Jane Fonda's 10 best films – ranked!

The Hollywood legend accepted a Bafta while being arrested last week – but which of her many standout roles have cemented her reputation?

10. Barbarella (1968)

Nothing established Fonda all over the world more resoundingly than her leading role in this bizarre, kitsch sci-fi extravaganza, adapted by Terry Southern from the risque comic-book series and directed by Fonda’s then-husband, Roger Vadim. In France, it made her a sex-symbol to rival Bardot, and her stunning beauty and style achieve something almost extraterrestrial here. She plays Barbarella, an intrepid space adventurer who is entrusted with a vital intergalactic mission by the president of Earth, which involves nursing a blind angel on a distant planet by having sex with him. Fonda carries it off with dedication and style.

Barbarella … established her as a global star.
Barbarella … established her as a global star. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

9. Fun With Dick and Jane (1977)

This satire is, in some ways, a companion piece to her 1967 comedy Barefoot in the Park. It’s a critique of the American dream, which mockingly distorts the picture-book perfection of family life portrayed in the well-known Dick and Jane children’s books, which taught generations of Americans how to read while also perhaps schooling them in conformist attitudes. Dick and Jane are played by George Segal and Fonda, a well-off couple in a lovely home who turn to crime when he becomes unemployed. The film manages to be a spin on Bonnie and Clyde while also playing on Fonda’s own radical image. She has a bizarre broad-comedy scene in which she falls over while doing some amateur fashion modelling in a hotel dining room, causing mayhem.

8. Youth (2015)

This extraordinary cameo, hardly more than a few minutes of screen time, is destined to become one of Fonda’s most cult performances. She plays Brenda Morel, a renowned, difficult, ageing movie actor. (There’s a PhD to be written on how older female stars only get his kind of self-parodic role in films.) She furiously berates a director (Harvey Keitel) who is trying to cast her in his new film, and, in an extraordinary scene on an aeroplane, we see her succumb to a full-scale temper tantrum that involves her screaming: “You fucking bitches!” and hitting a flight attendant before having a catastrophic hairpiece malfunction.

7. Barefoot in the Park (1967)

Neil Simon adapted his Broadway hit for this movie, which was a key moment in Fonda’s early success during the run of frothy metropolitan comedies that made her name. It’s easy to forget how excellent she was – and is – playing comedy, with a droll lilt to her line readings; she puts the free-spirited zing into this movie, which was clearly conscious of being a bit squaresville for its day. She is Corie, a newlywed (that very dated notion) married to super-handsome but conventional Paul (played by Robert Redford, one of the few Hollywood men who could match Fonda for beauty) and yearning for him to loosen up and go frolicking in the park barefoot (a signifier for further bareness?).

Michael Sarrazin with Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Michael Sarrazin with Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Photograph: Alamy

6. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

Fonda became a star to take seriously in this shocking movie about the Great Depression directed by Sydney Pollack. It’s a grim metaphor for the exploitation and suffering of working people, and can be seen as a forerunner of our obsession with reality TV and social-media cruelty. The setting is a dance marathon in the 1930s, in which poverty-stricken people pair up to dance for days on end – stumbling around like miserable zombies in front of a jaded and sadistic audience – hoping to be the last couple standing for a big cash prize. Fonda plays Gloria, apparently the most cynical and ruthless contestant in the running, but dealing with an inner hurt.

5. California Suite (1978)

Neil Simon gave Fonda another great comic role in this bittersweet portmanteau movie, in which she plays a tough New York professional who flies into Los Angeles on a mission to confront her screenwriter ex-husband (Alan Alda) because their teenage daughter wants to live with him, not her. She has a great confrontation scene with Alda, simmering with contempt, hauteur and a strange unresolved attraction for her ex. The film is often noted for the fact that Fonda looks sensational in a bikini – this was the seed for her bestselling workout videos. She also looks great in glasses.

4. Letter to Jane (1972)

This 50-minute film essay about a famous news photo of Fonda meeting Vietnamese communists in Hanoi in 1972 is directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. It was originally intended as an archly ironic postscript to Godard’s film Tout Va Bien, which also came out that year (and in which Fonda acted, but fell out with the director). Letter to Jane is simply a deconstructionist essay/harangue, narrated by Godard and Gorin, critiquing the photo of Fonda, and also US leftism and Hollywood stardom.

Fonda with Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton in Nine to Five.
Fonda with Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton in Nine to Five. Photograph: Fox/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

3. Nine to Five (1980)

Fonda had that rare thing, a female co-star billing in this smart feminist workplace comedy, in which she plays Judy, who has to get a job in a huge corporate office after her husband runs off with another woman. Like her co-workers Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, she is oppressed, harassed and exploited by her unspeakable male boss. This is an interesting role for Fonda, who is not cast as the overtly funny character nor the explicitly sexy one. Rather, she personifies a kind of benchmark normality. Yet there is something notably powerful and real in an opening scene in which she is yelled at because she doesn’t know how to work a particular piece of equipment; a moment that crystallises her rage.

2. Coming Home (1978)

This is one of Fonda’s most courageous and heartfelt performances, which won her a second Oscar. It is also tied up with her activities as anti-Vietnam war campaigner. She plays the wife of a US Marine Corps officer (Bruce Dern) who leaves for service in Vietnam. Left behind, she finds volunteer work in a veterans’ hospital and befriends a wheelchair user played by Jon Voight. They begin a relationship that culminates in a sex scene – notably forthright in its day – in which Fonda’s character experiences the first orgasm of her life. It’s a movie that was overshadowed by the more macho take offered by The Deer Hunter – but it’s a fine performance from Fonda.

The trailer for Klute.

1. Klute (1971)

Here is the quintessential Fonda performance, in Alan J Pakula’s psychological thriller: she is smart, beautiful, tough and haunted – in a film that, like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, embodies a proto-Watergate fear of being spied upon. And Fonda provides a new spin on the classic “shady lady” figure that always shows up in noir movies. She is Bree Daniels, a would-be model and actor who is doing escort work to pay the bills. Donald Sutherland plays Klute, the private detective spying on her because a serial killer is on the loose, and she is in danger. Fonda’s character is cool and reserved, having apparently mastered a kind of emotional numbness as part of the play-acting involved in her work, and part of her genuine alienation.


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