In today’s The Toast series, we celebrate the 85th birthday of two-time Oscar winner and Hollywood icon, Jane Fonda. Passionate, outspoken, and prolific both on-screen and off, Jane Fonda is still going strong after 60+ years.
As she strode across the Oscars stage in 2020, wearing her recycled crimson-colored gown first worn in 2014 (a symbol of her commitment to climate change activism), Jane Fonda also rocked a strikingly gray pixie haircut. Gasp. An already-photographed dress? And an actress proudly sporting gray hair?
Now imagine the gasps when she then announced the Best Picture winner – Parasite (2019). Yes, the first foreign-language film (Korean) to win an Oscar. She was front and center to proudly unveil this bold, progressive award. Who better than this bold, progressive actress?
Jane Fonda has never been an ordinary Hollywood superstar. A descendant of Hollywood royalty with her superstar father Henry Fonda, she’s an acting legend in her own right. She’s won two Oscars (Klute, 1971, and Coming Home, 1978). Over the decades, she’s also championed movie after movie, striving to tell socially-conscious stories. Off-screen she’s no slouch, either. She’s been at the forefront notably on anti-war, climate change, and feminist causes.
So, in honor of iconic Jane Fonda’s 85th birthday this December 21, here’s a look at some of her most iconic performances. Happy Birthday, Jane Fonda!
11 Must-See Jane Fonda Films
1. Sunday in New York (1963)
Making her acting debut in 1960’s Tall Story, and developing her acting skills in films such as Period of Adjustment (1962), Jane Fonda hits her acting stride in the popular romantic comedy Sunday in New York. It’s a colorful, frothy flick about “female singledom” in the same vein as Natalie Wood’s Sex and the Single Girl (1964). Okay, so the plot line is a bit contrived – cue the virginal suburban girl training it into the big city (aka New York City) for a day of surprising adventure and love. Even Jane Fonda has expressed her incredulity at audiences’ long-standing affection for this film. But, Sunday in New York does have that “time capsule” charm of a 1960s New York City, and of a society that was more innocent, at least at face value. Quite simply, Jane Fonda’s performance is believable and thoroughly enjoyable. She’s also surrounded by excellent actors Rod Taylor, Robert Culp, and Cliff Robertson.
2. Barefoot in the Park (1967)
Based on the 1963 Broadway play of the same name, Barefoot in the Park is known for being one of the best rom-coms ever. Starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford as newlyweds who must acclimate to married life in New York City, this film is a master class in brilliant script-writing, acting, art direction, and more. The result? Barefoot in the Park is like a delicious hot fudge sundae, doused with whipped cream, and topped with colorful sprinkles. It’s a true Hollywood confection. Fonda and Redford are perfect together. Their chemistry is off the charts, and they excel in both verbal and physical comedy. We just can’t get enough of them!
No surprise that Barefoot in the Park laid the foundation for future movie collabs between Fonda and Redford. Though Barefoot in the Park wasn’t their first outing together (they were both in 1966’s The Chase), it certainly proved their remarkable on-screen magic together. The Fonda/Redford pairing has grown to be iconic.
3. Barbarella (1968)
What do you get when you combine the psychedelic 1960s, with a stylish French comic book series, and then beautiful Jane Fonda? Enter cult classic Barbarella. Though a polarizing film with a bevy of both fans and detractors, one can’t say that Jane Fonda as the title character Barbarella isn’t memorable. Everyone loves discussing Fonda’s most fantastical flick! Fonda plays a futuristic intergalactic astronaut for United Earth. And her mission? To find a scientist who is rumored to possess a weapon that can destroy all humans on Earth. Yikes.
Known for its positively “1960s trippy” opening scene which defies gravity, Barbarella is an acid adventure of color, mischief, confusion, and truly blush-worthy antics. Criticized for its simplistic set design, dialogue, and lack of character development, it could be termed a “B-quality” movie. Still, for Jane Fonda lovers, and science fiction lovers, it’s a must-see that’s sure to leave you talking.
4. Klute (1971)
Here’s quite possibly Jane Fonda’s most critically acclaimed and controversial film. She plays New York City prostitute Bree Daniels, who gets unknowingly caught in the dark web of a serial killer. What’s more, she becomes romantically involved with the detective, John Klute, who’s on the case. Klute is a Jane Fonda tour-de-force. Legend has it that Fonda’s preparation for her role was so in-depth that she befriended real-life call girls and accompanied them on their nightclub excursions to pick up men. Brave and fierce, she went above and beyond the call of acting duty.
Now Klute is “interesting” in the best sense of the word. It keeps us enthralled in that “slow burn” kind of way. It’s a true-crime mystery that keeps us guessing right until the final climactic scene. The actress won a well-deserved Oscar. Her Bree Daniels is intriguing, eye-opening, and ultimately sympathetic.
5. Julia (1977)
Directed by Oscar winner Fred Zinnemann of From Here to Eternity (1953), Julia is a World War II political intrigue film, at least on the surface. Peel back the layers and we’re witness to a deep female friendship between Lillian (Jane Fonda) and Julia (Vanessa Redgrave). Told in flashback from the perspective of Lillian, Julia is a quietly unsettling film that elicits a big sigh at the end. So much happens, quite literally, in this story – we’re taken on a journey from the USA, Germany, France, the USSR, and more. Yet, it’s the internal journey of Lillian and her relationship to her beloved friend Julia that causes us so much pain as the audience.
Fonda shines in her role as real-life writer Lillian Hellman (this film is based on a chapter from one of her books), and Julia boasts one of the saddest final scenes ever captured on film. Note – this film also boasts a young Meryl Streep in her debut movie role.
