I’d often wondered what kinds of loons shell out for VIP packages, paying hundreds of dollars not to meet the band Fleetwood Mac in its entirety, and having to cope with the knowledge of how bored the celebrities must be at the prospect of shaking hands with all these nobodies and that surely they are only managing to get through it by doing the maths in their heads. Then I saw that Jane Fonda was coming to town.
I need immediately to point out that, while I like her very much as an actress, and generally find her interesting, as demonstrated by the fact I read and enjoyed her 624-page autobiography My Life So Far, I wouldn’t describe myself as obsessed with Jane Fonda. This fact caused people who know me and who knew what I was doing to be shocked and appalled that I was paying, in total, $513.10 for the VIP package, which comprised a ‘short, relaxed Q&A session’; a ‘professionally taken photograph with Ms Fonda’; and, as one would hope, a ‘guarantee of the best seats in the house’ for the show itself, a trip – with interviewer Fran Kelly – down a much more action-packed memory lane than 99.75 per cent of the human race could claim title to.
However, it’s exactly because I’m a fan of Jane but not her biggest fan that I wanted to meet her. You see, I knew she wouldn’t be able to devastate me by a tetchy meeting that would be all I’d be able to think about when I am on my deathbed. That said, I admit it’s completely unfair that I was able to meet Jane Fonda even though I’m not her biggest fan, merely because I’m currently not as broke as I usually am. And, that said, the irony is that Jane’s been canvassing average-Joe voters ahead of the next US election, so if I were poor and had probably voted for Trump, I’d have a shot at meeting her for free and taking part in a longer, if possibly less relaxed, Q&A.
But here are just some of the reasons why I wanted to meet Jane Fonda. First, I’ve always liked her goddamned enthusiasm about things. Whatever she’s doing, wherever she is, in terms of geographical placement or stage of life, she makes you feel as though it’s the only place to be. What is more, she’s so inclusive about it, wanting to pull everyone else along with her. Karina Longworth on the magnificent You Must Remember This podcast, in one of its episodes that paired Fonda and Jean Seberg as subjects, described Jane as being a fun lover while at college, extremely popular and juggling several dates a night. That got me on to a favourite avenue of thought, which is speculation on what a famous person might have been like before they were famous, or before they were properly famous, and how they and I would have got along. For example, I always think of Heath Ledger as someone who, had I somehow managed to be at a Perth high school with him in the nineteen nineties, would have been nice to me even though he was good looking. The ‘party girl’ description of Jane made me think that if I’d somehow managed to be at Vassar in the nineteen fifties, she’d have frightened me to death, as the person everyone wanted to know, with her alluring background, lovely face, and keenness to socialise (by the way, the closest I got to glamourous students while at university were identical twins who’d briefly appeared in Paradise Beach). It’s hard to know if, in those days, she would have exposed her insecurities and made herself more approachable; if she would have shown herself to be a one-person Breakfast Club. I can imagine her either as someone who would tell you everything or tell you nothing. In My Life So Far, she seems – and I absolutely mean this as a compliment – an ‘over sharer’, while in interview, her manner, if not what she says, often seems to have a layer of reserve, which is hardly surprising after decades of, sometimes harsh, scrutiny.
As might be apparent from my fear of meeting anyone I actually like, I’ve had a mixed record when it comes to talking to famous people. The first one was June Salter, while I was at a school fete; she was extremely pleasant about being forced to converse with a ten year old. The next one was John O’May, who I saw at North Sydney station just at the point Starstruck was in the cinemas and was my obsession. I couldn’t have been more amazed to see him walking among us if he’d been Mary, Queen of Scots. O’May, too, was a darling; as was George Spartels, whose privacy I invaded during my own personal Sweet and Sour mania, while he was minding his own business in a theatre foyer. (And this is the thing, it’s not the most famous person you’re most excited to meet, it’s whomever means the most to you. Believe me, my mind would be lost once and for all if I met anyone who’d ever had literally anything to do with thirtysomething.) My luck was worse, though, with the great Jay McInerney, when I asked him to sign my movie-tie-in edition of Bright Lights, Big City. ‘That’s a silly one,’ he sneered, as if he were already appearing in Gossip Girl.
Of course, it’s impossible not to entertain various scenarios when you’re about to meet a famous person you admire, but they all end up with you working and/or living together. So, in a Q&A situation, it is difficult not to feel competitive about whose question will be best received. To Jane, I posed an earnest query about 9 to 5, but this led her to mention something that Kelly was saving for the show proper, and so the journalist was forced urgently to shut the topic down. I then spent the rest of the VIP Q&A reflecting bitterly that those who take the opportunity to mount an emotional one-woman show about themselves while ‘asking a question’ have an unfair advantage when it comes to making an impact.
