Few people have led as interesting, complex, and at times, controversial a life as Jane Fonda. From gorgeous socialite and ingénue to mid-sixties sex symbol, acclaimed actress and political activist to movie producer and home fitness guru, Fonda’s career and life have always been in a state of flux. Fonda’s most impressive trait has always been her ability to reinvent herself. She has demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt and change, not only her physical appearance but also how the public perceives her as an artist and an individual.
For this article, I will be looking at the circumstances surrounding Fonda’s second Oscar win in 1979 for Coming Home. The 1970s was both a hugely successful and hugely traumatising decade for Jane. She bookended that era with two Best Actress Oscars and enjoyed a slew of critical and commercial cinematic successes. However, these professional high points have been largely overshadowed by the most infamous and controversial event in her public life. An incident that has been defined in the public imagination by the words ‘Hanoi Jane’. This article will look at how Jane navigated the potentially career-ending consequences of her anti-Vietnam activism in order the revitalize her career and public image. It will look at how the release and reception of Coming Home in 1978 reflected not only Hollywood and the public’s changing view of Jane, but also the evolving attitudes throughout the United States regarding the Vietnam War, as the country struggled to come to terms with the residual trauma of that conflict on the American psyche.
Born into Hollywood royalty as the daughter of acclaimed actor Henry Fonda, Jane’s early life was marked by both privilege and tragedy. She was both adoring and deeply frustrated by her famous father, who was often absent due to his career and extramarital affairs. Her mother Frances struggled with mental illness throughout Jane’s childhood, before taking her own life when her daughter was twelve years old. By her late teens, Jane had already gotten her start in the acting industry, leveraging her famous last name, as well as her natural talent and beauty, into a career. Not that Jane could be accused of coasting on her privilege. From her early days as a student at New Yorks’s Actors Studio, Jane was noted for her tenacity and strong work ethic, qualities which she retains to the present day.
Though her early film career consisted of a wide range of roles crossing many different genres, she became most well known for her parts in fairly light Hollywood romantic comedies. Films like Sunday in New York (1963) and Barefoot in the Park (1967) allowed Jane to make the most of her youthful beauty and excellent comedic talents, earning her positive reviews from critics and audiences. In her late twenties, she married filmmaker Roger Vadim and moved to France, where she starred in several movies. In 1968, her husband directed her in her most sexually explicit role, the erotic science fiction film Barbarella. By the early seventies, she had started to make the transition to more serious dramatic roles, most significantly They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969) and Klute (1971). The latter, an intense thriller exploring the paranoia and surveillance culture of early seventies America, netted Fonda her first Oscar win in 1972.
The term ‘Hanoi Jane’ is used as shorthand by anyone seeking to criticise Jane and her politics. But what does it mean? By the early 1970s, Jane was becoming increasingly interested in radical politics. By her own admission, as a younger woman, she’d had little interest in politics or any real awareness of the growing tensions in her home country. Despite the personal tragedies Jane had faced in early life, her wealth, race and social status had led to her leading a very privileged and somewhat sheltered existence. This began to change in the late 1960s. While living in France, Jane began to socialise with many European radicals and intellectuals and also became fascinated by the international news coverage of events unfolding in the United States. She began to take an active interest in the growing Civil Rights Movement, lending her support to the Black Panther Party for a time. However, her most rigorous and potentially career-ending activism would be focused on her opposition to the Vietnam War. She became an active participant in the anti-war movement, speaking at rallies throughout the US and becoming a dedicated fundraiser.
Jane’s outspoken opposition to the war and involvement with the Free Army Tour (FTA) quickly drew criticism from the US military and right-wing press. She even found herself targeted by the US government. By the early seventies, Jane was under surveillance by the FBI and CIA, with the National Security Agency regularly tapping her phone calls. She became a particular target of President Richard Nixon, who is believed to have orchestrated Jane’s November 1970 arrest on bogus drug charges.
