Jane Fonda, who only recently got to know her socialite mother's life, plays a hippie mom in Peace, Love and Misunderstanding
Jane Fonda, who only recently got to know her socialite mother's life, plays a hippie mom in Peace, Love and Misunderstanding

“Jane Fonda makes a triumphant return to the screen in this heartfelt and funny comedy,” reads a marketing blurb for Peace, Love and Misunderstanding, which opens this weekend at Landmark’s Century Centre. Hey, wait a minute—didn’t Fonda already make a triumphant return to the screen with Monster-in-Law (2005), followed by another triumphant return to the screen with Georgia Rule (2007)? How long do you have to be gone to make a triumphant return to the screen, and how triumphant can your return be when all three movies are duds? (A fourth, Et Si on Vivait Tous Ensemble, was released in France last year.) Fonda took a long break from the movie business after costarring with Robert De Niro in Stanley & Iris (1990), and now that she’s triumphantly returned, this fine actress faces a predicament similar to his: she’s too old for the kind of roles that made her an icon but too iconic to disappear into a role anymore.

Taken as a group, however, these three movies are pretty interesting for what they reveal about Fonda as a person and as an emblem of American womanhood. Her roles are remarkably similar: in each movie she plays a larger-than-life mother figure clashing with a younger woman (in Monster-in-Lawher son’s fiancee; in the latter two movies an estranged daughter), and both Georgia Rule and Peace, Love feature a granddaughter character (Lindsay Lohan and Elizabeth Olsen, respectively) who works through some of her own issues with grandma as her mentor and example. Watching Fonda act with (and routinely steal scenes from) these twentysomething women makes you wonder if they have any idea how decisively she blazed a trail for them four decades earlier, dramatically widening the scope of female experience that could be portrayed onscreen.

Considering the three movies together seems particularly appropriate given that Fonda’s 50-year career breaks down into such distinct phases. During the 60s she played the sort of woman men wanted to see, from the perky newlywed of Barefoot in the Park (1967) to the sci-fi sexpot of Barbarella (1968). That all changed with Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) and Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1970), when she established herself as an actress of real depth and became known for roles that spoke to feminists. In the late 70s and the 80s, while married to activist Tom Hayden, she searched out pointedly social or political scripts, her films ranging from the memorable (Coming Home, about Vietnam veterans; The China Syndrome, about nuclear power) to the forgettable (Rollover, about global finance). Now that Fonda has launched what may be the last phase of her movie career, she seems preoccupied with a subject few people associate her with: motherhood.

This focus seems strange particularly because Fonda’s personal life—at least as the public perceives it—has revolved not around her mother, a New York socialite who died when Jane was 12, but her father, screen legend Henry Fonda. Decent and kindhearted in the movies, Henry Fonda was cold and unfeeling with his children; Jane’s relationship with him, as she describes it in her autobiography My Life So Far, was an endless and doomed campaign to win his affection and approval. Their prickly relationship became common knowledge after they acted out a version of it in Mark Rydell’s familial drama On Golden Pond (1981), which Jane produced and which won Henry Fonda his only Oscar. Jane agonized over their climactic scene together, when the daughter character reaches out to her icy father, but the real-life rapprochement she’d been hoping for never came. “I was so sad,” Jane Fonda writes. “I felt like a dope for getting all soft and fuzzy over what for him was obviously just a scene.”

As Fonda tells it, her lifelong battle to win her father’s love colored all her relationships with men, including her three marriages (to French director Roger Vadim from 1965 to ’73, to Hayden from 1973 to ’89, and to media mogul Ted Turner from 1991 to 2001). More than anything else, it seems, her ardent desire to please each of her husbands drove her public transformations, from sex object to political firebrand to international philanthropist. But when her marriage to Turner fell apart, Fonda writes, she reached a point of emotional equilibrium unlike anything she’d ever known. In the last chapter of her book, “Leaving My Father’s House,” she rejects “a world that bifurcates head and heart, renders empathy (for oneself or for others) impossible, and makes both men and women, boys and girls, less human than they inherently are.”

