Less a bimbo than a butch: With Klute, Jane Fonda deconstructed the Hollywood sex object

·9-min read
Jane Fonda in Klute: ‘As much an exploration of the intersections between the identities of “woman”, “sex worker” and “actress” as it is a frightening noir’ (Shutterstock/Warner Bros)
Jane Fonda in Klute: ‘As much an exploration of the intersections between the identities of “woman”, “sex worker” and “actress” as it is a frightening noir’ (Shutterstock/Warner Bros)

In Alan J Pakula’s 1971 film Klute, we hear Jane Fonda’s voice in several senses of the word, some more literal than others. Over the opening credits, on a tape-recording of her character Bree Daniels talking business with a john, she is introduced discussing freedom and desire. “As long as you don’t hurt me more than I like to be hurt,” she purrs, “I’ll do anything you ask. I think the only way any of us can be happy is to let it all hang out. Do it all, and f*** it.” Bree, because she is a sex worker, is acting; Fonda, because she is both an actor and, by 1971, a woman with a storied history of being manipulated by men into self-presenting as an easygoing sex-kitten, barely seems as if she is.

When we see Bree for the first time, she is silent, lined up in a casting cattle-call for models and being pored over and talked about as if she might be insentient, deaf, or dumb. With the introduction of Bree Daniels as a voice without a face, and then a face without a voice, Klute announces its most interesting fixation, proving itself to be somewhat radical even five decades after it was first released. A film about a complicated, clever call girl who ends up entangled in a murder case, it is as much an exploration of the intersections between the identities of “woman”, “sex worker” and “actress” as it is a frightening noir.

“I was taught by my father [the actor Henry Fonda] that how I looked was all that mattered, frankly,” Jane Fonda said in 2011, adding that he often said of women: “Unless you look perfect, you’re not going to be loved.” After playing mostly sweet-faced wives and girlfriends in the Sixties, modelling on the side and maintaining her waif-thin body with bulimia, Fonda began to tire of acting as if she were nothing but a desirable airhead. When she got the chance to bob her long blonde hair to play a desperate, tough Depression-era competition dancer in the 1968 film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, she embraced the opportunity to symbolically shed her pin-up image. Getting into political activism, she transformed herself into an androgynous beatnik with a mullet, earning both an Oscar and a mugshot between 1970 and 1972.

There was a sense that after many years of sleeping with some version of her father – her piggish director husband Roger Vadim, for example, who had styled her like a doll in Barbarella (1968) in order to turn her into a skinnier, more Americanised version of his ex, Brigitte Bardot – she had systematically, deliberately unsexed herself in order to become her own no-nonsense “Daddy”, less a bimbo than a butch. After years of softening her voice to make it higher and more feminine on film, she finally dropped the modulation, so that Klute marked the first time audiences had been permitted to hear Fonda speak exactly as she spoke in actual life, sounding deeper, drier, tougher, and altogether less compromising than she had before.

“In my early movies [my voice was] all high and thin, [and] not revealing any of what I was,” Fonda later noted in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. “My voice dropped in  Klute. It was the first movie I made in which I identified myself as a feminist. There was a resonance there because my voice was coming [from my diaphragm].”

There is a resonance, too, in the scenes in Klute in which Bree sees her therapist, whom she has hired to “cure” her of her desire to turn tricks. Asked about the difference between sex work and auditioning as a jobbing actor, Bree – whose answers have been improvised by Fonda, in a session lasting ninety minutes that was cut down to just six – immediately says that sex work is less taxing and humiliating “because someone wants you”.

“They want a woman,” she says bluntly, able to remove herself enough from what she does to see exactly why she does it. “I know I’m good [at that] … For an hour, I’m the best actress in the world … because it’s an act. That’s what’s nice about it. You don’t have to feel anything, you don’t have to care about anything, you don’t have to like anybody. You just lead them by the ring in their nose in the direction that they think they want to go in.”

“What I would really like to do,” she offers in a later session, “is be faceless, and bodiless, and be left alone.” If it was bold and unexpected for both Pakula and Fonda to suggest that prostitution could feel better and be less psychically draining than being a woman in the movie industry in 1971, it was also extraordinarily vulnerable of Fonda to be willing to explore her own relationship with womanhood — with the wages and advantages of conventional beauty, the way sexiness can drown a woman’s voice out like white noise — on camera, even if she happened to be doing so in character as Bree.