The level of vitriol Jane received for her anti-war activism was partly due to who she was as an individual. As the daughter of Henry Fonda, an adored American movie star, Jane appeared to be someone blessed with immense privilege, beauty and success. With her performance in Barbarella, she’d been adored as a sixties sex symbol, and, even though she spent a great deal of that decade living in Europe, she still seemed to epitomise a kind of all-American beauty. Her physical transformation into an icon of the counterculture, which involved cutting off her voluminous blonde hair in favour of a dark shag cut, was a shock to the more conservative-minded members of the American public. Her second husband Tom Hayden expressed his belief that much of the criticism levelled at Jane when she became an activist was partly because “the public couldn’t reconcile Barbarella turning into a revolutionary” (Bosworth 392). The vision of one of America’s adored daughters suddenly turning into an anti-establishment radical added a level of potency to her public image.
In 1972, Jane embarked on a highly publicised tour of Vietnam. Events during this trip would really damn Jane in the eyes of her critics. Jane has always been adamant that the sole purpose of this trip was to draw attention to the destruction caused by the US military bombing campaign in North Vietnam. Appearing on numerous radio programs, she spoke out against US policy in Vietnam and urged American pilots to cease bombing non-military targets. Jane also met with some of the American prisoners of war in Vietnam. During these meetings, she inquired about their safety and experiences and offered to deliver messages to their families back home.
Any good intentions on Jane’s part were overshadowed by events on the last day of her trip when Jane was pictured sitting on a Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi. The pictures taken on this day, of a smiling Fonda sitting on top of a gun designed to shoot down American planes, would haunt her for decades to come. As the author of an excellent video essay on the YouTube channel Be Kind Rewind put it:
“She sat there for about a minute, but that was more than enough time to capture the moment for all eternity. The second Jane got up she knew she was in trouble. There she was, sitting and laughing behind a gun literally used to shoot down Americans. No matter what her intention, it looked like she supported the North Vietnamese.”
In her 2005 memoir My Life So Far, Jane recounted her own memories of the event:
“Here is my best, honest recollection of what took place. Someone… leads me toward the gun, and I sit down, still laughing, still applauding. It all has nothing to do with where I am sitting. I hardly even think about where I am sitting. The cameras flash. I get up, and as I start to walk back to the car with the translator, the implication of what has just happened hits me. Oh, my God. It’s going to look like I was trying to shoot down U.S. planes! I plead with him, “You have to be sure those photographs are not published. Please, you can’t let them be published.” I am assured it will be taken care of. I don’t know what else to do. It is possible that the Vietnamese had it all planned. I will never know. If they did, can I really blame them?” (quoted by Mahita Gajanan in Time magazine).
The fallout from these images was devastating. She particularly drew the ire of veterans and serving members of the military, with some even accusing her of treason. Even people who were sympathetic to Fonda felt that she had behaved in a reckless and naïve manner by allowing herself to be so easily manipulated into becoming a propaganda tool for the Vietnamese military. In later years, Fonda would somewhat agree with this assessment, saying:
“The buck stops here. If I was used, I allowed it to happen. It was my mistake, and I have paid and continue to pay a heavy price for it” (My Life So Far quoted by Gajanan in Time).
Still, Jane also feels that much of the criticism directed towards her was unfair and disproportionate to her presumed misdeeds. She has always insisted that although her actions were at times unwise, she had never intended to criticise the soldiers themselves, but rather the policy of the US government. Indeed, many mistruths and exaggerations about Fonda’s Vietnam trip were spread by her critics at the time, with the myths surrounding ‘Hanoi Jane’ existing to this day.
In Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman, biographer Patricia Bosworth explains how many of the myths surrounding Jane’s Vietnam trip can be traced back to a Pentagon policy known as ‘Operation Homecoming’. This policy focused on using a small number of returning American prisoners of war to circulate stories of routine torture in the Vietnamese camps. Some POWs were pressured into saying that they had been tortured and beaten in order to coerce them into meeting with Fonda in 1972. One of the most infamous was David Hoffman, who met Jane in July 1972. Hoffman claimed that he had not wanted to meet with Fonda but had been tortured by his Vietnamese capturers until he agreed to meet with the high-profile visitor. Hoffman’s claims have been widely discredited by other POWs and several activists who met with him before and after Fonda’s visit. Historian Mary Hershberger concluded that the political purpose of ‘Operation Homecoming’ was to “deny reconstruction aid to Vietnam and to create images of the Vietnamese as barbaric”, as well as to discredit Fonda, one of the most outspoken and visible critics of Nixon and the war (Bosworth, 389-390).
