Hollywood has long been pilloried for its clueless ageist casting which has seen – largely male – directors retire women from romantic leading roles once they hit the tender age of 40. But the tide has turned and heading the charge is the irrepressible Jane Fonda.
At 85, Jane is the oldest of the star-studded quartet of women blazing a trail in Book Club: The Next Chapter, and also the sassiest. In the film we see her character, commitment-phobe Vivian, finally heading for matrimony after a life of fierce independence. Sporting a sizeable rock from the lover who first proposed to her decades before, she heads off on a bachelorette romp to Rome with her girlfriends to celebrate and prepare for the big day.
This is the sequel to hit movie Book Club which grossed a jaw-dropping US$104.4 million worldwide – proof that women of a certain age really can command the limelight and at the same time make bankable movies. Jane’s sidekicks in that movie and this are powerhouse stars Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton and Mary Steenbergen, and their combined 308 years give a fine-wine depth to the frothy comedy.
I also couldn’t help but notice that it is 73-year-old Don Johnson who plays Vivian’s lovesick fiancé. Remember him? Don became a sex symbol in the 1980s in the hit TV precinct drama Miami Vice … In Book Club it is, of course, Jane Fonda’s character who is the foxy siren!
Such ironic casting is not lost on the audience and the tongue-in-cheek humour carries through into the plot. In a nod to classic rom-coms, one of the best scenes in the film sees Jane burning up the screen trying on wedding dresses in an haute couture bridal gown emporium in Rome. Needless to say she looks seriously hot while also having a ball.
“It felt great,” Jane tells me as we settle down to chat. “I like showing that women can be sexy when they’re in serious old age. It was fun.” The on-screen chemistry between the four women is palpable and another reason the film is so seductive. “We all like each other. We all admire each other,” says Jane by way of explanation. “And just between us, I’m in love with Mary Steenburgen,” she whispers. “Mary is a magical human; a little bit psychic and glowing with love. She makes everyone around her feel wonderful and loved. She had her husband and dog with her all the time on set. They are the most in-love couple.”
Jane first met Mary on the set of the inaugural Book Club, but Candice she has known forever. “I had a boyfriend when I first came to Hollywood, he had a crush on Candy Bergen and wanted me to meet her so he drove me over to her house. How he knew where she lived I don’t know!
“We rang the bell and somebody opened the door. This spectacular beauty, all of 17 years old, was at the top of a ladder in the entrance way to her home. I’m not even sure if she came down [the ladder] but I saw enough to know that I wanted to keep my boyfriend away from her absolutely. She just took my breath away. She was so beautiful. I subsequently found out that she was also extremely smart and extremely funny and a wonderful writer. What’s not to love?”
Jane says she’s also “in awe” of Diane Keaton – especially in The Godfather and Annie Hall. “I love her aesthetic. I’ve been in her home and everything is black and white: The library, all the books are covered with white, the staircase is black. You can see by the way she dresses; she’s all about presentation in the best sense of the meaning and the best meaning of the phrase.”
Behind the scenes, Jane, Mary and Candice would indulge in hours of “girl talk” with a core topic being their parents and how their behaviour impacted on their childhoods – a complex well of emotion for Jane, which we’ll come to later.
“The vibe is in-between takes, which can make the bulk of a day,” Jane continues. “During the waiting it’s me, Mary and Candy together in a room or a garage or a tent, as was the case in Italy, talking, sharing stories. Diane Keaton is never there. She’s not a social being. She’s shy, I think maybe. She just doesn’t hang around with us a lot.
“We shared a make-up trailer for Book Club One and Diane came in every day looking like she was ready to shoot with her huge skirt and crinoline, tiny waist with wide leather belt, hat, heavy Doc Martens boots. That’s the way she dresses. She would come in that way, carrying, every day, a two-foot stack of magazines. She would spend the entire time in the make-up trailer cutting out photographs that I think she uses on her Instagram account.”
The heart of the film is female friendship and the power of that special connection, which in her own life Jane feels deeply. On reflection, she says she’s come to the conclusion that relationships with men are markedly different to those with women. “Night and day,” she declares.
“I’m not proud or happy to admit that I don’t think I have ever had a 100 per cent authentic relationship with a man. My relationships with my girlfriends are nothing but authenticity. Women’s friendships are totally different from men’s. This is the metaphor for men’s friendships. They sit side by side looking out. Sporting games, cars. ‘Oh, look at that woman, look at her ass.’ They look out.
“Women’s friendships are two people sitting face-to-face, looking each other directly in the eye, not afraid to say, ‘I’m in trouble, can you help me? I need a hug.’ Expressing vulnerability, asking for help, sharing stories, no matter how long it’s been since you’ve seen each other, it drills down to soul level immediately. I think it’s one reason why women live five years longer on average than men.”
WATCH: Trailer for Book Club: The Next Chapter (article continues below video)
Jane admits there’s a lot of herself in the character of Vivian, who fears marriage to be an institution that confines women, stealing their independence. Vivian has always retained control in her relationships with men, refusing to spend the night with her lovers. But then, in this sequel, we see her break the habit of a lifetime when she says “yes” to Arthur’s marriage proposal.
Jane of course succumbed many times. “I’ve been married three times, but I have real problems with marriage and I don’t think it suits everybody,” she explains. “I think some of the narratives around marriage: obey, for example … we have to rewrite that narrative and, in a way I think Vivian does that in this movie.”
What was the most potent take-out message from the movie for her? “Besides don’t get married again?” she quips. “Keep your girlfriends close. Try to do fun things with them. Life’s too short.”
