Jane Fonda: The Comedies

The subject of this post is not to claim that Jane Fonda (b. 1937) has ever been ha-ha-hilarious. I would never make the assertion that comedy is Fonda’s strong suit, but it is an interesting and natural lens for us to peer at her through, and it is the logical one given the ordinary themes of this blog. Also, Fonda has done a surprising number of comedies; it actually makes up a substantial portion of her cinematic footprint. We should also note her early Broadway comedies, Invitation to a March (1960) by Arthur Laurents, with Celeste Holm, Eileen Heckert, and James MacArthur; and the short-lived The Fun Couple (1962) with Dyan Cannon, and Bradford Dillman. Initially Fonda seems to have been regarded primarily as a light comedienne, though in large part it has to be conceded that her early success owed something to her famous name and her striking looks (she initially worked as a model) rather than any skill at, or instinct for, making people laugh.

Fonda’s comedies can neatly be divided into three broad periods: 1) The Sixties: rom-coms and mild farces; 2) The Seventies: “Relevant” satires; 3) Contemporary: demographically targeted high concept commericial fare for Boomers and families.

Tall Story (1960)

Based on a 1959 Lindsay-Crouse Broadway play, itself based on a Howard Nemerov novel. I am unclear as to whether Fonda appeared in the play; some sources seem to indicate as much, but she’s not listed on the production’s IBDB page, even as a replacement. At any rate, the film version, directed by the legendary Joshua Logan, was Fonda’s first film. She plays a college girl who is obssessed with a basketball player (Anthony Perkins, the real star of the movie). In addition to Fonda, Perkins character is harrassed by gangsters who want him to throw the big game. The justifiably forgotten picture nonetheless has a terrific ensemble that includes Ray Walston, Marc Connelly (!), Anne Jackson, Murray Hamilton, Tom Laughlin, and Joe E. Ross. It was also the first film of Fonda friend and frequent collaborator Robert Redford, who’d also been in the Broadway production. (His role in this is very small).

Period of Adjustment (1962)

Tennessee Williams wrote this headscratcher about two young couple who are having marital problems and talk and talk about them. Adapted from his Broadway play, it was directed by George Roy Hill and features Fonda and Jim Hutton as one couple; Anthony Franciosa and Lois Nettleton as the other. Also in the cast, character actor John McGiver (Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins) and BOTH Jack Albertson and his sister Mabel Albertson. It is an interesting artifact, but Williams is way outside his wheelhouse and one has to wonder what motivated such a thing.

Sunday in New York (1963)

IMHO, this forgotten film contain’s Fonda’s sexiest role, much more so than say Klute, Walk on the Wild Side, Barbarella, or what have you, because Fonda’s roles in those films are frankly against type. To my mind Fonda is always beautiful but naturally cold and reserved. In this film she plays a young lady struggling about whether to lose her virginity. Her yielding moments thus feel genuine and not a stretch. The film is quite racy for its time. Her character is an Albany music critic who comes to stay at the NYC bachelor pad of her swinging brother (Cliff Robertson), an airline pilot. Then she hooks up with a stranger (Rod Taylor) who is gentlemanly and understanding, though frustrated with her indecision. She brings him back to the apartment while her brother is away. Unfortunately her brother returns, as does her upstate fiance (Robert Culp) so a farce of mistaken identity results (as Taylor is pretending to be her brother). I love the film for its period detail (lots of location shooting of New York during the Mad Men era). It’s not the funniest thing in the world. With real comedians performing the script it could have been much funnier, but the producers clearly opted instead for good looking young stars with general appeal, a common error made by producers. The Rod Taylor part would be much funnier with a Bob Hope or Woody Allen type, the kind of guy who quips his way through embarrassing and awkward situations, The Cliff Roberts character would be better with someone who is much more macho and scary, maybe a little crazy. And Culp’s role would be better played by a supercilious stuffed shirt/ fifth wheel type in the Ralph Bellamy tradition — a dullard, as opposed to, ya know, a CIA agent. But as I say, Fonda is right for her role, for once. It might even be some of her best work, modest as it is, despite the huge accolades she got for more showy later work.