The blowback from the ‘Hanoi Jane’ incident had real repercussions for Jane’s career and reputation, as well as her personal safety. She received numerous death threats after returning from Vietnam. In an antidote recounted in her biography of Fonda, Bosworth describes how Jane’s younger brother, actor Peter Fonda, was so concerned for her safety that he hired members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang to act as security at her January 1973 wedding to Tom Hayden. Bosworth also described the lasting impact of Jane’s notoriety, describing how:
“The vilification of Jane Fonda took shape in the 1970s and in the next thirty years grew to gargantuan size. By 2002, with the advent of the Internet, there were seven thousand Jane Fonda hate sites” (390-391).
The consequences for her career were also real. She found herself ‘grey listed’ from Hollywood (Be Kind Rewind), meaning that although she was not completely cast aside, she no longer welded the star power she once had. She did not appear in a Hollywood movie for four years, instead working on independent and foreign projects.
In the aftermath of her Vietnam activism, Jane began to seriously reassess how she approached political and social causes. This was not only influenced by the criticism she had received but also by a growing disillusionment with more radical politics. Her second marriage also had an impact on her approach to activism. She married Tom Hayden, a radical political activist who was now seeking to forge a political career. As they entered the mid-seventies, both Hayden and Fonda were starting to question the impact of their more radical activism. They began to believe that they would have more of an impact and could be instruments for real change if they worked within the system. For Hayden, this meant shedding his image as a member of the counterculture and reinventing himself, as Karina Longworth put it, as a “post-hippy mainstream democrat.”
For Jane, this meant seriously reconsidering the political causes and organisations she’d associated with. She would continue to be an active campaigner for causes she believed in, which involved funnelling an enormous amount of her wealth and energy into her husband’s political career. However, she would be far more cautious and aware of the public perception of her, realising that the negative attention would not only hurt her as an individual but could also lessen her ability to make an impact.
The spectre of ‘Hanoi Jane’ would continue to haunt her, and she was aware that many ‘middle-of-the-road’ Americans found her radical politics and public image off-putting. This pushed her into taking a gentler approach. She deliberately softened her physical appearance, growing out her shag haircut and abandoning the ‘hippy’ clothing she had sported during her Vietnam activism. She displayed this changing image on the cover of numerous magazines throughout the mid-seventies. Be Kind Rewind outlined how her publicity around this time “characterised her as a reformed radical. It emphasised her ordinariness and portrayed her as a relatable seventies woman, juggling marriage, motherhood and a career.” Jane was very honest and upfront about this tactic to appeal to ‘ordinary’ Americans. In a March 1978 Rolling Stone article she stated:
“Those magazines represent mainstream America and are read by people who used to be scared of me and thought me unpatriotic. I want them to like me. I know I’m viewed as a symbol of ‘the Movement’, as someone to these people’s left, thus if I can be accepted by them I think my ideas will become more acceptable.”
It was not only the softening of her public image that had the effect of thawing Hollywood’s attitude towards Jane. The changing political climate in America also helped. The end of the Vietnam War, and the disgraceful crumbling of Nixon’s presidency, had created a social climate that tended to view Jane and her politics in a less hostile light. An Oscar nomination for the film Julia in 1978 seemed to herald Jane’s welcome back to Hollywood. Making the most of her regained popularity and influence, Fonda founded her own production company IPC Films in 1977. Jane’s goal with IPC was to channel her political ideals into mainstream Hollywood productions. It is very fitting that, at the tail-end of a decade that was dominated by Jane’s Vietnam activism, IPC’s first project would revolve around the impact and legacy of that war.