I’ll be divulging little of what Jane said in the VIP Q&A: first, I’ll say piously that it’s because it would make me feel like a friend of a friend who used to date Samantha Fox and sold his story to the tabloids (though I’m told Samantha didn’t mind); and, second, because $513.10. (And, speaking of the cost-benefit analysis, I was thrilled to see there were free glasses of champers, but they were snatched away faster than I would have wished. We were also given L’Oréal face creams, but my covetous smile dimmed when I saw that they were for ‘very mature and dull skin’, which isn’t to say I don’t desperately need them.) So, suffice to say, Jane was both kindly and entertaining in her replies. Also, her voice is as young and strong as it ever was – it’s not like the shock of hearing Iggy Pop speak and properly realising that the man really is seventy-one. And, obviously, she was stunningly beautiful and phenomenally well dressed, making it clear that the only person who’d be looking old in the promised photograph would be my good self.
When it came time for this, I grabbed the hand presented to me for shaking and said, ‘May I say, I love you so much in Fun with Dick and Jane!’. Jane, possibly not having thought much about this 1977 motion picture since its wrap party, seemed mildly nonplussed but said politely, ‘That’s a funny one,’ strangely mirroring McInerney’s remark to me, but with a more gracious tone. Her answer left me to determine, detective style, what she could have meant. Did she mean the film is diverting or did she mean it’s peculiar? Arguably, this dark comedy, about a middle-class couple who are forced to turn to various money-making schemes, including robbery and taking a walk-on role in an opera, after the man of the house loses his job, is both these things. You could debate the merits or otherwise of Fun with Dick and Jane till the cows come home, not that, unfortunately, anyone is, but Jane is unarguably great — hilarious either while carrying out a disastrous engagement as a fashion model, or firing peppery quips at George Segal, all while projecting a cool intelligence and looking totally gorgeous.
And, naturally, after meeting a famous person, you tell yourself off about all that you did wrong. Not wanting to seem like I was all set to yabber on for hours, I went in for the photo too quickly (my god, what if she’d been dying to talk more about Fun with Dick and Jane?). Then, not realising two photos would be taken, I pulled away too fast from having Jane’s arm around my waist, as though I were desperate to leave, when, like everyone in the queue, I desperately wanted to stay.
Yes, leaving the backstage area of Hamer Hall was as painful as when you no longer have the right to be in the Gold Class Cinema Lounge, and truly it was an awful comedown to have to go and mix with the common man. Too, it was now on with the show, so there was no longer the possibility of there being any questions whatsoever that Jane was potentially not expecting. Given what a good actress she is, doing these Q&As and showing the requisite emotions must be like doing a Broadway show for the millionth time. But then, what can these people do? Crappy-Australian-biopic style (and, speaking of which, there were so many sixties ‘golden oldies’ played during interval, it was like being trapped in a miniseries about the death of Harold Holt), such affairs have to take what ‘New Zealand-born funnyman’ Tony Martin calls ‘The Ghost Train approach’, with all the expected attractions: in this case, sex kitten, Hanoi Jane, aerobics genius, trophy wife, walking advertisement for old age. I understand this: if you don’t have all the classic hits, you have Madonna’s Drowned World tour — fine in itself, but not exactly the dream reward for parting with your hard-earned. But at any such event, you still basically hope that the celebrity being quizzed is going to storm off the stage at some point, just as it’s impossible to go to a wedding without hoping that someone will turn up and try to stop it.
The only real nerve-plucking was that the scene they played from Coming Home was pretty damn long and, as far as I could tell, Jane wasn’t even in it! Too, because she generally had a nice line in self-deprecation, I was very surprised when she agreed with Kelly’s characterisation of herself as ‘brave and strong’. I don’t doubt that she is both these things, but I also have such an aversion to people speaking well of themselves that I can’t hear Christina Aguilera’s ‘Beautiful’ without an urgent need for my specially reinforced vomiting basin.
But, minuscule grizzles aside, it would have been difficult to leave the evening with Jane Fonda without feeling pretty good, especially if, like me, you won’t see forty-nine again. As my mother said of Jane, after watching her on The Project, flirting (and mourning John McCain, and his choice of running mate, to a slightly muted response from the nongs in the audience), she demonstrates that ‘whatever age you are, you are still yourself’. And in the VIP Q&A, Jane really talked up life after fifty, and I must say that I’m thoroughly enjoying being fifty if only because, for the first time in my life, I now have one handbag for work and one handbag for home.
However, while in one way I approve of Jane managing even to sound upbeat about the idea that she will probably die relatively soon, this concept also cast a cloud over the sun she’d created in my mental sky. Who will we be without Jane Fonda in this world? She has the Princess Diana quality of being an everywoman despite being the further thing from an everywoman: high born; charismatic; talented; intelligent; good looking; famous; big on causes; having got a new lease on life after divorcing a rich, selfish guy; and generally exerting more power than people who are technically more powerful. However, balancing all the above is the way in which Jane and Diana, like seemingly every woman ever, experienced eating disorders, marital problems, and periods of intensive working out.
Before the show, I got into conversation with a stranger who was eyeing off my L’Oréal gift bag and, as a big fan of Grace and Frankie, was looking forward to seeing Jane, even as she was shocked at the amount of money she’d spent (though, as a non VIP, she’d spent way less than I had, obviously.) I joined in on bitching about the expense, but pointed out to her that it was money well spent, as we may not have another chance to see Jane Fonda in the flesh. Then I corrected myself and said, ‘Who knows, given the shape she’s in, you and I may be meeting back here when Jane’s ninety.’ How I hope I turn out to be right.