Cat Ballou (1965)

This western comedy was a hit the year it was released, and nowadays is probably the earliest well-remembered Fonda film. Still, she is wrong for it. To my mind, the film WANTS to be a sort of gender-reversed Tom Jones. In the opening beats it feels that way, although it goes off in a very different direction. It was intended for Ann-Margret, who would have knocked it out of the park, image-wise at least, but her manager unaccountably turned it down. (Not to digress, but it would have kept the momentum going she’d established with Bye Bye Birdie, Viva Las Vegas, and Kitten with a Whip). It was a star turn in a high profile movie, and Fonda is fondly remembered in it as the feisty lady gunslinger who saves the ranch of her mysteriously Jewish father (John Marley). Lee Marvin earned an Oscar for his duel roles (well, I don’t know that he earned it; he received one), and it also has Dwayne Hickman (Dobie Gillis), Jay C. Flippen, Reginald Denny, Arthur Hunnicutt, Burt Mustin, and Bruce Cabot, as well as Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as the ballad singers who tell the tale. It’s definitely a memorable film, but I think there’s a latently INDELIBLE one in there.

Any Wednesday (1966)

This one has echoes of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Fonda is the kept woman of married businessman Jason Robards, who only stays with her on the titular night of the week. A monkey wrench is thrown into the works when Robards’ secretary accidentally sends out-of-town colleague Dean Jones to stay in the flat when he can’t find a hotel room. Then Robards’ wife learns about it, and all manner of farce ensues, not unlike the shenanigans in Sunday in New York. These mild sex comedies were briefly considered the limit, but they aged rapidly as the ’60s and ’70s rolled in like a tidal wave. After all, by 1972 the big movie to see was Deep Throat.

Barefoot in the Park (1967)

Another well known relic, cherished chiefly because of the funny lines in Neil Simon’s script. Gene Saks directed. It’s quite similar to The Odd Couple — in this one a pair of newlyweds moves into a fifth floor walk up in Greenwich Village. Robert Redford reprises his role from the original Broadway production as the uptight young groom. In one sense it was good casting — the pre-Sundance Kid-mustache-sex symbol Redford was a total soporific bore and virtual non-entity, just like this character. Fonda took over the part that had been created on stage by Elizabeth Ashley, the free-spirited bride who belongs in the Village, whereas the groom hates everything about it. (I guarantee that Ashley, with her dark slinky sexuality, and cutting wit, would have been much better in the role than Fonda). This was still the era when WASPS where being hired to play Simon characters, and Redford and Fonda are just preposterously wrong ultimately. You know who’d have been perfect? Ted Bessell and Marlo Thomas of That Girl! That show is practically Barefoot in the Park, anyway! At least the movie has Herb Edelman, who was BORN to speak Simon’s lines, as well as other familiar character actors like Mildred Natwick, Mabel Albertson and Fritz Feld.

Barbarella (1968)

Roger Vadim’s Barbarella is a sui generis , but I think we can catergorize it at least as semi-intentional, self-conscious camp. One certainly laughs at it much more than many of the ostensible comedies that preceded it.

Steelyard Blues (1973)

In the wake of the very heavy They Shoot Horses Don’t They? and Klute (both Oscar winners and both in 1969), followed by Godard’s Marxist Tout Va Bien (1972), not to mention the Hanoi Jane incident and her marriage to Tom Hayden of the Chicago 7, Fonda decided to “go light” again in this largely forgotten “metaphysical misfit” comedy of the type that were popular at the time. She plays another prostitute here, in love with a demolition derby freak played by Donald Sutherland (also of Klute, of course). The rambling, early ’70s plotless affair also features a pre-WKRP Howard Hesseman, Sutherland’s M*A*S*H co-star Roger Bowen, a post-Joe Peter Boyle, Richard Schaal, Mel Stewart and a very young John Savage.

Fun with Dick and Jane (1977)

I saw this one at the drive-in with my family on its first run. It was the first of Fonda’s “topical” comedies, and reminds me somewhat of the later How to Beat the High Cost of Living. Comedies about stagflation! In this one George Segal and Fonda are a suburban couple whose whole life is an exercise in keeping up with the Joneses. Then Segal is suddenly fired by his boss (Ed McMahon, whose repeated refrain “It stinks on ice” was a favorite catchphrase of mine for a minute. I was 12 at the time). So the couple decide to become robbers! The film also features Dick Gautier (whom I well knew from When Things Were Rotten and Get Smart), Fred Willard, Hollywood vet John Dehner (who is hilarious), and in a walk-on, a very young and needless to say unknown Jay Leno! Nowadays folks are probably more familiar with the Judd Apatow-penned 2005 remake starring Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni.