In August 1972, Jane accompanied Tom Hayden to the Republican convention in Miami. Here she saw a disabled Vietnam veteran called Ron Kovic speak. Bosworth described Kovic’s speech as “a scream of rage. He’d started off as an idealistic American kid… he thought he was defending his country when he went to Vietnam. He ended up betrayed, humiliated, neglected, and furious” (382). Hearing Kovic talk that day, and viewing the real physical and psychological consequences of the war on the Americans who took part in it, would plant the seed of an idea in Jane’s mind that would lead to the creation of Coming Home (1978). As Karina Longworth put it:
“She started thinking about the idea of using the story of a man physically crippled but emotionally enlightened by the war as a vehicle for turning her political ideas into cinema.”
Coming Home tells the story of Sally Hyde (played by Fonda), an American housewife whose husband Bob (Bruce Dern) leaves to serve in Vietnam. While her husband is away, Sally meets and forms a romantic relationship with Luke (Jon Voight), a disabled Vietnam veteran. Though filmed in the late seventies, Coming Home is set in 1968, a year remembered for its turmoil and violence not only in Vietnam but also within the United States’ own borders. As the US army in Vietnam struggled to contain the Tet Offensive, the American public was horrified by the assassinations of first Martin Luther King Jr. in April and then Robert F. Kennedy in June. For US audiences in 1978, Coming Home acted as a historical time capsule of late sixties America, allowing them to look back and seriously reconsider the legacy of this tumultuous time in their recent past.
Coming Home is a fascinating movie to study in the context of how Jane was seeking to change the public’s view of her political activism and how they perceived her as an individual. The character of Sally is apolitical and deliberately unremarkable. She is presented as an ordinary woman stuck in a lacklustre marriage with little knowledge or experience of the world. She seems to possess no particular qualities or talents that make her seem extraordinary. She is simply a very kind and empathetic woman who is trying to deal with the everyday issues facing her and her loved ones. The wider politics of the war and the growing counterculture are explored through the evolution of Luke’s character, who learns to channel his frustration and rage over his physical and psychological scars into activism. Though she did not write the script, Fonda used her experiences of FBI surveillance and the protest movement to lend authenticity to the picture. She was also very dedicated to presenting a truthful depiction of the daily struggles faced by disabled veterans.
If Coming Home was part of a serious effort at making her politics more palatable and mainstream, Jane succeeded. By focusing the drama less on the politics of the war itself and more on the physical and psychological impact on those fighting it, and the emotional consequences for their loved ones at home, the movie connects to the difficulties many Americans were grappling with in the aftermath of the war. As the video essay by Be Kind Rewind puts it, Coming Home “poignantly touched on issues without condescension or preaching. It spoke to veterans interrogating their service and to women questioning their roles in society and marriage.”
Coming Home was released to glowing reviews and immediate award buzz. However, Fonda had not completely escaped the notoriety of ‘Hanoi Jane’. Some theatres, especially in the South, were still refusing to screen her movies at the time of Coming Home’s release (Vanity Fair). Still, come Oscar season, Fonda’s pet project found itself with eight nominations, a fact that highlights not only Jane’s reacceptance by the industry, but also an indication of Hollywood’s willingness to seriously explore the consequences of the war. The 1979 Oscars have been dubbed ‘The Vietnam Oscars’ because the night was dominated by two films that had the war and its legacy as central parts of their plots: Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, which received nine nominations. In a Vanity Fair article by Peter Biskind, the author explores the impact of these two films, describing how until 1978 Hollywood was reluctant to invest in films that took a critical look at the war:
“Hollywood studios maintained a discreet silence… this was a deeply unpopular war, and conventional studio wisdom held that Americans saw enough of it on the six o’clock news…The dam finally broke in 1978.”