6. Coming Home (1978)
Fonda won her second Oscar for Coming Home. A highly political, socially-conscious film regarding the human toll of the Vietnam War on Americans, this film was dear to Fonda’s heart when making it. Anyone familiar with her off-screen passions knows that she was a dedicated, and at times controversial, anti-war activist during the Vietnam War. It earned her fans, and a good share of non-fans. But cut to a Hollywood film called Coming Home, and it’s hard for anyone on either side to deny the power of this very human story. It’s about a military wife Sally (Fonda) who falls in love with a wheelchair-ridden Vietnam vet while her Marine husband is away in Vietnam. But will their love last? And what emotional scars are both of her men confronted with post-Vietnam?
Sobering, tense, and unforgettable, Coming Home is often-referred to as one of the best “post-war” movies of all time. It’s mentioned in the same breath as 1946’s iconic post-World War II tale The Best Years of Our Lives.
7. The China Syndrome (1979)
Hollywood legend abounds on this one. Here’s a story about a California nuclear power plant that malfunctions. But who would have guessed that this socially-conscious movie would hit theaters twelve days before an actual nuclear power plant accident? Yes, google Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. This fact alone elevated an already stellar movie to iconic status. Fonda plays Kimberly Wells, a low-level “female” TV news reporter who just happens to be at this California nuclear power plant when it malfunctions, and it’s caught on videotape by her team.
Fonda is riveting in her role as the “striving for a serious story” news reporter who is instrumental in publicizing the truth of the cover-up related to this nuclear accident. She is touching throughout, and exemplary in conveying the many facets of Kimberly’s personality – a woman shaped by 1970s feminism and its mission for gender equality, and a professional woman trying to stay unemotional about her work and the virtuous plant supervisor who falls into danger. What will be his fate?
8. 9 to 5 (1980)
At this point in Fonda’s career, her penchant for socially-conscious movies was well-known. And 9 to 5 is another example. But in this film’s case, bring your laugh-o-meter – to gauge the volume of your laughs, giggles, and outright guffaws. A farce about three mistreated female office workers (played by Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton) who take revenge on their awful male boss, 9 to 5 stands as the modern working woman’s anthem. The movie was conceived by Fonda (it was her lovable brain-child), and her role of Judy Bernly is side-splittingly hilarious. It’s a huge character departure for Fonda, to play someone who’s extremely mousy, and so this role is a testament to Fonda’s amazing acting skill.
Not to mention it’s super-fun to watch Judy Bernly blossom in confidence and professional prowess as the film progresses. Controversial, and yet wisely “funny” in delivering its “serious” message, 9 to 5 is a must-see for any Jane Fonda fan.
9. On Golden Pond (1981)
Some movies capture a precious moment in time. Like a sliver of sunlight falling on a calm pond. On Golden Pond is just that kind of movie. Jane Fonda stars alongside her real-life dad, acting legend Henry Fonda (in his final role, which would earn him his first and only competitive Oscar before passing away shortly after filming), and acting legend Katharine Hepburn (who had surprisingly never acted with Henry Fonda before this film). Casting buzz aside, On Golden Pond is a heart-warming, and at times heart-wrenching, film. It explores the fractured, complicated father/daughter relationship of Norman and Chelsea (Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda).
Audiences can’t help but blur real-life people with fictional characters in On Golden Pond, which adds to its power. Taking place at a sweet summer cottage in New England, we’re drawn into an idyllic world, but one that is rife with unresolved emotional issues. Can this father and daughter find peace? Bring the tissues.
10. Monster-In-Law (2005)
All hail the Jane Fonda who, at 67 years old, stepped out of retirement after a 15-year movie hiatus. And this Hollywood comeback was one comedic doozy. Fonda stars as the titular “monster-in-law” (aka mother-in-law) to actress Jennifer Lopez’s blushing bride character. Fonda is bent on breaking up her son’s marriage before the nuptials take place – she’ll do anything to achieve her mission and thwart the bride. And we mean anything. But no spoilers here!
Over-the-top funny, Fonda clicks with all her co-stars, and this movie showcases some of Fonda’s most memorable comedic moments ever. Monster-In-Law was a “monster” of a hit, and it still gets big play time on TV. It proved that audiences still loved Jane Fonda. Unsurprisingly, this film ushered in a new era of Fonda’s career, whose fun wave she’s still riding today. Think the comedic Netflix series Grace and Frankie (2015-2022). Fans adore it!
11. Our Souls at Night (2017)
Reunited after decades apart, it’s the Hollywood power couple of Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Like watching an old Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire flick, or an Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn film, Our Souls at Night is a poignant experience for the audience. But, the big question, are Fonda and Redford still good together on-screen? Quiet simply – “yes.” A quiet tale about two elderly neighbors who decide to “partner up” as companions to counter the solitary, empty feelings of their evenings, Our Souls at Night is an ambitious film.
For all its quietness, it’s an immensely insightful and powerful character study, not to mention life course study. What happens when we get old, when we perhaps are widowed, or retired professionally? How do we feel about the world, and our place within it? Do we cope, or actually thrive? Fonda and Redford enlighten us, in that magical, highly appealing way that these two brilliant actors excel in. Directed by Indian filmmaker Ritesh Batra, Our Souls at Night is uniquely moving.
A true superstar, Jane Fonda has graced the silver screen for more than 60 years, starring in over 45 films. Bridging the gap between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood, she has shown time and time again just how exciting, but also important, the acting profession can be. And if you like the above movie reccos but crave more, be sure to check out Cat Ballou (1965) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969). Thank you, Jane Fonda, for all the films. We’re excited for your newest movie adventure come February. Cheers to 80 For Brady!
I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.