Happy Birthday, Jane Fonda

With her 80th birthday coming up on December 21, and with her acting career as busy as ever, I'm paying my respects to Jane Fonda, wishing her a happy birthday, sharing an overview of some of her career highlights, and recommending some of my favorite Fonda films along the way.

Let's start with Barefoot in the Park, the movie adaptation of a smash Neil Simon play that paired Jane Fonda with Robert Redford as young newlyweds moving into their first apartment together in Greenwich Village. They're a bit of an "odd couple" (yeah, Simon wrote that, too): She's carefree and spontaneous while he's sober-minded and serious. Can they make a go of it? Fonda is effervescent in this 1967 hit. Incidentally, Redford and Fonda recently re-teamed for a film version of Our Souls at Night (not yet available on DVD). 

The first Fonda film I remember seeing on video was the 1969 They Shoot Horses Don't They?, a gripping and memorable drama of a group of desperate Depression-era characters competing to win a dance marathon for the cash prize. It's an intense and harrowing story that earned Fonda her first Oscar nomination. (Note: the Gilmore Girls paid loving tribute to the film in a third season episode entitled "They Shoot Gilmores, Don't They?")

After winning an Oscar for the gritty Klute (currently out of print), Fonda had a run of three Best Actress Oscar nominations in a row: Julia (1977), Coming Home (1978) and The China Syndrome (1979). She's also well-known for a pair of films that were bold revisionist approaches to their genres: Barbarella is a silly and outrageous sort of naughty Buck Rogers; Cat Ballou is a parody western about revenge.

But it was Fonda's comedic chemistry with Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton in the workplace satire 9 to 5 (1980) that I have watched (and loved) most. The script is wildly implausible at times, but great fun, and Fonda is fantastic as a timid mouse of a woman who's been pushed into a hostile corporate workforce after a divorce and finds support from two coworker friends. Together they work to outwit one of the nastiest bosses ever portrayed onscreen. Fonda, Parton and Tomlin had unforgettable chemistry, which is one reason fans have cheered to see at least two of them reunite for TV's Grace and Frankie

Of course, actress Jane Fonda hails from one of the most famous acting families in Hollywood. Her father, Henry Fonda, was one of the most iconic actors of the 1940s/50s/60s and beyond. A kind of movie history was made when they teamed up for the only time in On Golden Pond (1981). In a supporting role, Jane Fonda plays a daughter struggling to forgive her aging father for a disappointing relationship. Also starring the legendary Katharine Hepburn in a late career role, it was a huge hit. Jane Fonda was nominated for her performance and, movingly, she ended up accepting her father's Oscar for him because he was too ill to appear.

In the film, Henry Fonda's character is turning 80, which brings us full circle: Now Jane Fonda is turning 80 in real life. But the 1980s fitness icon shows no signs of stopping. 

What's your favorite Jane Fonda film?

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