Coming Home and The Deer Hunter are two very different films. Coming Home takes place almost entirely on American soil, aside from a brief sequence where Sally visits her husband in Hong Kong. The Deer Hunter, the far more controversial picture, takes place partly in Vietnam and was criticised for what some critics saw as its racist depiction of the Vietnamese military. While the violence in Coming Home takes place almost entirely offscreen, The Deer Hunter became infamous for its graphic scenes of brutality and bloodshed. On Oscar night, Fonda and Voight won the Best Acting Oscars and Coming Home scooped the award for Best Original Screenplay, with The Deer Hunter taking home the prizes for Best Picture and Best Director. Fonda was furious, as she felt that The Deer Hunter was racist and exploitative (though she admitted that she hadn’t actually seen it at the time). In his 2008 Vanity Fair piece Biskind accesses the lasting legacy of both films:
“Looking backwards from the distance of three decades, one thing that comes as a surprise is the extent to which the two pictures resemble each other. Both feel like works in progress, with dialogue made up as the actors went along. Both films take the measure of the war’s impact on the men who fought it… both films condemn the war for damaging white American males.”
Despite her unhappiness with the Academy’s decision, Fonda could take satisfaction in knowing that her project had been a resounding success. The eighties would be one of her most successful decades, where she dominated the box office with a series of hits and, in another surprising move, started a hugely lucrative home workout business. Through IPC Films she produced The China Syndrome (1979), a film exploring the risks and ethics of nuclear power, and the hit comedy 9 to 5 (1980), which looked at the experiences of women in the workplace.
Jane has shown an incredible ability to survive in Hollywood. Today she maintains her star power and relevance as the star of one of Netflix’s most popular and acclaimed shows, Grace and Frankie. This is particularly impressive given that the spectre of ‘Hanoi Jane’ has never fully left her. At a speaking engagement in Frederick, Maryland in 2015, protesters gathered outside with copies of the ‘Hanoi Jane’ photograph, with signs reading, “Forgive? Maybe. Forget? Never” (The Guardian). Responding to this Fonda stated, “I’m a lightning rod. This famous person goes and does something that looks like I’m against the troops, which wasn’t true, but it looked that way and I’m a convenient target”(The Guardian). However, despite this hostility, she continues to be an active campaigner. Even now, well into her eighties, she retains her sense of social responsibility and dedication to activism, most recently focusing her energy on the climate crisis. That dedication and bravery should be, above all else, her most lasting legacy.
Cover photo: imdb.com.
Beaumont-Thomas, Ben. “Jane Fonda: Hanoi Jane photo was a ‘huge mistake’.” The Guardian. January 20, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jan/20/jane-fonda-hanoi-jane-photo-was-a-huge-mistake. Accessed May 21, 2022.
Biskind, Peter. “The Vietnam Oscars.” Vanity Fair. February 19, 2008. March 2008 Issue. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2008/03/warmovies200803. Accessed February 13, 2022.
Bosworth, Patricia. Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston/New York. 2011.
Katz, Donald R. “Jane Fonda Is a Hard Act to Follow.” Rolling Stone. March 9, 1978. https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/jane-fonda-is-a-hard-act-to-follow-45410/. Accessed May 23, 2022.
Gajanan, Mahita. “The Complicated Story Behind Jane Fonda’s ‘Hanoi Jane’ Nickname.” Time. October 15, 2019. https://time.com/5116479/jane-fonda-hanoi-jane-nickname/. Accessed May 21, 2022.
Maclay, Willow Catelyn. “The Woman’s Work: Jane Fonda in the 70s.” MUBI. June 12, 2018. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-woman-s-work-jane-fonda-in-the-70s. Accessed May 22, 2022.
Natanson, Hannah. “Jane Fonda spent a night in jail in 1970. Her mug shot defined feminist rebellion.” The Washington Post. November 22, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/11/22/jane-fonda-spent-night-jail-her-mugshot-defined-feminist-rebellion/. Accessed May 22, 2022.
“Episode 113: Coming Home (Jean and Jane part 8).” You Must Remember This podcast. Karina Longworth. August 15, 2017. Accessed February 2 2022.
“1979: Jane Fonda wins Best Actress for Coming Home.” Be Kind Rewind. Youtube. September 24, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDexnoeGEr4. Accessed February 2 2022.