Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome

First let me say what an honor and a privilege it was to review this brilliant lady's fantastic nominated performances and that I'm sad that it's the last time that I can say that... 

Jane Fonda received her fifth Oscar nomination and a Bafta Award for playing Kimberly Wells, a shallow reporter who finds out a cover-up about safety issues at a nuclear plant in the controversial movie, The China Syndrome. The 1979 Best Actress race was between Sally Field and Bette Midler, but Sally Field was probably the overwhelming favorite considering her sweep of the precursor awards. I suppose Jane must have been the dark horse to win the award. She had just won her second Oscar so there must have been some leftover love for her and the movie received three other nominations. I suppose she was third, eventually.

Although The China Syndrome is not a favorite of many, for me it's one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking movies ever made in Hollywood. It never ceased to amaze me with the director's skill to create tension or his ability to discuss some really complicated topics so effortlessly. I'd say the movie deserved additional nominations for Best Picture and Best Director and should have won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Jack Lemmon gives an outstanding, unforgettable performance, which would have deserved a Best Actor win, too, but I also agree with Dustin Hoffman's win. Michael Douglas seems to be the weakest link of the three lead actors as he was never able to make his character more layered and he ended up being a bit one-dimensional.

Still, whenever I watch a Jane Fonda movie, it's a Fondafest for me anyway and after a while I just ignore every other aspect of the picture. You know, I often get a Great Glenn or Maggie or whatever mania, it all seems nothing compared to what I feel when I see Jane on the screen. Every time this lady opens her mouth, I'm hooked, staring at the screen as if it was my first time watching a film. I'm quite simply in awe of her versatility, the uncertainty around her and her enourmous star power. I've never seen another actress who can excel in both the technical and emotional part of a performance while also having a real movie star aura around her. And the commitment tp her political activism just makes her work even more compelling as you can clearly see that every performance of hers is a testament to what she believes is right. And yet she avoids being preachy and she lets the performance speak for itself (I guess this is the part that many people disagree with).

That being said, Jane's work as Kimberly Wells in The China Syndrome is widely considered to be one of her least passionate and most toned down, technical performance, which lacks the thing that many of us love about Jane the most: that usual feeling of tension that's present in each of her performances up to The China Syndrome. She visibly gained confidence over the seventies and The China Syndrome is the first movie when it becomes really obvious: she's an actress at the peak of her career, simple as that.

To tell the truth, I was really concerned about how objective I can be about this performance and how honest I will be in this review when I know that this is my last review about Jane and it feels like an obligation to rave about her. Since I didn't use to be a huge fan of this particular performance, I thought I probably should have chosen Klute to be my last reviewed Fonda vehicle and then I could have said goodbye to her with a #1 place in my ranking. Then I started watching The China Syndrome and all my doubts disappeared. I'm not saying that Jane makes no mistakes as Jane would be the first to admit she's not perfect. And I would be the second to say that. Jane is not a "perfect actress" in the Meryl Streep or Katharine Hepburn sense of the word, even her best performances are flawed in a way and that's what makes them so human and believable and that's the reason why I repeatedly keep falling for her. The flaws and imperfections are probably the most exciting things in Jane's performances. I think for her that's just the way of identifying with her characters and this results in the lack of distance between the viewer and Jane. While "perfect actresses" talk down from the screen, Jane whispers everything to your ear, sitting right next to you. And this is what I found out while watching The China Syndrome: it lacks the visibly deep emotionality and passion of other Jane Fonda performances (something for which I thought I loved her the most) and yet I'm just as drawn to Kimberly as I was to Bree Daniels or Gloria Beaty. I get it now. I get Jane Fonda in general. Her greatest skill is revealing human imperfection and she does it like nobody else. It's easy to say that she's your favorite actress after Klute (who wouldn't at the moment). It's not about the first impression, the second one counts just as much.

