"The trick to aging," Jane Fonda says, "is to go slow." She learned this the hard way when, at 60, she climbed her favorite peak in Argentina: the 12,293-foot dormant volcano Mount Lanin, near a ranch owned by her then-husband, Ted Turner. "I almost got to the top," she recalls, "but I went too fast and perspired and got hypothermia." To mark her 70th birthday, last December, Fonda heeded the advice of her boyfriend, retired businessman Lynden Gillis, and headed down instead of up: She did an 85-foot dive in Turks and Caicos and swam with sharks, barracudas, and stingrays. "I went very slowly," she says. "It’s a major life lesson. It’s true with mountain climbing, scuba diving, and lovemaking."
Fonda’s "taking it slowly" would be full steam ahead for most people. Author and motivational speaker are just the latest incarnations of the Hollywood legend dubbed a chameleon by her daughter, Vanessa. Fonda, whose autobiography, My Life So Far, was a best-seller in 2005, is now hard at work on a book about aging, The Third Act: Entering Primetime. "We’ve been granted an entire adult lifetime, longer than what our grandparents had, and we are entering this third act healthier physically and mentally," she says. "We get less judgmental, more positive. And so we have a tremendous opportunity to change the world."
Fonda has always been a mover and shaker, morphing from an ingenue to a polarizing symbol of Vietnam War protest to an Oscar-winning actress-producer and workout-video queen. "It was totally organic, a natural evolution," she says. "I never get bored, ever." Along the way, she was married three times — to director Roger Vadim, California politico Tom Hayden, and media mogul Turner. "Women like me tend to have a porous ego. I don’t anymore," says Fonda, who announced her retirement from acting while she was with Turner — and then, after their split, reemerged at the 2000 Oscar ceremony looking radiant in a Vera Wang gown. "It took me a long time, into my 60s, to own my own narrative." She based her comeback role, in the 2005 comedy Monster-in-Law, in part on Turner, with whom she remains friendly. "He taught me that over-the-top and outrageous are lovable," she says. "People used to say I didn’t have a sense of humor. They were right. Ten years with Ted gave me humor and confidence."
Fonda overcame an early dry spell in Hollywood by developing and producing her own material, including the hit films Coming Home and The China Syndrome. "It was hard for me to get decent roles for a number of reasons," she says (among them, backlash from her visit to North Vietnam in 1972). "So I combined my beliefs and values with the movies I made, and they did well. It was unusual."
It’s shocking to learn that one of our greatest actresses hasn’t a single film project in the works today. "Shouldn’t be shocking, given the reality," says Fonda matter-of-factly, referring to Hollywood’s ageist attitude. The films she’s offered are "either dour, or less interesting versions of the shrewish mother-in-law. And I’m too old to produce, because it takes years. I can’t. But I really do want to make movies."
Fortunately, she has plenty to keep her otherwise engaged. Writing helped her find her voice — strong, supple, and clear — and these days she uses it to denounce the war in Iraq and support Democratic candidates (first Hillary Clinton, now Barack Obama). She also promotes the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, an organization she founded 13 years ago, and speaks to women around the country about empowerment.
"You know," she says, "I made the workout famous. And this is the time for the work-in. This is the time to continue developing and growing."
Originally published in MORE magazine, November 2008.