Later this year, Jane Fonda will receive the American Film Institute’s 42nd American Life Achievement Award, reflecting – to paraphrase the AFI’s selection criteria, a talent that has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time. Fonda is a fine choice, who should have had the award years ago – I think the fact that she didn’t illustrates the limits of even the AFI’s collective memory (and other considerations I’ll return to below). But if anyone could strain your memory, she’d be the one. More than most stars, her career breaks into at least five definable and in some cases drastically different phases: fresh all-American girl (Barefoot in the Park), continental sex kitten (Barbarella), radicalized serious actress (Klute), all-conquering mainstream star (Coming Home) and then the graceful veteran of recent years.
The equally remarkable shifts in her personal life (daughter of Hollywood’s favourite US president, Henry, and sister of the one-time emblematic rebel, Peter; so committed to opposing Vietnam that some still despise her for it; queen of the work-out tapes; Ted Turner’s wife, etc.) contribute to the significant complexity of her star image, to its elasticity as a measure of changing times. And along with all that, she’s won two Oscars (for Klute and Coming Home) while seldom being less than memorable; the biggest regret is that she stopped working for so long (no credits at all from 1990 to 2005, for which it seems we must blame Turner).
It’s sad how few stars have careers like this now. Of course, anyone’s image evolves with time, if only because of the weight of aging and the assumption of greater gravitas, but that aside, the image of actors like Harrison Ford and Morgan Freeman and Tom Hanks hasn’t shifted much throughout their mature careers. Nowadays, if a major star’s image does shift, it’s probably in the direction of embodying greater banality: take Robert Downey Jr. as a prime example. But for the most part, the kind of career longevity required to scoop the AFI award depends on maintaining bankability, which demands steadfast discipline. Actors like George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon (all near-certain future winners of the award, health and good luck allowing) allow themselves some sideline passion projects, but they’re not likely to commit themselves to a modern-day Jean-Luc Godard, as Fonda did in Tout va bien. And their internal stardom-stoking clock always brings them back on the hour to the next Gravity/World War Z/Bourne, in which they’re always capable, but seldom venturing more than the narrowest of variations on well-honed identities. There’s no doubt that keeping it going is a life achievement, but it only “advances the film art” in the sense that really proficient brush salesmen advance the art of painting.
The award has been presented annually since 1973, and one imagines the selection process in the early years must have been delirious: so many classic figures to choose from, so many looming grim reapers. In the first years, it went to John Ford, James Cagney, Orson Welles, William Wyler, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda and Alfred Hitchcock, and continued on that level for over a decade. Note that four of those first seven recipients were directors rather than actors (although Welles was both), but that’s true for only three out of the last sixteen: George Lucas, Mike Nichols and Mel Brooks (who’s also both). Both the limp ratio and the composition of that trio tell you a lot about how the process has come to value celebrity over all else – even to the limited extent it recognizes those behind the camera, it values profile over consistent achievement. Scorsese and Spielberg have also won, but it’s unlikely that the likes of Robert Altman and John Cassavetes were ever seriously considered.
The Wikipedia article on the topic also notes that “agreeing to appear at the televised ceremony apparently is part of the AFI's criteria for selecting the award.” The ceremony seems to turn up on a different Canadian channel every year, but always in a highly edited package that unsurprisingly emphasizes gushing tributes and lightweight anecdotes over anything approaching serious evaluation (my favourite contribution, which you can find on YouTube, was by Steve Martin at the Jack Lemmon event, encompassing his “anecdote” of how he made Lemmon’s career by excising the tapioca pudding from the original concept and title of Days of Wine and Roses, and by persuading Billy Wilder to cast Some Like it Hot with two men rather than two women). Anyway, this condition likely explains why Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Hepburn and Woody Allen aren’t on the recipients list. As for the fact that Jane Fonda is only the eighth woman to receive the honour, that might either be seen as a specific source of grievance, or a grimly accurate reflection of how things stand (no female director has made the cut, unless you include Barbra Streisand, but given the prevailing criteria, it’s hard to see who would have). Likewise the fact of two African-American winners – Freeman and Sidney Poitier (with Denzel Washington presumably just a year or two away).
A radical choice?
Of course, any award given at the pace of just one a year will always have as many notable omissions as recipients. But it’s disappointing, especially in recent years, how little the list conveys about why we might cherish American film, or regard it as art rather than merely entertainment or commerce. Couldn’t the AFI find any place for sustained eccentricity or iconoclasm (beyond the narrowly studied brand of a Mel Brooks), for underappreciated corners of the landscape, for transcendent one-off achievements that amount to more than safely lucrative careers? It seems not.
Anyway, against this background, Jane Fonda stands as something close to a radical choice, although one suspects that the award ceremony (at least in its edited form) will omit much of the reasons for that, providing instead a generically uninformative portrait of long-lived Hollywood royalty. I’d be surprised if anyone mentioned Vietnam, or Godard, or even my favourite of her peak-career films, Alan Pakula’s Rollover, one of American film’s most intriguing attempts to engage with international finance and where it leaves us. And the interest in getting some young faces on the screen no doubt entails disproportionate attention to later, unimportant pictures such as Georgia Rule and Monster-in-Law. Well, no matter, her admirers will tune in to glean what snippets of value they can, while running their own better tributes inside their own heads.