The truth about Jane Fonda's naked scene in Barbarella

Will Lerner
Producer, Yahoo Entertainment

Jane Fonda in Five Acts, a documentary premiering next week on HBO, explores the complex and fascinating life of one of America’s greatest actresses.

If you haven’t read Jane Fonda‘s autobiography or been a meticulous student of her life and career, chances are there are many aspects of her life you are unaware about.

“There’s a whole segment of the population who only knows her from the workout tape, or who only knows her [as] Hanoi Jane, or who only knows her from Grace and Frankie,” Jane Fonda in Five Acts director Susan Lacy told Yahoo Entertainment.

There’s one thing Jane Fonda had to do before she could strip down naked in Barbarella. Source: Getty

“I would say that this is a woman who has led the way for six decades or more as a great actress, a great activist, [and] an extraordinary beacon for feminism. … That’s why it’s called Jane Fonda in Five Acts  — because there’s so many different parts to Jane.

Lacy shared five things that most casual fans would not know about Fonda’s life.

Jane got drunk to get undressed for Barbarella

In 1969, Fonda would star in a young Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? In the grim drama, Fonda finally got the opportunity to showcase her considerable acting talents. It was a stark departure from the fluffier roles she had become known for. For example, her previous film was a cult classic — 1968’s Barbarella.

Jane Fonda in Barbarella. Source: Getty

The sci-fi comedy was directed by Fonda’s first husband, French filmmaker Roger Vadim. The opening begins with Fonda as the titular character, slowly undressing as she “floats” in her home. Incredibly nervous about undressing on camera, Fonda admits she knocked back a few before filming began.

“Well, she had to get drunk in order to be naked in the film,” Lacy said. “And it’s a very funny sequence. I mean, Barbarella, looking back on it now, as she says, is kind of just a cult camp movie now. But it’s pretty silly. But she’s great at it.”

Jane has had body image issues and battled bulimia

Fonda’s fame, wealth, and beauty, which hasn’t diminished in her 80th year, might lead one to think she is confident and secure. Not so, according to Lacy.

“One of the things that comes through in the film is that she’s has been tremendously insecure her whole life, and still is to some degree,” Lacy shared. “She had body-image issues from the time she was a teenager, from her father. And a lot of that is what drove her into bulimia. She had husbands who told her she wasn’t very smart — can you imagine?

“This journey from total insecurity, total lack of a sense of self, to who she is today is what [Jane Fonda in Five Acts] is about. … The way this film is organized is the degree to which she molded herself into each man that she married.”

Jane Fonda in Barbarella. She got drunk before filming the movie’s opening sequence. (Photo: Everett Collection)

Henry Fonda was a better actor than a father

By the time Jane was born in 1937, her father, Henry Fonda, was beginning his rise to Hollywood’s A-list and was only three years away from his first Oscar nomination for portraying as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. While his cinematic achievements were undeniable, he was lacking as a father. He was often distant and cold to his children, and was unfaithful to his wife, and Jane’s mother, Frances Ford Seymour Fonda.

“[Henry Fonda] was a product of a certain time,” Lacy said. “A lot of men from that time were unable to to express themselves emotionally. He did it in his films, which is what’s so surprising — that there were … kind of two sides to Henry Fonda … but as [Jane] says — beautifully, I think, in the film, he was a hero and he was a public figure. And those kind of men don’t always make good fathers. … He loved her;  just the fact that he couldn’t say it was, in its way, kind of tragic.”

“It was surprising to have [Jane] talk so honestly about the kind of coldness that you would not have expected from watching him in [his] movies. … I think Jane came to terms with it in the making of [On Golden Pond].”

In On Golden Pond, which Jane produced, she played the Los Angeles-based daughter of an overbearing and cantankerous octogenarian. For the role, she cast an overbearing and cantankerous octogenarian — her father, Henry. The role would earn him his only Academy Award for acting.

Left to right: The Fonda family — Jane Fonda, Frances de Villers Brokaw, Frances Fonda, and Henry Fonda — in 1949. This was taken one year before Frances Fonda committed suicide. (Photo: Genevieve Naylor/Corbis via Getty Images)

Jane Fonda’s mother killed herself

“Well, I think it’s probably the Rosebud in her life, her mother’s suicide. [Jane] was young; she did not have, I think, a warm, cozy relationship [with her mother],” Lacy explained. “Her mother was never there. She was in and out of institutions. And Jane didn’t understand, as a young child, why.”

Frances Fonda suffered from depression throughout her life, and her marriage to Henry Fonda was tumultuous. Lacy says that Jane Fonda suffered tremendous guilt over what would have been her last opportunity to see her mother, when she was 13 in 1950.

“[Frances] came home from one of the institutions and was asking for her children,” Lacy said. “And Jane was so mad at her she didn’t go downstairs. Peter went; she didn’t, and [Frances] left that day and went back to the institution and slit her throat. That’ll stay with you a long time.”

An iconic French actress helped awaken Jane’s activism

Jane Fonda’s has become as renowned for her antiwar activism as for her acting, but she wasn’t always that way. In 1962, Fonda was even named Miss Army Recruitment.

Fonda, wearing sash, appears in this 1962 Army photo after being named Miss Army Recruitment 1962. She strikes a pose alongside Patterson, N.J., recruiter Sgt. Robert Juhren, Fonda would record several radio spots promoting military service. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

It all changed when Fonda had a difficult pregnancy in 1968 while living in France. Often bedridden, Fonda watched television, and suddenly her “hedonistic” lifestyle came to a halt as she learned about injustice suffered around the world and back home in the U.S. The person she turned to discuss these matters wasn’t her husband, Vadim. It was another icon of French cinema.

“She became friends with Simone Signoret, who a lot of people today probably don’t know … but she was very famous,” Lacy explained. “She was the Meryl Streep of French movies … and she was very involved in politics. She’s the one who brought Jane — another woman actress — brought Jane into politics, and her eyes were opened and she recognized that there was more to life than the life she was living.”

“I hope that she is aware that she led the way” for other actors and actresses, Lacy continued. “That’s why she is such a beacon for her women today. And she’s admired tremendously by young actresses. She was one of the very first American actresses to take a political stand on the national stage, and she took a lot of heat for it, and was reviled for it in many, many quarters.”

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