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After long hiatus, Jane Fonda returns to the screen

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She's an inspiration to some, a pariah to others - and that's just her life "so far." As she begins what she refers to as her "third act," Jane Fonda couldn't have timed her (re-)entrance any more shrewdly, what with the blitz of a new autobiography (the best-selling My Life So Far), a newly released DVD set (of her 80s aerobics workouts), and a new movie (the Jennifer Lopez comedy Monster-in-Law) all hitting the streets within a matter of weeks.

After 15 years away from the Hollywood spotlight, Fonda may be back, but she's only visiting. "Listen, I've had my (movie) career," she concedes during a recent interview in Los Angeles, shrugging her shoulders and giving you one of those get-out-of-here waves of her hand. "I'm not looking to jump-start another one. I'm realistic. I know Hollywood isn't overly friendly to women of — how do they put it? — a certain age. I had a great time making Monster-in-Law, and I'll be sad if I never get to do it again, but that's OK."

Her farcical turn as a mother-in-law from hell opposite Lopez's hardly blushing bride is Fonda's first screen appearance since Stanley & Iris in 1990. Over the course of a 30-year acting career, she'd won two Academy Awards (for 1971's Klute and 1978's Coming Home) and had been nominated for five more. Somewhere along the way, however, Fonda says she lost something — "that sense of joy" she used to get from her work.

"When I quit the business, I was miserable, just internally as a woman," she recalls. "I felt cut off from my emotions, and I was in denial about it. I was living in my head, sort of plowing along on sheer willpower. But you can't really be creative if you're simply living on willpower. I didn't know at the time that's what it was. All I knew was that every day when I'd go to work, it was just agonizing. I finally said, 'I want out.'"

And then it was Ted Turner to the rescue. They married in 1991 and settled in Atlanta, where Fonda continued her work as a "social activist" by founding the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention and opening the Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health at Emory University. "It was like, 'Thank you, Ted.' I was just so relieved that I didn't have to act anymore. I had the good fortune of having Ted bring me to Atlanta, where I could lead a real life that had nothing to do with movies, where I can be a mother and grandmother, where I can concentrate on making a difference as a social activist."

How much has she missed Hollywood? "I haven't," she replies with a laugh. "One of the worst dangers of becoming a big star or celebrity is that you tend to take everything so seriously, including yourself. That's dangerous for several reasons, because it makes you put emphasis on the wrong things in life, and it cuts you off from your humanity. I've become a very different person over the last 15 years."

Even so, Fonda couldn't resist the scenery-chewing appeal of her role in Monster-in-Law. After her divorce from Turner in 2001, the actress started toying with the idea of a return to the screen. As she explains it, "I'd been offered a couple of other things that were more serious, but I really wanted to do this one. I just felt ready for it. I'd done comedies, but never anything quite this broad before. Laughter tends to come much more easily to me now than it used to, so I thought it would be fun to just sort of swing for the fences."

Previously married to French director Roger Vadim in the 70s and to California congressman Tom Hayden in the 80s, Fonda insists she didn't model the character on any of her own mothers-in-law. "I've had three and they've all been great," she says. "You know what's weird? If I patterned her after anybody, it would probably be my favorite ex-husband (Turner). I don't mean he's a monster, but talk about an outrageous, over-the-top personality. Every day, it was like, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe he just said that.' Or, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe he just did that!' He's an absolute hoot, because he lacks any self-censorship, and at the same time he's extremely lovable. He's the only person I know who's had to apologize more than I have."

Fonda can smile about that now, but the truth is her new book has re-ignited a lot of festering hostilities about her controversial political opposition to the Vietnam War. (In a highly publicized incident at a book-signing a week after this interview, an angry vet spit tobacco juice in her face.) In My Life So Far, she candidly addresses a lot of things — her strained relationship with her famous actor father, Henry, and the suicide of her mother, Frances, when she was 11; the subsequent physical and emotional disorders she endured much of her adult life; her three failed marriages and her own inadequacies as a parent; her involvement in the Civil Rights movement and her various feminist causes — and yet it's Vietnam that seems to always haunt her.

"I get letters on a regular basis from Vietnam veterans, and they're so moving. A lot of them say they forgive me, that they understand I was doing what I felt I had to do, just as they were doing what they felt they had to do. Now, we're able to kind of meet in the middle, and that makes me happy, because it shows that there's some healing taking place."

She pauses. "But there are also a lot of veterans who aren't ready or able to heal, and for whom I'm a lightning rod. I can understand why there's still such rage about Vietnam, as well there should be. We were lied to and deceived by a series of administrations. It was a war that never had to happen. It was very hard, taking a stand against my own government. It wasn't my war, though. I didn't send anybody over there. I just wanted to try to end it."

Part acting legend, part activist icon, at 67, Fonda has finally learned to take it all in stride. "Over the years, I guess I've represented different things for different reasons, as a feminist, as an anti-war protestor, as an actress, as other things besides just me, Jane, an individual. I have to own that, because it reflects my values and I'd never want to betray that.

"The people who've always had the biggest impact on me were those who really lived their values. It isn't about a lot of rhetoric. It's about people who, through their very being, can demonstrate another way to exist in the world, you know?"

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