Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Jane Fonda Joins a Book Club

Of course, as a woman of a certain age, I belong to a book club. So, while on a recent plane flight, I couldn’t resist checking out Book Club, a film featuring some rather spectacular women of a certain age: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen. This movie—basically a romantic comedy for the AARP set—touches on the very real challenges of getting older. Like: facing the dwindling of sexual opportunities. And coping with grown children who insist on denying you any fun, just in case you might fall and break a hip. Sometimes Book Club is endearing, sometimes merely embarrassing. But it’s a hoot watching four lovely ladies (who among them have earned four Oscars and six Emmys) hold the screen.

The writers of Book Club surely tailored each role to the actress who would be bringing it to life. The part of a ditsy widow too intimidated to pursue romance is perfectly suited to the talents of fluttery Diane Keaton. Mary Steenburgen shines as a still-cute housewife trying desperately to coax her husband into bed. (Her story contains the largest amount of slapstick and has the least convincing outcome, but I have always been susceptible to her sunny charm.) Wry Candice Bergen owns some lively moments as a federal judge thrown into a tailspin by her ex-husband’s engagement to a Barbie Doll type. Exploring on-line dating, she finds herself encountering some much shorter men, including balding tax accountant Richard Dreyfuss. Finally there is Jane Fonda, as a brittle but very successful entrepreneur who oozes sex appeal but has always dodged marriage.

Fonda looks slim and gorgeous, though (at 81) she’s much the oldest of the four women. She’s also totally convincing, though in the distant past I have tended to find her comedy roles (in films like Barefoot in the Park and Fun With Dick and Jane) rather belabored.  That plane flight gave me the opportunity to explore her life (Thanks, Delta!), because one of the other onboard offerings was a fascinating 2018 documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts. This film, made with Fonda’s full cooperation, walks the viewer through her remarkable career as an actress, activist, and fitness guru. The first four acts of the title represent the eras in which Fonda’s life was shaped by men: by her father, actor Henry Fonda; by first husband, filmmaker Roger Vadim; by second husband, activist/politician Tom Hayden; and by third husband, media tycoon Ted Turner. In on-camera interviews, Jane Fonda freely admits that her low self-esteem has long made her susceptible to the influence of attractive males.  With her glamorous but chilly father and with each of her husbands, she strove to remake herself in order to win approval. It was only after divorcing Turner in 2001 that she feels she has come into her own as a woman with her own beliefs, goals, and enthusiasms. It’s ironic, therefore, that Book Club casts her as the gal who has chosen never to marry, until an attractive and persistent man convinces her he can love her just the way she is.

I was struck in particular by two of the documentary’s revelations. First, that although she admires the wrinkled face of her good friend, Vanessa Redgrave, Fonda lacks the courage to allow herself to age naturally. Yes, she’s had some work done. Second, the disapproval she sensed from her own mother (who later committed suicide in a mental institution) stunted her own ability to show motherly warmth. That’s why it’s largely on her own daughter’s behalf that she has made this film. 

Friday, January 25, 2019

Of Princesses Young and Old

I’m not sure what it is about princesses that have little girls (and many big ones too) so gaga. What is a princess, after all? She has royal relatives, but she does not have the obligation of actually ruling. The big decisions are not hers to make, nor is she the one obligated to function at all times as a dignified symbol of her nation. Instead, her role seems to be to wear nice clothing and look pretty. Outside of the occasional royal duty (like opening bridges and housing projects), her time is pretty much her own.

That’s what I’ve gleaned, anyway, from reading a much-discussed new biography, Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown. Brown, a Brit with eighteen other books to his credit, has a wicked wit and seems to know everyone in the United Kingdom. In writing about the younger sister (now deceased) of Queen Elizabeth II, he sets aside the usual trappings of biographies, the tidy and inexorable movement from cradle to grave. Instead, this is a book full of intimate glances at her royal highness, as seen through the eyes of servants, friends, ex-lovers, and anyone else with something to say. This sort of pastiche makes for some surprising discoveries, like the fact that in her heyday, around the time of her sister’s coronation in 1953, she was considered hot stuff. Not only was there the forbidden romance with an older man, Group Captain Peter Townsend, who was both a commoner and recently divorced, but she also attracted lustful attention in some unlikely quarters. Most memorable to me was the fact that the great Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, apparently developed a major crush.

Among Brown’s “glimpses” are some eccentric chapters that are pure fantasy. One describes in detail Margaret abdicating her royal perks to marry Peter Townsend and live with him in a modest farmhouse outside of Paris. Another shows her wedded to Jeremy Thorpe, a real-life
British politician who years later would be tried for the murder of a same-sex partner. Still another chronicles a disastrous liaison with Picasso, who painted her in all her glory. All of this is great fun to read, but has nothing to do with her actual much-discussed and ultimately unsuccessful marriage to a photographer (and man-about-town), Antony Armstrong-Jones, who was named 1st Earl of Snowdon once he secured Margaret as his bride.

The  place to relive all of this recent history is Netflix’s ongoing series, The Crown. Margaret is by no means the central focus, but I suspect that by the time the series is over, viewers will see her as the bloated over-the-hill party girl she was to become. For more optimistic views of the life of a princess, it’s best to check out pretty much any classic Disney animated feature (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty). These films teach little girls that though they may start out in rags and be threatened by evil queens and stepmothers, they’ll ultimately win their crowns and live happily ever after, with handsome princes at their side and dresses galore in their closets. A hipper, more modern variant is Disney’s live-action The Princess Diaries. Then there’s Audrey Hepburn, looking every inch a princess in Roman Holiday (though, it must be said, her Princess Ann would much rather dress like a shopgirl and ride a motorbike through Rome than attend to the protocol expected of her). Finally, and most romantically of all, there’s Robin Wright looking every inch a royal in The Princess Bride.

Now I think I’ll return to gazing at myself in a mirror, and fantasizing a royal crown.