MONSTER-IN-LAW: LOS ANGELES
I have an early afternoon flight to Los Angeles and two good reasons to go there. Firstly, last weekend in Toronto it snowed. Wet, heavy, unpleasant snow. The weather in LA will be in the low 20s and as long as it doesn’t snow or hail I’ll be fine. Secondly—but of no less import—I’ll be interviewing Jane Fonda. That’s right… Barbarella. Catherine ‘Cat’ Ballou. Bree Daniel. Jane Harper. Do I need to mention the work-out videos? She is appearing in her first movie since Mikel Milken pled guilty to securities fraud, Bruce Willis still had hair and George Bush Senior was president.
Her last movie was 1990’s Stanley and Iris, the Martin Ritt film about an illiterate cook (Robert De Niro) at a company cafeteria tries for the attention of a newly widowed woman (Fonda). Soon after that movie tanked at the box office she announced that she was retiring from the screen and settling down with husband Ted Turner.
She told IMDB that she came out of retirement because she’s attracted by the idea of making a few more films to fund her charitable enterprise, the Georgia Campaign on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention. She says, “I could use more money, I have to be honest. I’m 67, who knows what’s going to happen. I really believe in the work that I’m doing in Georgia with young girls and boys and you teach what you need to learn. I’m trying to help girls own their bodies, honour their bodies, respect themselves and help boys not be afraid of claiming their hearts… I want to be sure it keeps going after I go.”
I have just cracked her book, the newly minted autobiography My Life So Far and hope to glean as much info about her as I can on the five-and-a-half-hour flight. Of course, I know her movies, and how her mother’s suicide was kept from her—she found out about it when she read about it in a movie magazine—and that she suffered from bulimia from age 13 to age 37 but I’m hoping to get a little more insight for my interview on Saturday. I won’t have much time with her, but I like to feel prepared.
The book is much different than most celebrity biographies. She divides her life into three acts—writing about her childhood, first films, and marriage to French director Roger Vadim in act one; act two covers the emergence of her activism, the disastrous “Hanoi Jane” trip to North Vietnam, her career peaks and marriages to Tom Hayden and Ted Turner; in her third act, we learn of her philanthropic work and her plans for the future.
“I hope that other women might see something of their own experiences in what I have to say about how a girl can lose touch with herself, her body and have to struggle—hard—to get herself, her voice, back,” she writes in the book.
It’s an interesting book written by someone who has obviously spent some time coming to grips with the vagaries of her life. She writes movingly about her troubled relationship with her movie star father Henry, and is more emotionally open and honest than I expected from a book written by a movie star. There are some salacious details—her relationship with Vadim pushed her sexual boundaries—but his isn’t simply a tell-all book. It’s a conversationally written account of her life that doesn’t gloss over the bad or embarrassing stuff, and digs deep to help the reader understand what makes her tick.
I plough through ¾ of the book’s 584 pages of the book as we touch down at LAX. From there we make our way through the LA rush hour traffic—when is it not rush hour in this town—to the Four Seasons. I have just enough time to check-in and hang my clothes in the closet when it is time to board the bus that will take us to the screening of Monster-in-Law. The bus can’t leave until all the reporters are aboard—about twenty in all—and we get held up for half an hour by one genius who decides to dawdle.
The movie is at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre—an unusual version of a classical Chinese temple, complete with quasi-Chinese motifs and inverted dragon tails— on Hollywood Boulevard. We’re going to one of the smaller theatres next to the Kodac Theatre—where they hold the Academy Awards—but out in front we see a long line-up for the main theatre. There are over a hundred people and apparently they are waiting for the May 19th debut of Star Wars: Episode III— Revenge of the Sith. Most of the other Star Wars films have debuted there at the legendary theatre but this time 20th Century Fox has decided to open the film at the ArcLight, several blocks away. According to IMDB the fans who are braving the elements to be the first to see the film don’t believe the hype and are refusing to move. “This is Mecca for fans,” one said. “It’s been a tradition for decades.”
I have a line-waiting limit of five minutes, so I admire these stubborn—if maybe a little naïve—fans, but I also think they should move out of their parent’s basements, get jobs and stop dressing like Wookies.
Once inside we’re seated in the VIP balcony section. It’s nice, but I’ve been sitting in an airport lounge, a plane, then a cab and a bus for almost ten hours. I’m tired, and the chairs are almost too comfortable. My goal is too stay awake during the movie and not get seduced by the comfy chair that seems to be tenderly whispering in my ear, “Sleep… sleep in my peaceful arms, rest your head against my soft leather and you’ll feel better after the movie.” In my sleepy hallucination the chair’s voice sounds like Scarlett Johansson. I can feel my lids getting heavy but somehow I stay awake.