California Suite (1978)

Fonda returned to the Neil Simon well with an all-star cast that included Alan Alda, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Walter Matthau, Herb Edelman, Elaine May, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and a pre-Diff’rent Strokes Dana Plato. The script reflects Simon’s evolution from a New York stage-and-tv guy, to an L.A. movie guy, and is VERY uneven compared to a lot of his prior work. Fonda and Alda play a divorced couple fighting for custody of their kid, and with both of them at their self-consciously serious peak, their scenes are the most unbearable in the film. In the right hands, Simon’s lines for their subplot could have done double duty — cutting and loaded, but also funny. But as directed by Herbert Ross, they are merely depressing and a drag and all you do is pray for Maggie Smith to come back onscreen. (Smith won her second Oscar for this film, incidentally).

The Electric Horseman (1979)

This interesting artifact spans multiple genres, one of which is definitely satire. Fonda had just done The China Syndrome and Coming Home; co-star Robert Redford had made All the President’s Men and was about to make Brubaker — these are people who wanted to use their powerful positions in Hollywood to change the political face of America. Somehow they didn’t accomplish that — America looked at these movies and walked immediately into the disingenuous arms of Ronald Reagan, about whom Fonda declared “He was a lousy actor and he’ll be a lousy President!” You could fill a library with books speculating as to why that happened, but I think that, short of blaming movies for causing a massive backlash, we can at least say that apparently movies do NOT change minds or affect behavior to any extent that can be relied upon. At any rate, in The Electric Cowboy, Redford plays a rodeo star who now makes tons of dough hawking breakfast cereal in a cowboy suit outfitted with Christmas lights, atop a thoroughbred racehorse. One day he snaps, steals the racehorse and brings it out into the wild to release it. Fonda plays a TV reporter, just as she had in The China Syndrome. Setting out to cover Redford’s story, she falls in love with him. Not a very feminist role! Also in the cast: Wilford Brimley, Willie Nelson, Valerie Perrin. John Saxon, and a pre-Hill Street Blues James B. Sikking. Directed by Sydney Pollack.

9 to 5 (1980)

By contrast, 9 to 5 WAS a feminist comedy, or at least what passed for one in its day. Co-written by Patricia Resnick and Colin Higgins, and directed by Higgins (who’d also given us Harold and Maude, Foul Play and Silver Streak), this high concept, broad-strokes comedy cast Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton as a trio of secretaries who turn the tables on their sleazy, sexist boss (Dabney Coleman). They kidnap him and make drastic changes at the office during his absence. Fonda’s characterization, as a woman who is not very bright, is probably the closest she ever got to clownish low comedy, although it is still kept in check by her usual restraint. The film (and its earworm theme song) were smash hits, and I think it largely paved the way for the similar Tootsie, two years later. Also in the cast: Elizabeth Wilson, Henry Jones, Sterling Hayden, and Richard Stahl.

On Golden Pond (1981)

On Golden Pond is a weepy drama of course but like any good stage play about a family it is also frequently humorous, and when I think of its impact on pop culture at the time, it’s usually about the funny lines that were quoted. This was another smash hit of course and a multiple Oscar winner, helped along by the meta-gimmick of Henry Fonda (in his last role) as the dying father of real-life daughter Jane, as well as Katharine Hepburn, in one of her last roles, as the mom. Dabney Coleman, from 9 to 5, plays Jane’s husband, who nobody likes, and they’re all vacationing in a cabin in the woods, with lots of fishing and talking and crying. And there’s a smart-mouthed kid. One of the things I find interesting about it now is that when Jane returned to the screen after an absence of many years, she appeared in several of these multi-generational stories, now in the role of the elder rather than the middle generation.