Monster-in Law, whose release coincided with the publication of Fonda’s book, gives her the best role of the three movies. Her character, Viola Fields, is a Barbara Walters-style TV journalist who gets canned by her network because of her advancing age and takes out her anger on her son’s beautiful young fiancee, played by Jennifer Lopez. Fonda took the job to help fund her programs for adolescent reproductive health, but the role also must have resonated with a 67-year-old actress returning to a business that’s famously hostile to older women. Viola is a broad, juicy character—vain, insecure, vengeful, self-pitying—and Fonda has a field day with her (she plows right over Lopez, though there’s some great chemistry between her and Wanda Sykes as Viola’s eye-rolling personal assistant). Fonda hasn’t done much comedy, but Monster-in-Law reminds you that the genre accounts for her commercial breakthrough, Cat Ballou (1965), and one of her biggest hits, Nine to Five (1980).

I don’t know what induced Fonda to make Georgia Rule, but I can only hope it was a worthy charity. Written and directed by Garry Marshall—whose big-screen sitcoms include Pretty Woman (1990), Runaway Bride (1999), The Princess Diaries (2001), and Valentine’s Day (2010)—Georgia Rule is a ham-fisted generational drama with Fonda as the title character, a God-fearing widow in small-town Idaho who’s not afraid to lay down the law; Felicity Huffman as her alienated and alcoholic daughter; and Lindsay Lohan (at the height of her tabloid notoriety) as her cynical granddaughter, who keeps going back and forth on her claim that she’s been molested by her stepfather. One of the more startling developments in Fonda’s personal life has been her recent conversion to Christianity, so perhaps she liked the idea of playing a woman who scolds people for taking the Lord’s name in vain and comes after the stepfather in question with a baseball bat.

Peace, Love and Misunderstanding often plays like a remake of Georgia Rule with the political polarities reversed. This time Fonda’s character, Grace, is an old hippie letting it all hang out in Woodstock, New York; her daughter, played by Catherine Keener, is a right-wing attorney who shows up at the old homestead with her two teenage kids after her husband asks for a divorce. Fonda can’t do much with the character, an aggregation of cliches: Grace wears baggy print dresses, grows pot in her basement, drives a Volkswagen Beetle, presides over monthly bacchanals where women worship the full moon, and says things like, “Then Hendrix comes onstage to play, and my water breaks!” Director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy) is a lot more skilled than Marshall, and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), who plays Grace’s granddaughter, is a lot more engaging than Lohan. But the mother-daughter tension seems as stale and woolly-headed as in the earlier movie.

Fonda writes candidly about her own regrets as a busy, career-oriented mother (she has a daughter by Vadim, a son by Hayden, and an adopted daughter) and about the powerful emotional awakening she experienced when her first grandchild arrived in 1999. Those things alone might explain her eagerness to play flawed mothers, even in movies that hold out little promise of being any good. But with her recent choice of movie roles, Fonda may be reaching back even farther into the past. Her own mother, Frances Seymour, suffered from chronic depression and was frequently hospitalized; in April 1950, shortly after Henry Fonda divorced her, she cut her throat with a razor she’d smuggled into the Craig House sanitorium in Beacon, New York. Jane and her brother, Peter Fonda, were told their mother had died of a heart attack, though the following month Jane learned the true story from Photoplay, a Hollywood scandal magazine.

In an extraordinary passage from My Life So Far, Fonda recalls how writing the book finally forced her to investigate her mother’s life. Born to a successful New York attorney, Frances Seymour had been physically abused by her father and, on one occasion, sexually molested by a piano tuner visiting their home. After graduating from high school, she became a secretary, went to work on Wall Street, and nabbed herself a millionaire husband, George Brokaw, who died and left her his fortune. When Seymour met the young actor Henry Fonda, she was one of the liveliest, most desired women in New York society, a far cry from the helpless and morose woman Jane Fonda remembered. As startling as these revelations may seem, they’re perfectly consistent with the sense of constant self-discovery that has made Fonda such a fascinating personality for all these years. Her last three movies may not constitute any triumphant return, but understanding oneself can be a triumph all its own.