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Small Screen: Documentary looks at Fonda through her men

LOS ANGELES — As beguiling and powerful as Jane Fonda is onscreen, she’s yet to play a role that’s a match for her whiplash-inducing life of artistry, celebrity and polarizing activism.
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Jane Fonda, background, and Susan Lacy, director of the HBO documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts.

LOS ANGELES — As beguiling and powerful as Jane Fonda is onscreen, she’s yet to play a role that’s a match for her whiplash-inducing life of artistry, celebrity and polarizing activism.

Then there’s the personal drama, including serial marriages to three very different husbands with their own claims to fame.

When the 80-year-old Fonda decided to participate in a documentary about her — “Why not? I don’t know how much longer I’m gonna live” — it was with award-winning filmmaker Susan Lacy, who made an intriguing choice: using the men in Fonda’s life as the organizing principle for Jane Fonda in Five Acts.

The film, debuting Monday night on HBO, devotes its first chapter to Fonda’s fraught bond with her emotionally reserved dad, the acclaimed actor Henry Fonda. It was at the end of his life that she managed to draw him closer: They starred opposite each other as an estranged father and daughter in the film On Golden Pond.

The 1982 Academy Award ceremony at which Henry Fonda won his only Oscar is what Jane Fonda readily points to when asked to name a Hollywood career highlight. Her father died four months later.

“The fact that it was with this movie, and he asked me to receive it [the award] if he won,” Fonda said in an interview, her steady, blue-eyed gaze reminiscent of her father. “It’s rare that a child gets a chance to do something like this for a parent with whom they have had such a complicated relationship.”

(Co-star Katharine Hepburn won her fourth Oscar and showed her competitive streak. “You’ll never catch me now,” she crowed to Jane Fonda, a two-time winner for Klute and Coming Home.)

Five Acts then moves on to the husbands: French film director Roger Vadim (of the Barbarella sex-kitten years), activist Tom Hayden (a match for her growing political fervour) and media mogul Ted Turner (so magnetic that she tried semi-retirement, until she didn’t).

She recalls the thrill of sexual “electricity” with all three partners, but felt compelled only by pregnancy to marry Vadim (they had a daughter, Vanessa) and Hayden (a son, Troy). She wed Turner in 1991, she said, because he insisted living together was setting a bad example for his grown children.

“But I think it’s really because he’s insecure. I mean, men want to get married,” Fonda said. “I had two important relationships subsequent to Ted, they wanted to get married.

“They were obsessed with it, because it’s possession.”

Asked about future relationships minus marriage, Fonda has a concise answer: “I’ve closed up shop.”

“Never say never,” parried a smiling Lacy, who was the creator and longtime executive producer of PBS’s American Masters, home to profiles of greats including Maya Angelou and Billie Jean King.

The film’s last act belongs to Fonda alone, unbound by marriage and focused on passions including voting rights and other political causes as well as work (which includes Netflix’s Grace and Frankie and a planned remake of the 1980 hit film 9 to 5).

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