Monster-in-Law (2005)

Following a hiatus of 15 years (during which time she was married to billionaire Ted Turner), Fonda returned to the screen in this high-concept, gimmicky, typically by-the-numbers Hollywood “comedy”. I confess I thought the casting kind of genius, but also surprising. Isn’t mother-in-law comedy misogynistic? Well, it is if it’s a son-in-law doing the joking, but here it’s a potential daughter-in-law played by J. Lo, who is forced to do battle with the psycho mom-in-law for the hand of young doctor Michael Vartan. There’s other latent stuff here — race issues, class issues, but Hollywood being Hollywood it never taps into anything deep and is just a dumb, unworthy spectacle. Fonda had relinquished being “important”, and was now settling for “blithely frivolous”.

Georgia Rule (2007)

The three generation structure of this Garry Marshall film is what reminded me of On Golden Pond. Lindsay Lohan is typecast as an unruly wayward teen; Felicity Huffman is her mother who just can’t deal, so he she brings her to stay with her stern, conservative grandmother (Fonda) in Idaho. With Marshall at the wheel, and a cast that also includes the likes of Dermot Mulroney, Laurie Metcalf, Cary Elwes, Hector Elizondo etc it might have been okay as a light comedy, but the script contains shocking revelations and lots of heavy stuff deserving of an entirely different approach, far exceeding Marshall’s limited grasp.

Et si on vivait tous ensemble? a.k.a. All Together (2011)

Fonda’s first French-speaking role since Tout va Bien. A bunch of aging academics decide to move in together as a kind of communal-living experiment, one with a practical side, since several of them are physically and/or mentally failing in one way or another. The mostly European cast also includes Geraldine Chaplin. It was written and directed by Stéphane Robelin. The film has its serious side. Fonda’s character is dying of cancer.

Peace, Love and Misunderstanding (2012)

Another multi-generational dramedy, this one helmed by Bruce Beresford, who’d directed such fare as Tender Mercies (1983), Crimes of the Heart (1986) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989). In this one, Katherine Keener plays a divorced mom who moves up to Woodstock with her two kids to live with her aging hippie mother (Fonda), and they sort out their old issues in the famous rural artist colony. Also in the cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyle MacLachlan, Roseanna Arquette and Joyce Van Patten. Like most of these later comedies, it was critically panned and ignored by audiences, despite the attempt to exploit Fonda’s countercultural past .

This is Where I Leave You (2014)

Based on a novel by Jonathan Tropper and directed and produced by Shawn Levy, with an amazing all-star ensemble cast consisting of Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Timothy Olyphant, Connie Britton, et al. Fonda plays a widowed mother whose adult children must come sit shiva for her recently deceased husband, causing them all to be cooped up in the house together. As in almost all of these movies, her character is a media celebrity.

Youth (2015)

Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, who won an Oscar in 2013 for La grande bellezza, directed this Woody Allen-esque English-language dramedy concerning aging film folk and artists on vacation in the Swiss Alps. The all-star ensemble includes Harvey Keittel, Michael Caine, Fonda (as an actress), Rachel Weisz, and Paul Dano. This one was very well received, and is on my list to see!

Grace and Frankie (2015-present)

This Netflix sitcom has been on for five years, so I guess people like it, but I couldn’t get past the first couple of episodes. Fonda and old pal Lily Tomlin are a sort of Odd Couple (Fonda an uptight cosmetics mogul, Tomlin a flighty art teacher) who are thrust closer together when their husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston), law partners, announce that they are divorcing them because they are now gay lovers. The two men marry and the women become room-mates. I found the concept itself to be promising but wasn’t very amused by the writing on the show, and found Sheen and Waterston to be squirm-provoking as gay men. Perhaps at some future date I’ll give it another shot.

Book Club (2018)

Despite the stellar cast, I could only stand this self-conscious excursion for about 10 or 15 minutes. It is LITERALLY about a group of friends who read Fifty Shades of Grey in their book club. In addition to Fonda, the cast includes Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Richard Dreyfus, Ed Begley Jr, Wallace Shawn, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson and Alicia Silverstone. I think I’d rather see THAT cast read Fifty Shades of Grey aloud and have that be the whole movie, rather than what I heard of the cringe-inducing script.

After the Covid lockdown? Fans can look forward to a Book Club sequel and the resumption of Grace and Frankie. Personally, I would rather watch some of the older films from earlier decades, when screenwriting involved more thought and less calculation.