to Jimi Hendrix play "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock, Fonda tended her newborn, Vanessa Vadim, in Paris, oblivious to American music. While Grace threw pots and sold pot in the Vietnam era, Fonda was on the front lines of the peace movement. While Grace practiced yoga in the '80s, Fonda led the fitness brigade with the Jane Fonda Workout. While Grace extolled free love in the '90s, Fonda founded the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (G-CAPP).
"Grace dispenses wisdom," Fonda says of her character, an untethered kite given a second chance to repair family ties. "I could dispense some wisdom to her: I'd tell her, ‘Do more listening and less talking.' I'd tell her, ‘Don't sleep with every good-looking man in town.' Still, I liked her a lot. She's intuitive and psychic and knows her family needs love."
There is one aspect of Grace to which Fonda can relate: The bliss of grandmotherhood. "Becoming a grandmother has allowed me to see my daughter through new eyes, to see that she's a better mother than I was," Fonda admits. "A grandchild is the ultimate second chance. The maternal mistakes can be undone. My first grandchild broke my heart open."
Apart from Shirley MacLaine, it's hard to think of another actress of Fonda's generation who has ripened from screen ingenue to mature citizen over 50-plus years in the movies. Is there a secret to Fonda's staying power?
In her poignant 2005 memoir, Fonda writes of being in war-torn Vietnam in the early 1970s on a fact-finding tour. There, to her eternal regret, she allowed herself to be photographed in a North Vietnam military installation in front of an antiaircraft gun. There also, she discovered the key to adaptability. "Bamboo is the metaphor," she wrote. "It appears weak alongside the sturdy oak," but its flexibility makes bamboo stronger.
Fonda, herself slim as bamboo, internalized the importance of remaining flexible. Let critics rail at her weathervane politics, accusing her of going from peacenik protester to fitness millionaire. It was, in fact, the money from the fitness programs that subsidized the political work. She remained the bamboo bending in the winds of change. With a long sigh she notes, "When you get older you get more flexible because you know where rigidity gets you. Rigidity stunts your growth."
How does she stay psychically and physically supple? Even before the interviewer can complete the question, she answers, "Meditation is very central to me." She doesn't do it every day. "I have no ritual, but it enables me to drill down to a central place of calm."
She keeps busy. She acts. She organizes. And still has time to be, along with Eva Longoria and Freida Pinto, a spokesmodel for L'Oreal.
On the professional front, there's her recurring role on Aaron Sorkin's forthcoming TV series, The Newsroom, as the Katharine Graham-type CEO of a media empire. There's her cameo as Nancy Reagan in Lee Daniel's forthcoming The Butler. There's the movie Better Living Through Chemistry, currently shooting.
On the organizational front, in 1995, she founded G-CAPP. "When I moved to Georgia to marry Ted Turner, I found that the state had one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and poverty — the two went together." The organization connects teen mothers with social services as it counsels others to defer motherhood by focusing on family planning, education, and employment.
"Fonda is the opposite of a diva," says Deborah Rogow, an epidemiologist who has consulted for G-CAPP. "I was struck not only by her humility and dedication, but by how much she reads."
In 2005, with Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem, Fonda cofounded the Women's Media Center. "Fewer than 3 percent of the decision-making positions in media are held by women and we wanted to ensure that women are powerfully, visibly, and audibly represented." Have her efforts to gain more representation for women in the media had a direct benefit?
With a naughty laugh, she says, "On The Newsroom I play one of the 3 percent."
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Movie Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding Opens Friday at Ritz at the Bourse. Read Carrie Rickey's review Friday in Weekend.