Monster-in-Law is pretty simple stuff. J-Lo—whoops, she doesn’t want to be called that anymore—plays Charlotte Honeywell, a free spirited young woman who meets the perfect man, a good looking doctor named Kevin (Alias’ Michael Vartan). After a whirlwind romance they decide to marry. His mother, Jane Fonda in an over-the-top comedic performance, however, has different ideas. For the next hour-and-a-half psychological warfare ensues, hair is pulled, faces slapped and crimes against fashion are committed. For a full review, tune into Reel to Real in May.
After the screening it’s back to the hotel for a Monster-in-Law themed poolside party. There is a giant wedding cake, appetisers and plenty of freeloading journalists soaking up as much free beer, wine and spirits as humanly possible.
I hear loads of gossip at the party. Typically the movie’s biggest star gets the biggest room on these junkets, but in this case you have a recent star verses a Hollywood legend. Who will get the larger suite? Apparently Jenny from the Block demanded and got the larger hotel room for her interviews. I guess Fonda didn’t need the extra room for her two Oscars, six Golden Globes, her Emmys, People’s Choice Awards or New York Film Critics Circle Awards. Perhaps the younger actress needed the extra space for her ego. Who knows?
I stay at the party until I can’t stand being around the juiced-up journalists anymore. It’s been a long day and I still have a hundred or so pages of the Fonda book to read.
SATURDAY, APRIL 9, 2005
As usual because of the time change I’m up pretty early. It doesn’t seem to matter what time I go to bed on the first night here, I’m always up with the sun in the morning. I have my usual Four Seasons breakfast—Heuvos Rancheros, a Jet Lag smoothie and a huge urn of tea.
I have a 3:15 flight this afternoon, so I should leave for the airport around 1:00. I’m scheduled to start at 9:30 so I should have lots of time. After breakfast I head upstairs to the hospitality suite to read over my notes and have more tea before I start. I only take two steps off the elevator before I am stopped by a security guard. He asks my name, and cross checks it with a list he has on a big official looking clipboard. He asks me spell, then re-spell my name, I point it out for him on the list and he nods. Apparently I will be allowed access to the fourteenth floor today. He hands me a glittery, bright pink wrist band which I’m told to wear at all times. It is my ID pass. I’m told that the security is there at the request of Ms. Lopez, who isn’t even scheduled to arrive until after I have left the building. As I walk away I hear others being given the bracelet to wear. “I can’t wear this,” I hear one complain, “I’m on camera!”
In the hospitality suite we’re watching a large flat screen television with clips from the film. I look closely to see if any of J-Lo’s co-stars in the movie were required to wear the pink security bracelets on set. I make a joke about Jane Fonda being required to wear the pink wristlet. The publicists do not smile. I have more tea and read the press notes.
There usually isn’t a whole lot of interest in press notes, just a bunch of generic, ‘Oh we loved working on this project…” quotes and some specs on the film. The Monster-in-Law notes are rather standard, but there are some unintentionally funny lines in there. Fonda thinks Lopez is “deeply talented,” while Lopez says Fonda is “the real thing.” So far nothing unusual. Press notes are usually filled with this kind of claptrap, but there is one line that made me laugh out loud.
The director’s notes are often the most fawning, but I never read anything like this before. Since their first meeting director Robert Luketic, apparently still can’t stop talking about J-Lo’s beauty and the way she smelled. The way she smelled. Not her great talent. Not her ability to light up a screen, but the way she smelled. It’s a shame he couldn’t have made the movie in Smell-O-Vision.
The interviews actually start on time. When I go down the hall to Jane Fonda’s room at 9:30 she’s already there, in make-up and ready to go. I’m her first interview of the day. I was told yesterday at the party that she was very easy to work with, and when she asked how many interviews she’d be doing today she was shocked to discover that she’d have to talk to 50 or more people. In her day, she said, they would only do ten or fifteen interviews a day.
She looks fabulous for 68. She looks fabulous for 58 or 48. Time has been kind to her. We sit and make small talk as they adjust the cameras. I tell her that I have read her book, and she wants to know what I thought about it. I give her a brief review (see above) and she seems to be very interested in how people are reacting to her work.
Once the cameras start to roll we turn the conversation to Monster-in-Law. Here’s a transcript of that conversation:
RICHARD: Congratulations on Monster in Law. In your book, you talk about being blinded by insecurities before stepping on set, and I’m thinking particularly of when you were making Klute and you actually even tried to convince Alan Pakula to fire you, or to replace you in the film because you just weren’t sure you could pull it off, and of course, history has shown us that you could. It’s been 15 years since you’ve made a movie, are there any of those feelings that bubbled up again before you walked on set for Monster in Law?
JANE FONDA: No, and I had a feeling that there wouldn’t be because I’m just so different than I was 15 years ago. When I decided to quit the business 15 years ago I was…It was agony for me. I felt very un-creative, very un-talented, I just didn’t want to be scared anymore, so…Now I thought, last year “You know, I’m so different. Let me see if I can have joy again in the process of making a movie,” and I did.
