Two-time Oscar winner Jane Fonda turns 75 this December 21st. Moviegoers (and beyond) have watched her transitions from Hollywood princess to sex symbol to political activist to First Lady of the Screen to exercise guru to corporate wife to author to Comeback Kid (of the senior variety). She has reinvented herself more times than Joan Crawford or Madonna. Now back in the acting game, she seems to be taking on projects with new relish, perhaps hoping someday soon to join the select company of three-time Oscar winners.
Fonda followed her screen debut, in the disposable comedy Tall Story (1960), with two trashy soap spectaculars of 1962: Walk on the Wild Side and The Chapman Report. In the former, she works in a New Orleans bordello (for madam Barbara Stanwyck), while in the latter she’s a frigid virgin widow. These films are great-looking stinkers, with Fonda (sensationally costumed in both), showing more star-sized presence than star-sized talent. Despite her obvious beauty and magnetism, was she ever going to be anything more than Henry Fonda’s daughter?
It was her fourth film, Period of Adjustment (1962), that proved for ever after that Jane was worthy of the family name, a real actress and, specifically, a terrific comedienne. (Fonda would, little by little, lose her sense of humor onscreen, never again as expert a comic player as she was in her frivolous ’60s pictures.) Based on a very minor Tennessee Williams play, with a screenplay by Isobel Lennart, Period of Adjustment didn’t turn Fonda into a big star, as it should have, but those who saw it had to have altered their opinions about this Fonda girl’s future, even though the film is every bit as minor as the play, exceedingly slight as both a Tennessee Williams work and as a comedy. I wrote about this film in my book Tennessee Williams and Company, only briefly because it was on the periphery of my subject: the actors who appear in more than one Williams film. With no such multi-film Williams actors in this movie, I made passing references to it, including one about Fonda’s ”prize comic turn.”
As a student nurse who marries a patient (Jim Hutton), Fonda is instantly lovable, both animated and sweet. She’s also extremely beautiful, with a knockout figure. And feisty, both kitten and tiger! You might call it a broad comic characterization, with a full-blown Southern accent, but Fonda’s work never seems overdone because of her fierce belief in, and commitment to, whatever her character is doing or saying. Fonda has an actress’ unshakable concentration and a star’s unmistakable glow. Whenever she is not onscreen, the movie is useless, deflating with her every exit. The title refers to the early part of any marriage, which is especially pronounced in this case because Fonda and Hutton barely know each other and are suddenly bickering about everything. After marrying in St. Louis and having a failed honeymoon night at the Old Man River Motel, they stop in Tennessee to visit Tony Franciosa, Hutton’s best pal and fellow Korean War veteran.
Period of Adjustment is essentially a honeymoon comedy, also a Christmas Eve comedy, but it’s only memorable as a showcase for Fonda. Her male co-stars can’t help but fade. Hutton is competent in an often unappealing role, while Franciosa gives one of his typically closed-off performances, too clenched and remote and charmless. (It’s so easy to see why he didn’t become a big star. Here you can watch his top-billed star status eroding in direct proportion to Fonda’s uninhibited rise.) The film juxtaposes the newlyweds with Franciosa’s troubled marriage to Lois Nettleton, the “homely” girl he married for her money. He accuses her of making a “sissy” out of their four-year-old son (who plays with dolls). Near the end, Nettleton takes a doll away from the boy while he’s sleeping, a choice the film applauds as a new hope for the marriage. Ouch! Please let’s get back to Jane!
Fonda is the film’s dependable delight, especially in her big set piece, her phone call to her precious Daddy in Texas, which leads to one of the funnier crying jags in movie history. Fighting those tears, and hilariously losing the battle, she tries hard to get her words out. It’s a go-for-broke comic highlight, with her almost over-the-top wailing firmly grounded to her core of childlike honesty and vulnerability. Throughout the movie, Fonda luxuriates musically in her Deep South inflections, particularly in her frequent calls for her “little blue zipper bag.”
Period of Adjustment was the first feature directed by George Roy Hill (The Sting). His work here is pedestrian in the manner of a sitcom, both stagy and flat. This film is rarely, if ever, mentioned as one that contains a top Fonda performance, but that’s exactly what it is. Make it a double feature with her finest dramatic performance, in Klute (1971), and celebrate the range, intelligence, and guts of Jane Fonda.