Despite a long and distinguished career making film portraits as creator of PBS’ American Masters series, Susan Lacy will not just do anyone. She proclaimed at a Q&A with Alec Baldwin at a Hamptons International Film Festival pre-screening of her HBO documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, she would not make a film about someone she does not like, “like someone who I want to get out of the White House.” “I really understand,” replied Baldwin, scrunching up into his best Trump face. “I really, really do.”
Reflecting on her PBS time, recounting the genesis of American Masters, Lacy spoke about her certainty that stories on culture-shifting figures such as James Baldwin, Joni Mitchell, Judy Garland, and her favorite, Leonard Bernstein, were inherently dramatic, often geniuses fighting against cultural mores, or their own demons. That was a difficult sell, but she prevailed. Now making films for HBO, like last year’s superb Spielberg, she does not have to raise the money. HBO just asks, what’s your budget?
Wanting foremost to please men, Fonda distanced herself from her mother, a suicide. Organizing her journey through the film’s chapters, from her famous father Henry to husbands Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden, Ted Turner, and finally to herself, Lacy provides a structure to a life, more messy than most. Big haired Jane as Barbarella, wild haired “Hanoi Jane” as public enemy #1, the “hair epiphany” of her Klute cut, for her role as a prostitute. The workout tapes funding her political activism illustrate how she could successfully morph, and that goes for her relationships too. Nathalie, her stepdaughter with Vadim says ruefully, when she’s ready to move on, she just does, no matter how that affects others.
In the end, Fonda visits her mother’s grave, a wan reconciliation compared to her coming back to Henry, giving him his only Oscar winning part for On Golden Pond. Lacy asked Baldwin what he thought of that ending, which gives the film its satisfying arc. Lacy concluded: “I think this film is a gender journey, and political for a lot of women.”