They Remember It Well
TheaterMania reviews new books on the lives of Jane Fonda, John Lithgow, and Justin Vivian Bond.
This massive tome (nearly 600 pages) is divided into five distinct sections that roughly correspond with the varying public images of Fonda throughout her 73 years: She has been the daughter of stage and screen legend Henry Fonda, a serious actress in her own right, an international sex symbol, a firebrand political activist, and an exercise guru (and semi-trophy wife to media tycoon Ted Turner).
The continuing thread is that all of the five stages of Jane have been played out in the public arena. Indeed, from her earliest years -- when Fonda attended celebrity kids' birthday parties with Christina Crawford and Marlo Thomas -- through her highly publicized marriages (and divorces), she has lived her life under a magnifying glass.
But unlike her contemporaries, Fonda has also been the subject of extensive government investigation, and Bosworth cleverly frames her book with a prologue describing a trip to Fonda's New Mexico ranch at which the two women dig through some 22,000 pages of her FBI file. Bosworth really shines in chronicling Fonda's political activism.
Indeed, while so much has been made -- and is still made -- of "Hanoi Jane," a moniker Fonda acquired after she was photographed smiling in the gunner's seat of an anti-aircraft weapon during one of her trips to North Vietnam, it is astounding to read about a time when high-profile celebrities such as Fonda openly flirted with Communism, as Fonda did. She was a frequent guest at the "Red Family," a hippie commune that kept a prominently-displayed shrine to Kim Il-Sung.
Yet, at the end of the day, as Bosworth reminds us, Fonda was and still is one of the most privileged women on earth, frequently jetting off to Saint Tropez, enjoying the luxury of her residences in Beverly Hills and Manhattan, and making her living as an actress -- one who was too often liable to register an ill thought-out emotional response to the injustices of this world. In many ways, the story of Jane Fonda is the story of social change in late 20th-century America.
Much of the book revolves around his father, Arthur Lithgow, a producer of Shakespeare festivals who eventually became the artistic director of Princeton's McCarter Theatre. Owing to the ever-tenuous employment of the actor-manager, the Lithgow clan moved every two years or so, making the author somewhat of a theater brat. This would greatly influence his more conservative life choices in his twenties, even in the midst of the tremulous 1960s.
Indeed, while his Harvard classmates were getting high to the music of Bob Dylan, Lithgow was reveling in the dorky lyrical splendor of Gilbert and Sullivan. A true Anglophile, Lithgow spent the late 1960s studying drama in London, returning home with a lilting British accent. As it happens, this would serve him well commercially: six of his early Broadway roles were British characters. As Joe Papp once bluntly relayed to him, "Everybody thinks you're a limey!" Since then, Lithgow has become renowned for his crisp and commanding, yet thoroughly American diction.
Married at age 21 and a father shortly after, Lithgow experienced what he calls a "late adolescence" in his thirties, admitting that out of 20 major plays in which he appeared in the 1970s, he conducted love affairs with women in eight of them, eventually leading to the breakup of his marriage. (Lithgow seems to intend this a cautionary tale to live young while it is still appropriate.)
In addition to being a talented actor, Lithgow proves to be a skilled wordsmith; his wit and charm drip off the page. He once worked as a curtain puller for Marcel Marceau during a one-night stop at the McCarter, and Lithgow recalls how he mishandled the pulley system, nearly causing the whole curtain to come down. "Predictably, the famous mime said nothing." As he has long proved on the stage, John Lithgow is a master storyteller.
Bond frames the book with the revelation that Michael Hunter, a former teenaged lover, was recently arrested for impersonating a narcotics officer under the code name "Tango." Bond then retraces this clandestine love-hate relationship back from its earliest beginnings.
While the story is decidedly humorous, it's also a sometimes shocking story of pre-teen gay sexuality that is rarely told in public. Indeed, Bond's early sexual dalliances with neighbor boys (not only Michael; there was also his older brother) was the subject of much scandal in the community.
Even in his early years, Bond showed a flair for being provocative and unconventional in other ways, from trying to start a burgeoning "Kids Lib" movement, which was strangled in its grave by an angry neighbor lady who believed that children shouldn't be liberated, to telling a Cub Scout den that the person Bond would most like to be in history was actress Sandy Duncan.
In its own way, Bond's story offers a perfect balance between the earnestness of an "It Gets Better" video and the lunacy of a John Waters film, while still being deeply relatable to much of its readership.
ON THE SHELF: Producer Mitchell Maxwell tells the story of an unforgettable summer theater season in Plymouth, Mass in his new novel Little Did I Know(Prospecta). Actor Hal Holbrook has released another memoir, Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain (FSG). Designer and stage technician Drew Campbell offers a new easy-to-read handbook about technical theater in the modern age with Digital Technical Theater Simplified: High Tech Lighting, Audio, Video and More on a Low Budget (Allworth). Finally, TCG has two new play anthologies, Oh, Wild West! a trio of plays from the Chicano/Latino performance troupe Culture Clash, and Version 3.0: Contemporary Asian American Plays featuring works by Julia Cho, Chay Yew, and Diana Son.