On another big relationship topic, Jane says she believes women’s attitude to sex changes considerably as they get older. “I think we relax more. We know what pleases us. We’re less afraid to ask for it. Back in the day, when I was just beginning to get old, I did research on this issue, and I decided that I wanted to try in my professional life to show older women wanting and desiring relationships and sex because I interviewed a lot of very older women who were still wanting it and getting it.”
While Jane is happy to be a poster girl for older women’s sex drive in her movies, in her own life she says she’s no longer interested. “I don’t have sex anymore. I’ve closed up shop down there. I’m having visual sex but not sex with another person.”
It’s not the first time Jane has talked about her current state of celibacy, and as I question her more, she is adamant she really doesn’t see herself having sex ever again. “Ted Turner once told me, if you don’t use it, it closes up. I think it’s true,” she chuckles.
Media entrepreneur Turner was the last of Jane’s three husbands. They divorced in 2001 after 10 years together. “I’ve closed up!” she adds defiantly.
There’s a line in the movie that stuck out for me about the concept of invisibility as we age, suggesting that the characters feel they have hit a time when “life starts to silence us”. But Jane, who is not known for silence, is quick to challenge that idea. “I don’t think it’s true,” she offers. “Not for women. I think maybe for men a little bit, yes. Partly because as men get older their testosterone drops in relation to their oestrogen, so they become more home bodies. That’s why out in Hollywood men on their second or third marriages become much better fathers or grandfathers. They settle down a little bit, whereas women, their oestrogen drops in relation to testosterone so they’re more apt to say, ‘This is what I want’, or, ‘Here’s the laundry, honey, I’m off to a yoga class’. They’re more ready to take charge of their lives and their personhood and make a ruckus.
“In the fall of 2019 I went to Washington and I held rallies every Friday, called ‘Fire Drill Fridays’ and engaged in civil disobedience and got arrested. I noticed over the months, as the rallies got bigger and bigger, they were almost all women – and older women. They were women who had never come to rallies before or engaged in civil disobedience, and I do feel that as women get older they get braver and bolder.”
Jane was always bold, her political activism dominating the headlines in the ’60s and ’70s, notoriously in opposition to the Vietnam War. Today her energies are fervently and urgently focused on climate change and arresting global warming, and time, she says, is running out.
“We have to cut climate emissions in half by 2030. That’s less than eight years from now and I feel tremendous pressure to play an important role. It’s not happening in the US and I feel so bad for Australia. You’re getting such a brunt of the climate crisis, and I love your country so much. This year I’m not making a movie at all. My whole focus is on the climate crisis.”
On a personal level, Jane says her priorities have shifted significantly and she’s very candid about harbouring deep regrets. “I do tend to think a lot about the past and what I could have done differently, so one of the priorities for me that has changed, and I think it may be true of other older women, is I want to try to make up for the mistakes that I made so that by the time I get to the end I don’t have such regrets – like parenting. I didn’t know how to parent when my children were younger but I’ve studied it, I’ve actually learned what parenting is supposed to look like. I didn’t get it. I wish that I could go back but I can’t, so one of my priorities now is showing up for my children, and my grandchildren.”
Jane has three children – daughter Vanessa from her first marriage to French director Roger Vadim, Troy from her second marriage to activist Tom Hayden, and Mary Williams, who the couple adopted as a teen in 1982. I wonder if she’s being a little hard on herself and ask if her children have actually told her she was a bad parent. “Yes,” she replies. “I felt terrible, but I knew they were right and I’ve apologised numerous times.”
Jane’s own childhood was pretty complex. Her mother, Frances, died by suicide when Jane was 12. She had bipolar disorder and was being treated in a hospital at the time. Her father – Hollywood icon Henry Fonda – was very distant as a parent.
“I was raised by a governess. My mother suffered from mental illness and my father was away most of the time, so I didn’t really have present parenting,” she explains. “The extent to which I had parenting was by osmosis. I adored and respected my father and I wanted him to like me. I knew that the films he enjoyed doing were films like The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr Lincoln, The Ox-Bow Incident, 12 Angry Men, and I knew that they represented certain kinds of values, so I paid attention to that. In a way, that was parenting.
“I wanted to make my father proud. I wanted him to like me; be brave, be bold, be fair, don’t discriminate, stand up to bullies, all those things. But he never said one of those things to me.”
Jane says now she counts being present for her children and her two grandchildren, Malcolm and Viva, as the most important lesson she has learned.
In 2022 she revealed she’d been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Three months later her publicist announced that following treatment, the cancer was in remission. And shortly before her 85th birthday, Jane posted a social media blog entitled “Best Birthday Present Ever”, writing that her oncologist had told her she could “discontinue” the chemotherapy treatments. “I am feeling so blessed, so fortunate,” she said. “I thank all of you who prayed and sent good thoughts my way. I am confident that it played a role in the good news.”
On her birthday on December 21, Jane was overwhelmed to receive an outpouring of emotional messages on social media, many of which she read out and responded to in a moving video that she posted on her Instagram account. She felt humbled by the reaction from people she had never met but clearly loved her.
“It makes me feel really, really good,” she tells me. “I have not been popular all my life. A man once walked up to me, a very handsome man by the way, with a wonderful big smile, and he walked right up to my face and said, ‘I’d like to cut your f***ing throat!’. I’ve had my house ransacked and bombs thrown through my window. Stuff like that. So, I’m still surprised and gratified when people are nice to me and say nice things. “It means the world to me.”
Book Club: The Next Chapter is in cinemas from May 11.
You can read this story and many others in the May issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.