Very few actresses have been able to accomplish as much as Jane Fonda has in the span of her legendary career on the screen. The actress helped re-define how far a woman could go in Hollywood by challenging the traditional image of the screen heroine and shaping her to fit the changing times. Fonda brilliantly fashioned these images through the likes of comedy in 9 to 5 and drama by way of The China Syndrome. The resulting career holds a collection of films which painted realistic portraits of women existing, and thriving, in a man’s world while still holding onto their femininity.
If there is one area of film which Fonda and her indelible image are not immediately associated with, its in the mystery genre. This is interesting since so many of Fonda’s projects have seen her boldly enter into male-dominated worlds and inhabit them in successful and fascinating ways. No doubt most point to her work in Klute (giving an Oscar-winning performance in what remains one of her most iconic films) as proof of her ability to handle the thriller genre. Not to discount her fascinating character and the way she brought it to life, but in that film Fonda’s call girl seemed to be led by Donald Sutherland’s detective most of the way, in a manner which thankfully didn’t diminish her power as a woman, but didn’t allow her to fully explore that onscreen world on her own terms. In this week’s Archivist, we look at Fonda’s other two entries in the genre, the thrillers Rollover and The Morning After, which despite their lack of iconic status next to such works as Coming Home and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, saw the actress take her screen persona even further by inhabiting the traditionally male role of the detective and set upon uncovering the truth.
The financial thriller Rollover sees Fonda playing Lee Winters, a former movie star who turned society wife after marrying the head of a petrochemical firm. When Lee’s husband turns up murdered, she uses her stake in the company to find out the reasons why. To go about this she must negotiate a deal with Arabs, decipher the contents of the mysterious account number 21214, and decide whether or not she can trust well-known banking consultant Hub Smith (Kris Kristofferson) enough to fall in love with him.
Not many people remember 1981’s Rollover, but not because of a lack of quality on the film’s part (the director on hand WAS Alan J. Pakula after all, who had directed Fonda to her Oscar win a decade earlier in Klute). Instead, the reason for Rollover’s obscurity lies in the fact that it was released in the same year as another Fonda classic, the familial drama On Golden Pond. It’s a shame since Rollover is the quintessential Fonda experience. As Lee, the actress has rarely come off as glamorous and sophisticated as she does here, oozing radiance and allure in virtually every scene. At the same time, there’s a steadfast determination mixed with a cunning instinct which makes Lee a great character for Fonda to play. Cautious but undaunted, Lee enters her late husband’s world of finance armed with the goal of protecting what hr built and the mission of finding out why it was taken from him so soon. Kristofferson does some pretty serviceable work. But his role is mainly that of a walker’s. It’s Lee’s story and Fonda’s show, which is made all the more watchable given the character’s foray into a world she doesn’t know. A good many of Fonda’s films dealt with hot-button social issues of the day, such as war and women’s rights. Rollover is no exception as both actress (and also, incidentally producer) and director brilliantly offer up a highly credible look into the financial world, culminating in an ending that eerily foretold what was to come.
The Morning After (1986)
Inarguably, Fonda’s last great film role before her self-imposed hiatus, The Morning After, sees the film icon playing another actress, this one named Alex Sternbergen, a washed-up alcoholic has-been whose once promising career has now dwindled into nights spent hitting the bottle and waking up in strange beds. When she awakes in one such bed only to find its owner laying next to her dead from a knife in his chest and not a soul but her and the dead man’s cat around, Alex is at a loss of who the guy is and how she got there. Aided by a former cop named Turner (Jeff Bridges), Alex must scramble to piece together the events which took place the night before the morning after.
Directed by the great Sidney Lumet (whose directorial debut 12 Angry Men starred Fonda’s father Henry), The Morning After is a multi-layered film which functions as both a puzzling mystery and a devastating character piece. With the suspense kicking off from the get go and never letting up all the way through, The Morning After is one of the more superior thrillers to come out of the ’80s thanks to the brilliant way it wisely doles out its shocking moments. One of the most standout of these occurs when Alex has returned to the scene of the crime with cleaning supplies in hand in an effort to remove all traces that she was ever there. When she hears meowing coming from the cat trapped inside the closet, she reaches for the knob asking, “How did you get into a closed…” before stopping short after realizing she’s not alone. Never one to get lost in the confines of a genre film, however, The Morning After does right by its lead actress and gives her one of the most complex roles of her career. Earning her seventh Oscar nomination, Fonda’s devastating portrait of Alex is one of her best as she delves into the soul of a woman whose dreams of stardom and promise have been replaced with the comfort of booze and the arms of strangers. The scene on the balcony between her and Turner in which she describes her now-dead career is as tragic as it is compelling. “I am an actress,” Alex tells Turner with gusto when he doesn’t recognize who she is. “Was,” she sadly adds. “I was even good.”
On a personal note, I hope you will join me in bidding a sad farewell to Ryan Lewellen, the column manager of The Archivist who has recently announced he has moved on to other endeavors. On behalf of myself, Justin Harlan, Austin Vashaw, as well as our Editor-in-Chief Ed Travis and anyone else who contributed to The Archivist, I would like to express the utmost thanks to Ryan for shepherding this incredible column, and wish him best on what comes next.