Oprah Talks to Jane Fonda
Now we behold her newest transformation: She is Brave New Jane, a woman who has finally realized her own power—and acknowledged faith in a higher one. At the age of 62 (can you really look like that at 62?), Jane says she has shed the disease to please and discovered her voice, one she stifled while in relationships with all three of the men (yes, even Ted) she has married: the late French film director Roger Vadim, whom she wed in 1965 and divorced eight years later, after having her first child, Vanessa; activist Tom Hayden, her husband of 16 years and the father of her son, Troy; and media tycoon Ted Turner—from whom Jane separated last January after eight years of marriage.
Jane and I meet at the Atlanta home of her daughter, Vanessa. When Jane and Ted separated, it was here that Jane found a haven, with her daughter at her side, her 1-year-old grandson in her arms and the sweeping green of Grant Park outside the front windows. She came to this neighborhood—to this nothing-fancy purple house with white trim—to perform her most important act yet: the one called self-definition.
It isn't just her split with Ted, so fresh and painful that Jane-still wears her wedding ring, that prompted her introspection. What brought her here—to her daughter's home and to this place in her life—was the choice to understand what she calls her "first and second acts," her first 60 years, as a means to understanding her final act. There's a lot to unravel in the early part of her life: When Jane was 12, her mother committed suicide (as did Ted Turner's father when Ted was 24); as a child, Jane yearned for the love and approval that her father often didn't know how to express; and for more than a decade, up until her mid-thirties, Jane battled bulimia.
Jane and I settle into her daughter's living room—sans shoes, sitting cross-legged, sipping Earl Grey tea and surrounded by ceiling-high bookshelves. When we finish our conversation—after nearly two hours, with her grandson occasionally crying in the background—I know that I have gained a friend. What I also know: It's because of the pain in Jane's past, however arduous it has been, that Jane is indeed a woman on the verge of something great.
Oprah: I've read that, like me, you've always struggled with the disease to please.
Jane: I used to walk into a party and think, "Oh, my God, will I be interesting enough? Will people like me? Will I be pretty enough? Do I fit in?" Now I go into a room and think, "Do I really want to be here? Are these people I want to spend a few hours with?" It's a big shift.
Oprah: How did you make the shift?
Jane: Hard work. Growing up.
Oprah: Are you still growing up?
Jane: To do life right, you have to feel like you're growing up until the day you die. The thing I'm proudest of is that I have stayed curious. I have every intention, when I'm on my deathbed, of saying, "Oh, my God—I get it!"
Oprah: Do you get it at all now?
Jane: Three or four years after I married Ted, I thought I got it. Wrong.
Oprah: What did you think you had gotten?
Jane: I thought I had learned how to have an intimate relationship. And I thought I'd learned how to be happy. Everybody has issues. For me, the challenge is intimacy, but I really didn't start to get that until I turned 60.
Oprah: Tell me about turning 60.
Jane: As I saw my 60th birthday approaching, I thought, Well, I can do what a lot of my friends do and sleep through it. Or I can really show up. What did 60 mean to me? I figured I'd probably live until I'm about 90, which meant that I was at the beginning of what I call my third act. These are my last 30 years.
As an actress, I know how important the third act is. Third acts make sense of the first and second acts. You can have first and second acts that are interesting, but you don't know what they mean. Then a good third act pulls it all together. And so I thought, for that to happen, I have to know what the first and second acts were about, and I have to know where I want to end up. I knew that, because I sat by my father's side over the long months when he was dying.
When a significant other—a spouse, a parent or someone you're close to—is dying, it forces you to think about your life, about what you feel about death. What I realized from my dad's dying was that I wasn't scared of dying. But I was terrified of regrets. I was terrified of getting to the end of my life with a lot of Why didn't I's.
Oprah: How old were you when your father died?
Jane: Forty-four. My father didn't verbalize much, but I knew he had regrets, and I don't want to. I want to have people around me who really love me, whom I really love. And I know that you can't collect those chips unless you've earned them during your life. What that said to me was that I had one act left to make sure I didn't get to the end with regrets. What would I regret the most? My big regret would be if I'd never had an intimate relationship. But if you never grew up with intimacy, if you were never with parents who really loved each other, and you never saw that and absorbed it as a kid, it's hard to know how to do it.
I married certain kinds of men who weren't ever going to demand that I show up; and I didn't realize it consciously, but I never showed up for my kids. So I thought, "My challenge is to learn how to show up."
Oprah: I read that when you married Ted, you said, "Wherever he goes, there I will be." Did that mean you also wanted to "show up"—emotionally, spiritually, intimately?
Jane: Theoretically, that's what I wanted. But it took me a while to realize that it also scared me to death. And I thought I was connecting on the deepest level. Then I realized there was further to go—and I wanted to go there. So I worked on myself for about eight years.
Oprah: Meaning therapy?
Oprah: Trying to get to what?
Jane: Trying to understand the fear I had of truly opening my heart—first, you have to be whole to do that. The fears, the voices in my mind saying, "Oh, you don't want to do that, you might get hurt, they might abandon you—"those are ghost voices from my mom and dad.
Oprah: Isn't it true that you have to be whole because you have to be able to trust yourself? Even if someone isn't all you need, you have to trust yourself enough to be able to take care of yourself.
Jane: Yeah. You can't give unless you're stepping into a relationship as a full person. That's what I was working on, and it's just fascinating because this was all happening when I was deciding that I wanted to devote my life to kids—primarily to girls, because I understand them. To do that right, you have to think about your own girlhood.
Oprah: That's right.
Jane: Girls lose their original spirit in early adolescence. The bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, powerful girls shrink down to the size of a thimble.
Oprah: Yeah, 10, 11, 12—gone. We start trying to be what everybody else wants.
Jane: Are you thin enough? Are you pretty enough? Do you fit in with this little group? It becomes about that. And then our female teachers, our mothers and the other women around us—without realizing what they're doing—send us the message that to survive as a woman, you have to quiet that voice. Virginia Woolf called it "the angel in the house." She would sit down to write from her core, and the shadow of the angel in the house would cast itself over her page to say, "I'm not sure you want to say that. People aren't going to understand that. You should be nicer, a little more feminine."
Oprah: A little cuter.
Jane: That's right. Hide your intelligence. Hide your power.
Oprah: Do we still do that to girls?
Jane: Oh, yes.
Oprah: We don't even know we're doing it.
Jane: No idea.
Oprah: I think most women reading this would say, "No, my daughter knows she can do anything."
Jane: Certainly, a lot of women who have identified with the women's movement and what it represents in terms of owning your voice and power have raised their daughters differently. But for the most part, and certainly among the girls I work with, it still happens. Even if the mother's not doing it, the culture around us is.