So I started to wonder why Kimberly is so different from all the other characters Jane's ever played. Easy: Kimberly is a person full of confidence and determination: she knows she has a good job, that people love her and she's not ashamed of being a puppet of men. Nothing really turns her on except for the prospect of moving up the career ladder. And yet Jane shows us that Kimberly has not yet turned into Diana Christensen and that she still has some sense of justice. Jane doesn't necessarily portray Kimberly only as a coward conformist (sure that's a part of her conception of the character), but also as a person who wants to do more with her life and therefore she makes some sacrifices in the present.

What I also admired about Jane is how well she avoided being overwhelmed by the story. She constantly had to refelect on the main storyline of the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant, while also developing her character. Jane didn't get much screentime, but she uses the little she has very wisely and she knew she had to sacrifice being showy to show the awakening of Kimberly, which was way more important (it may have cost her the Oscar, but communicated the message of the movie far better). To me, this is the performance that Jane Fonda can be the most proud of as a political activist (too bad that she rarely talks about this one). She's gets to be a revolutionary simply by showing how an ordinary person can realize things going on in her environment. Kimberly is like watching yourself in the mirror: she's, like all of us, a compromising, flawed human being, but as Jane wonderfully points out, it's more than enough to make a difference.

Since I'm flawed myself, I wanted just a little breakdown from Jane, or at least one showy moment and when it comes in the end, it's like a volcano erupting. You can just see the tears of a person overwhelmed by the circumstances. Kimberly says to tv audiences, while crying that she can't give an objective opinion about Jack Goddell as she became too involved with the situation. It's something I felt: I became so overwhelmed by Jane's performance here that I'm incapable of being objective. And yet, I feel that if I was sentimental about Jane here, it would be like spitting her in the eye. The brutal honesty of this part just doesn't let me be something else other than honest.

In conclusion, Jane Fonda is nothing short of amazing in The China Syndrome. What could seem to be one of her least passionate performances is in fact one of the most mysterious and layered ones she's ever given. As usual, she commands every scene as well as develops her character beautifully, adding new layers and dimensions to her in every minute. Jane so wonderously portrays Kimberly's awakening and development as a person that you just marvel at every little detail in this performance. Kimberly is right up there with Jane's finest performances and for this she gets a big fat last
 

What do you think? :) 

I don't know when the other reviews come, I'll be busy next week, but next Monday, I might be able to review Marsha.

12 comments:

Nues20 said...

Never seen it, will give it a look - great review though.
Sad it's your last Fonda review! :(

dinasztie said...

It's sad indeed. :( But I'm glad to have been able to review her so many times. :)

dinasztie said...

Oh, I forgot to do the new rating system. :) Never mind. I'll start from the second one. :D I just got carried away. :D

vinnieh said...

Great post, I haven't seen this one in ages but reading it makes me want to.

mrripley said...

I LIKE BUT DON'T LOVE HER SIMPLY DUE TO HER RESUME.

dinasztie said...

Is it because you love her and think she could do better or because you hate her in general? :D

Michael Patison said...

Great review. I've never seen this and have indeed heard mixed things about it, but I assume I'll see it eventually. Your comment about Michael Douglas being one dimensional strikes me as incredibly unsurprising as I find him one dimensional and generally boring in pretty much everything I've ever seen him in. The only exceptions there are Falling Down and Wonder Boys (and I guess Wall Street because although his character was one dimensionally written he did the best he could with it)

Fritz said...

First of all: sorry for having been away so long and I hope everything is alright with you!

Second: sigh...Jane...I've seen the movie but since I'll re-watch her performance any way I don't want to give any speculation about how I might react. I think re-watching all the nominees might actually help Jane Fonda in my case...I have a feeeling that maybe I'll react more positive to her now...who knows? :-)

mrripley said...

No i love me some jfond but i find this lacking in the wake of julia,they shoot horses,klute etc but she is gr8.

Fritz said...

I just realized that all of Jane's performance got a perfect grade from you. :-)

dinasztie said...

Yep. ;) That's how it should be. :) I'm not ashamed to tell declare that I adore her.

Louis Morgan said...

I thought she was good here, but I did not think she was amazing.