RICHARD: I wonder were you thinking—when you were on set and working on Monster in Law—were you thinking of some of the advice that maybe Katharine Hepburn had given you, because in your book you talk about her a great deal, and you talk about the difference between a movie legend and a movie star and how as a movie star, you felt that it was okay to have other jobs, whereas she just could not completely understand that.
JANE FONDA: Yeah, movie making has always been just a part of my life whereas for her, it was her whole life, and maybe that’s why she was a legend and I’m just a movie star—was a movie star. But are you asking that in reference to the character?
JANE FONDA: Because the character that I play—I would be the monster… definitely somebody who like Katharine Hepburn, very self-conscious, very conscious of her image. I didn’t think so much about all that when I was trying to figure out how to play Viola you know, to tell you the truth, one of the things that helped me play Viola was my 10 years with Ted Turner, because he is also outrageous, over-the-top and at the same time lovable, and what makes someone like Ted lovable in spite of the outrageousness is that you sense underneath the pain that never entirely goes away, and the insecurity, and I think that that’s—I think that’s what I brought to Viola. She could have really been a monster, and certainly a lot of her behavior is despicable, but you always know of the pain of the pain underneath.
RICHARD: Well, I think once you recognize the core of humanity in a character, it doesn’t matter what they do, the audience will buy them if they can sense some insecurity, or if they can sense something that they can automatically relate to as a human trait.
JANE FONDA: Spoken like a true Canadian.
RICHARD: Exactly [laughter]. I met Ted Turner once, and I found that he filled the room and that was the thing that…It’s interesting that you said because Viola’s very much a room-filler. She’s a very big, very large commanding personality.
JANE FONDA: Yes and I think I might have been more scared to play her if I hadn’t gotten to know someone who filled the room as well as I got to know Ted.
RICHARD: Yes. Now, you talk in the film about how—in the book, rather—about how different emotions are sort of like muscle. I know how to flex the scared muscle; I know how to do this. You’re flexing the comedy muscle for the first time in a very long time. I mean it’s been a long since you’ve appeared in a film. It’s been since you’ve made a comedy. Tell me about that, because comedy’s tough…or can be, I think.
JANE FONDA: If I had to do this 15 years ago, it would have been really hard for me. Laughter comes much more easily to me now, so it was…I have a natural fondness for and proclivity to physical comedy, so I don’t know, it came real easy, it was a whole lot of fun. I love working with Wanda Sykes in particular. We had a lot of stuff together, and Jennifer is very good at physical stuff, she’s a dancer, she knows how to control herself, so it was very easy doing the physical stuff wither her.
RICHARD: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure to meet you.
I’m pleased with the interview. She actually seems like she thinks about each question and gives nice, well thought out answers. Later I’m talk to another reporter who says his interview didn’t go as well as mine. Apparently when he sat down across from her she was taking a sip of water. As he extended his hand to shake hers she spilled her water down her front and in her lap. It wasn’t his fault, and she wasn’t terribly troubled by it, but he felt the rhythm of the interview had been thrown off.
Next up for me is Michael Vartan. He’s been in a bunch of movies, but is best known as the co-star on Alias opposite Jennifer Gardner. He looks tired, and tells me that he was up until 4 am shooting the season finale of the action series. He is the male lead in the film, although he is quite comfortable admitting that it isn’t his movie. He is there to support the two female leads and look good while doing it. In that he succeeds.
From there I speak to Wanda Sykes, who plays Jane Fonda’s deadpan assistant in the film. She’s a stand-up comedian, who has appeared in everything form Crank Yankers to Curb Your Enthusiasm and her own short lived series called Wanda Does It. We talk about how her part seems so natural, like it was improvised. I ask her about performing comedy opposite Fonda, who earlier told me that doing comedy is “like riding a bicycle or having sex” you never forget how to do it. Wanda joked that if you read Fonda’s book you know how good she is at having sex, so she must be a pretty good comedian as well.
Last was director Robert Luketic. He is best known for directing light frothy comedies like Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton. I refrain from asking him how J-Lo smells. Instead we talk about the challenge of directing a movie that blends so many different comedic styles—slapstick, deadpan, screwball and situational. For more on all these interviews, tune into Reel to Real in May.
That’s it. The interviews are done and it is only 10:30. I have a couple of hours to kill before I have to leave for the airport so I take a quick walk down to the Beverly Center, but some magazines for the flight home and generally soak up the sun. The flight home is uneventful. I run into Treed Murray and Foolproof director William Phillips who is travelling with his family. He offers me twenty bucks to sit with his three small children on the plane. I politely decline, even though they seem like lovely kids.
I arrive home late and check the newspapers that had piled up while I was gone. I see that it was almost as warm and sunny in Toronto as it had been in LA over the weekend. I guess for the next few months I won’t have to spend my weekends on the road to catch a few rays.
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