Jane Fonda steals spotlight in TNT tribute to her dad

January 13, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It's billed as a "tribute" and "film retrospective." But "Fonda on Fonda," at 8 and midnight tonight on cable's TNT,is high-wire psychodrama.

The show is one hour of Jane Fonda talking about -- or introducing clips of others talking about -- her late father, Henry Fonda. She starts out like a conventional host of a TV retrospective, talking about her father as an actor and what his public persona came to represent. But, by the end of the hour, she is in tears, clearly lost in personal memories.

It makes for one of those weird TV experiences, where notions of public and private are all jumbled and you don't know if you are watching something real or something incredibly phony. If it's real, you're a little embarrassed to be watching -- but you're not about to turn off the TV. If it's phony, you're angry about being hustled.

Along the way, though, some of the wonderful moments of Henry Fonda's film career are revisited and, thanks to the New York Times, perspective on that career is offered.

The show opens with Ms. Fonda literally holding the Times and reading the appreciation of her father that ran in the paper the day after he died.

"He was the emblem for a certain kind of American male -- awkward with women, honest as the day is long and blessed with the same innocence that guards fools, drunks and angels," the Times said. "Whether he was or wasn't the real Henry Fonda is irrelevant. On screen, the shadow is the substance. Many performers are talented. But Mr. Fonda also possessed the magic that weds an audience to an actor for life. And thanks to film, that life endures. Go to the movies, turn on a television set, and there they are: the young Abe Lincoln, Tom Joad, Mr. Roberts, the man we wished lived next door."

"Fonda on Fonda" tries to refashion memories of the real Henry Fonda to fit that icon.

"Henry was in many many ways that person on screen that he was at home," says Shirlee Fonda, the actor's third wife. The problem with this revisionist view is that Jane and other members of the family are on record having said how difficult he was to live with. If they are going to move 180 degrees, they need to explain the change in attitude. Such explanation is never offered.

The reaction to Ms. Fonda tonight -- as she remembers her father on a cable network owned by her new husband, Ted Turner -- will vary from viewer to viewer. Some will love her, some will surely hate her.

And, in the end, that's the biggest failing of this show: The viewer winds up reacting to Jane Fonda, not Henry. Whether she intended to or not, Ms. Fonda steals the spotlight from her father in what is supposed to be a celebration of his work.

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