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“I've cried more in the last day and a half ... because I'm so filled with emotion.”
Oscar-winning actress Jane Fonda, dabbing her eyes as she entered to a standing ovation Sunday night at the Holland Performing Arts Center, won her audience early by talking about how much Omaha has meant to her and her famous family.
Fonda came here to help raise funds for Film Streams, Omaha's nonprofit arthouse cinema. Oscar-winning director Alexander Payne interviewed her about her life and career before an audience of more than 1,300. Payne is on Film Streams' board and invited Fonda. The event brought in more than $226,000.
Fonda's equally famous father, Henry, graduated from Central High School in 1923 and began his acting career at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
In the saddle-shoe and sock-hop era, Fonda said, she spent summers in Omaha cruising ... “what was the name of that street?”
“Dodge,” the audience said loudly.
“Yeah,” Fonda shot back. “Oh, and chiggers. Omaha was my first experience of chiggers. In that sense it prepared me for Ted Turner.”
The crowd roared at her reference to her third ex-husband.
Her father's DNA, she said, “was rooted here. He loved his sister, Harriet, and Marlon Brando's mother convinced him to replace an actor who was supposed to be in ‘Merton of the Movies' (at the Playhouse in 1926). That's where he got the bug” for acting, she said.
But the juice of their conversation was in her memories and observations about making movies. Payne said he wanted to talk about 1969 through the 1980s, in which she made movies that he said inspired him to become a director.
“What, you're leaving out ‘Barbarella'? I'm kidding,'`” she quipped, getting a big laugh referring to a sci-fi sex fantasy she made with her first husband, French director Roger Vadim.
Highlights of their conversation:
Director Sydney Pollack asked her to read the book “They Shoot Horses, Don't They?” and discuss what the movie script lacked. “Nobody had ever asked my opinion. It was so empowering.” The movie earned Fonda her first Oscar nomination in 1970.
With “Klute,” for which she won her first Oscar, playing a prostitute in 1972, she said director Alan Pakula arranged for her to spend a week with actual hookers. “Not once did any john even wink at me, much less try to solicit. I went to Alan and I said, ‘I ain't doin' it. I'm just not the type. Get Faye Dunaway.' He laughed me out of his office.”
“Coming Home,” for which she won her second Oscar, playing a Vietnam veteran's wife, was inspired in part by Fonda's friendship with paraplegic Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, who came to oppose the war. In war, he said, “I may have lost my body, but I found my mind.”
The film brought Fonda a rare compliment from her father, who said he was in awe that scenes in it were improvised.
She said a clip Payne played from “Coming Home” reminded her how important it is today to help returning servicemen and women know “it's OK to seek help (for post-traumatic stress), that we love them and understand. ... It's critical to their survival, and to our survival as a nation.”
Her newscaster role in “The China Syndrome” was intended for Richard Dreyfuss, who dropped out. “I got a gender theme in there that was kinda nice,” she said of an era when women were relegated to fluff pieces while men did the serious news.
“On Golden Pond,” she said, was tough because it was so deeply personal. In the only film she made with her father, for which he won his only Oscar, she was reaching out to him just as her character in the film was reaching out to her dad.
“I didn't anticipate how hard it would be ... to say things out loud as Chelsea that I had never been able to say to my father,” she said.
Co-star Katharine Hepburn, she said, had a philosophy that it was her job to be fascinating as a movie star.
“She was challenging, and prickly,” Fonda said. “But my father was from Omaha. You just did your work. You showed up on time, did your lines, did it as good as you could and you went home to your wife.” The crowd laughed, then applauded.
She recalled how Hepburn comforted her after a hurtful remark from Henry Fonda during shooting. “Don't feel bad, Jane,” she said, imitating Hepburn's shaky older voice. “He doesn't know he's hurt you. Spencer (Tracy) used to do that all the time to me.”
Asked what traits she liked in directors, Fonda said the only ones she disliked were the mean ones, who treated their crews badly. But she liked how different they all were.
Fred Zinneman, she said, cast “Julia” perfectly and often did only one take. Hal Ashby (“Coming Home”) came from the world of editing and did up to 40 takes. Pakula (“Klute”) was like a shrink in discussing the psychology of a scene. Bruce Beresford (“Peace, Love and Misunderstanding”) was bare bones, no nonsense and easy to work with.
How much did she miss acting during her 14-year break from film? “Nary a second,” she said without a beat. “After writing my memoirs, I knew I could find joy in it again. But I was 65. It was hard to scramble back.”
She let slip that she'll soon be playing Nancy Reagan in a cameo role in a movie called “The Butler.” And “I'm told she's not upset I'm going to play her.”
An audience member asked what was most fulfilling for Fonda: her exercise tapes, political activism, movie work or family. All of it together, she said.
And what would she like to do next?
“I'd like to do a television series, one that's my show. That's on my bucket list.”
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GALLERY: Notable roles from Jane Fonda