Being a sex object, Bree reasons, results in a more straightforward, clear-cut contract with the patriarchy and with men than struggling to be appreciated for her other talents. New York in the Seventies, she often points out to the “square” detective Klute (Donald Sutherland), is not exactly a utopia, and even when she is not tricking she is still expected to perform or sell herself. Klute approaches Bree the way one might approach a feral cat; when she looks directly into his long, melancholic face and tells him that to sleep with her for free would be to save enough cash for “a perfectly good dishwasher”, we see surprise and sadness flicker in his eyes before he diligently, coolly snuffs them out. (We guess he loves her from the moment he assures her she was “very good” in an audition where she puts on an appalling Irish accent, an amusing, poignant scene that allows Fonda to pretend she cannot act.)

The murder mystery Klute is investigating feels somehow less mysterious than Bree herself. Her shock at being opened up emotionally by this quiet, solid Pennsylvanian somehow unnerves her even more than her proximity to several women’s deaths. This tension – between wanting to be saved and wanting to be free; wanting to be powerful and wanting to be lovingly enfolded in the powerful embrace of a strong man – has by her own admission helped define Fonda’s own romantic history.

“I would tend to mould myself according to what my then-husband wanted me to be,” she suggested earlier this year, by way of an explanation for her numerous divorces. “But there was always a centre to myself that they never touched. What I’ve had to really think about is that I’m  not really capable [of intimacy]. It’s not them. It’s me.”

“As an actress,” Pauline Kael wrote when reviewing Klute, “[Jane Fonda] has a special kind of smartness that takes the form of speed; she’s always a little ahead of everybody, and this quicker beat – this quicker responsiveness – makes her more exciting to watch.” That quiver, like a horse before a race or like an addict in pursuit of her next fix, animates Bree even in repose, making her as hard to capture as if Pakula were trying to commit her attitudinal vibrations to a photographic still in lieu of film.

It ought to be disappointing when, after the case is finally done, Klute convinces her to come with him to Pennsylvania, the movie leaning dangerously into a lame trope – the white knight cop and the repentant hooker with a heart of gold, leaving all that ugly sex business behind in favour of a quiet life mowing the lawn and raising babies, ironing shirts and pickling various things in aspic. Thankfully, here as elsewhere, Klute is too smart and too sophisticated to revert to cliché. Whether or not she might have guessed it at the time, Fonda managed to get fifty years ahead of her own destiny by giving Bree the final word on her supposed happy ending. “Whatever lies in store for me,” she tells her therapist in voiceover as the two lovers leave her now-empty apartment, “it’s not going to be setting up housekeeping with somebody in Tuscarora and darning socks, I’d go out of my mind … Maybe I’ll be back. I’ll probably see you next week.”

Still dazzling: Fonda at a Minnesota climate protest in June (Kerem Yucel/Getty Images)
Still dazzling: Fonda at a Minnesota climate protest in June (Kerem Yucel/Getty Images)

At the time of writing, the real-life Jane Fonda has three former husbands, all of whom she ended up outgrowing as she became more and more herself over the years. She has also sworn off men forever, reasoning that she is “happier on [her] own.” “I’m now five years older  than  my dad was when he died,” she observed in 2020, “and I’ve realised that I am, in fact,  stronger than  he was” – adding, possibly not realising how Freudian an association she was making, that she felt that she was stronger than “all of the men [she’d] married”.

Since she announced her permanent return to singledom in 2017, she has been the co-star of Netflix’s very funny Grace and Frankie,the subject of an HBO documentary, and the author of a book about environmentalism; she has been arrested for protesting climate change, and then written an explanatory op-ed for The New York Times about why she was protesting in the first place. She won the Cecil B  DeMille Award at this year’s Golden Globes, for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.” Last December, she turned 83, and this December, I have no doubt that Jane Fonda will turn 84, having added at least one or two more dazzling achievements to her lengthy resumé.

Since Klute, she has continued to give up on domesticity in favour of running back to some metaphorical version of a city (“the sin,” as Bree tells Klute, “the glitter, the wickedness”), as if being Bree had shaken loose the real Jane Fonda. As if what she needed wasn’t to be faceless, bodiless, and left alone, but to have audiences really hear her voice. “There’s a great deal to say,” she offered coolly when collecting her first Oscar, winning Best Actress for Klute and looking less like an A-lister than a revolutionary in her black, high-collared Yves Saint Laurent suit, “and I’m not going to say it tonight.” Make no mistake: she has said everything she wanted to in the ensuing 50 years.

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