IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Jane Fonda’s 10 best films

Inventive actress ready to re-emerge with ‘Monster-in-Law.’ By John Hartl

Jane Fonda is making a comeback — again. This time she’s promoting an autobiography, “My Life So Far,” while co-starring in her first movie in 15 years. The vehicle she’s chosen is a long way from the heavy dramas that won her two Academy Awards in the 1970s.

She plays Michael Vartan’s mother (and Jennifer Lopez’s prospective mother-in-law) in Robert Luketic‘s “Monster-in-Law,” due May 13. The new romantic comedy from the Australian director of “Legally Blonde” suggests a return to the kind of bubbly farce that helped establish Fonda as a 1960s box-office attraction in such movies as “Barefoot in the Park” and “Sunday in New York.”

The daughter of Henry Fonda, sister of Peter Fonda, aunt to Bridget Fonda and mother of Troy Garity (the promising actor from “A Soldier’s Girl”), Jane Fonda made a charming film debut in “Tall Story” (1960), a retrograde college comedy which she casually stole from the star, Anthony Perkins.

She earned a Tony nomination that same year for the Broadway drama, “There Was a Little Girl,” then immediately returned to movies, where she quickly established her versatility with drama (1962’s “The Chapman Report”) and sophisticated comedy (1964’s “La Ronde”).

From ‘Barbarella’ to ‘Coming Home’In “Cat Ballou” (1965), she played straightwoman to Lee Marvin’s comedic gunslinger. She held her own with Marlon Brando in “The Chase” (1966) and with Michael Caine in “Hurry Sundown” (1967). For her then-husband, director Roger Vadim, she starred in an update of an Emile Zola story, “The Game Is Over” (1966), and as a spacey sex kitten in “Barbarella” (1968).

In “Tall Story,” Fonda’s calculating ingenue announces that she’s pursuing higher education “for the same reason that every girl, if she’s honest with herself, comes to college — to get married.” By the end of the decade, she had left that stereotype in the dust, earning her first Oscar nomination for Sydney Pollack’s downbeat Depression drama, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969).

Her off-screen anti-war activities earned her the nickname “Hanoi Jane,” as well as the permanent enmity of some Vietnam War veterans, yet during that same period she won her first Oscar, for “Klute” (1971). For five years, she all but dropped out of mainstream movies (“the Nixon administration tried to boycott my career,” she once claimed), making the first of her comebacks with a disposable but popular comedy, “Fun With Dick and Jane” (1977).

After that, the hits starting coming again: Oscar nominations for “Julia” (1977), “The China Syndrome” (1979), “On Golden Pond” (1981) and “The Morning After” (1986), comedy blockbusters with “California Suite” (1978) and “9 to 5” (1980), and a second Academy Award for “Coming Home” (1978).

When the big-screen roles dried up, she turned to television, earning an Emmy for “The Dollmaker” (1984). What appeared to be her last film, “Stanley & Iris” (1990), paired her with Robert De Niro. After divorcing Tom Hayden (Garity’s father) and marrying Ted Turner, she announced her retirement in 1993.

Fonda's 10 bestBut she’s back now, and her return to the screen can’t help but evoke fond memories of her signature performances. Here are 10 to remember:

“Walk on the Wild Side” (1962). Fonda once said she first demonstrated “real moxie” in this lurid New Orleans melodrama, which revealed her potential for mixing rowdy playfulness with barely disguised desperation. She’s especially strong in the early scenes in which she hooks up with Laurence Harvey, playing a 1930s drifter who only has eyes for a prostitute (Capucine).

“Period of Adjustment” (1962). George Roy Hill made his big-screen directing debut with this rare comedy from playwright Tennessee Williams. Playing a nurse who marries a jittery, insecure, possibly impotent ex-soldier (Jim Hutton), Fonda deftly uses a Southern-belle accent to bring out the inherent sweetness in this not-so-dumb blonde, who appears to have a lot in common with Marilyn Monroe.

“The Chase” (1966). Americans rejected Arthur Penn’s tangled, Southern-fried drama about small-town corruption and brutality, but Europeans took it more seriously. Although it’s dominated by Brando’s brooding performance as a sheriff who fails to curb the violence, Fonda embraces the contradictions in the most complex character: a passionate woman who has strong feelings for her escaped-convict husband (Robert Redford) as well as a wealthy married man (James Fox).

“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969). Widely regarded as Fonda’s breakthrough movie, Sydney Pollack’s surprisingly popular version of Horace McCoy’s fatalistic novel about a 1930s dance marathon earned nine Oscar nominations. Among them was a best-actress nod for Fonda’s scarily genuine performance as a weary woman who is convinced that the contest, if not life itself, is hopelessly rigged. 

“Klute” (1971). Fonda won her first Oscar for the part that many critics still regard as her best: Bree Daniels, a Manhattan call girl who likes tricking because she gets to give a performance — and because she’s in control of the situation. Of course she’s not, as private investigator Donald Sutherland demonstrates when he asks questions about a former john who beat her. This subtly creepy horror movie was artfully directed by that master of political paranoia, Alan J. Pakula.

“Julia” (1977). Lillian Hellman wrote “The Chase”; a decade later Fonda played Hellman in Fred Zinnemann’s exquisite adaptation of a World War II story taken from Hellman’s memoir, “Pentimento.” While the resulting ensemble piece won Oscars for its supporting players, Vanessa Redgrave and Jason Robards, the movie is grounded by Fonda’s careful portrayal of a writer who accepts a challenge to commit one small but dangerous anti-fascist act. 

“Coming Home” (1978). Fonda was closely involved in the creation of this script about a Marine (Bruce Dern) whose wife (Fonda) falls for a paraplegic Vietnam War veteran (Jon Voight). She claimed that major scenes were improvised at tape-recorded Sunday-afternoon sessions with Voight, Dern and director Hal Ashby, and that her own role “was the least well-defined originally.” The rewrite occasionally threatens to turn the movie into “The Greening of a Marine’s Wife,” but Fonda’s fresh, detailed performance keeps it honest.

“The China Syndrome” (1979). Fonda brings an exuberant comic snap to her role as a soft-news television reporter who stumbles onto a hard-news story: a deadly accident at a California nuclear plant. As this uncomfortably prophetic movie turns serious (the Three-Mile Island accident happened shortly after its theatrical release), so does her performance. Her bonding with a conscience-stricken whistle-blower (Jack Lemmon) is understated and affecting.

“On Golden Pond” (1981). A tearjerker transformed by its performances, this adaptation of Ernest Thompson’s stage play won Henry Fonda his only Academy Award – and Jane Fonda’s production company, IPC Films, had a lot to do with making that happen. She was nominated for playing his estranged daughter; their scenes together, which he worried would turn the picture into “psychodrama,” have a raw, intimate home-movie quality.

“The Morning After” (1986). Fonda earned her last best-actress Oscar nomination for Sidney Lumet’s tricky murder mystery, which never quite tops its shocker opening: a blackout-prone lush (Fonda) wakes up next to the bloodied corpse of a stranger. Jeff Bridges charms as a scruffy ex-cop who tries to help her, but it’s Fonda’s game, ironic performance as a washed-up actress (once groomed to be “the next Vera Miles”) that keeps the movie from drowning in its narrative inconsistencies.