Jane Fonda on Her AFI Tribute: 'I'm So Happy to Add Another Woman's Name to the List'

John Shearer/Invision/AP

The actress was honored as the 42nd recipient of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award by a star-studded crowd that included Michael Douglas, Sally Field and Meryl Streep.

Accepting the American Film Institute's 42nd Life Achievement Award, Jane Fonda exclaimed, "I'm so happy to add another woman's name to the list."

She also offered a bit of advice for the roomful of Hollywood celebrities gathered at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood Thursday night: "Ask questions, stay curious," she exhorted them. "It's much more important to be interested than to be interesting."

In recounting both Fonda's career as well as her very protean life, those who gathered to pay her tribute -- especially a blue-ribbon acting sorority led by Meryl Streep, Sally Field, Lily Tomlin and Sandra Bullock -- certainly made the case that Fonda had been plenty interesting herself.

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Michael Douglas, who received the honor in 2009, presented Fonda with the award. But first he said that while working with her on 1979's The China Syndrome, "I learned that not only is Jane an amazing actress, but she is the world's greatest multitasker. She was simultaneously an actress, she was a mom, she was a fitness expert and a brave, very courageous political activist. So, deep down, who really is Jane Fonda? She is one of a kind."

Fonda may have been following in the footsteps of her father, Henry Fonda, the sixth recipient of the AFI's award in 1978, but as Douglas put it, "Jane, you are true film royalty, not through birth, but through your talent."

A seven-time Academy Award nominee and winner of two Oscars for 1971's Klute and 1979's Coming Home, Fonda, 76, in a black-and-white Vera Wang gown, sat on the dais beside her partner, record producer Richard Perry, and alternately laughed, applauded and wiped away a tear or two as her life story played out in front of her.

The most emotional moments came when her son, actor Troy Garity, took the podium. At first, he fired off a string of one-liners that had the audience guffawing. "If my mother thinks it was difficult being the daughter of Henry Fonda," he said, "try being the son of Hanoi Jane -- that was a lot of fun … being potty-trained in a rice paddy … being sent to school in a headband and leg warmers. … My first 13 birthday parties were fundraisers. … We had a different life from other Hollywood families. My mother never hired a nanny to watch after me -- that's what the FBI was for."

Afterward he got serious, describing what he called his mother's own life-long journey of self-discovery, "a journey that I feel began when she lost her own mother at a young age and was left believing that she had to fight for her father's affection. Since then, for better or for worse, she has fearlessly pursued a life to mark her existence, to prove her worth, and it makes sense that you found comfort in acting. It's a craft that gives lessons to live by." He concluded, "Being raised by you, intimately observing your commitment, I want to say to you here, in front of this great room of people, that in film, in fitness, in politics, in family, Mom, you have succeeded."

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Fonda's brother, Peter Fonda, echoed those thoughts, saying, "Jane, I've never been prouder of you, and I know Dad is too."

In introducing the evening, Howard Stringer, chair of the AFI board of trustees, noted that Jane Fonda was at the first AFI Life Achievement Award dinner in 1973, honoring director John Ford -- she was not actually in the room but outside picketing the participation of Richard Nixon. Ron Kovic, the Marine veteran turned antiwar activist whose life story was told in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July, received a standing ovation when he appeared to tell how he and Fonda met at a rally at Claremont College, where he told her of the conditions at the veterans hospitals -- a conversation that provided the initial inspiration for Coming Home. "I will always be grateful to have stood with you during those difficult days, Jane," he said, "and for the opportunity to have contributed, if but in a small way, to such an important and historic film."

The evening also had its lighter moments. Jeff Daniels, whom Fonda stars opposite in HBO's The Newsroom, offered a song he'd written for the occasion. As he strummed his guitar, he sang of Fonda's "abs, buns and thighs" as one of her exercise videos played behind him. And the tribute momentarily turned into more of a roast when comedienne Wanda Sykes turned up wearing a Barbarella outfit as she was carried onstage by a buff guy dressed as an angel. "Barbarella? Jane, what the hell were you thinking?" Sykes wanted to know, before launching into a routine that will no doubt be severely edited when the evening is broadcast June 14 by TNT, followed by encores on Turner Classic Movies.

Streep, who made her film debut in a supporting role opposite Fonda in 1977's Julia, offered one of the evening's most memorable descriptions, when she recalled her initial impression of the older actress: "She had an almost feral alertness, like this bright blue attentiveness to everything around her." And she thanked Fonda for showing her the ropes.

Field credited Fonda with encouraging her to open a production office at Fox, where the two met regularly for monthly lunches. "I saw her break away from her looks, refusing to let her face and her body define and confine her," Field said. "She brought this new kind of raw sexuality, of gritty innocent honesty, vulnerable to the core, and I had never seen anything like it. Her performances, they ushered in this short but wonderful time in women's films, when films were centered around the lives of complicated women."

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The testimonials kept flowing with Cameron Diaz and Eva Longoria joining in. Tomlin, who is starring in a new Netflix comedy series Grace and Frankie with Fonda, commented that Fonda was generous enough to give her and Dolly Parton the best parts in 9 to 5, saying, "Even back then, she had transcended her ego, which in my book is enough to give any actress a lifetime achievement award." And, in a tongue-in-cheek bit, Bullock pretended to be annoyed by Fonda's myriad accomplishments before asking, "What is the exercise that you do to keep your butt so high?"

Before the tributes wrapped up, Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, contributed a video piece titled "A Hymn to Her" in which Morgan Freeman, Cate Blanchett, Vanessa Redgrave, Annette Bening and Robert De Niro also offered words of praise to the evening's honoree.

Additionally, to kick off the evening, Bob Gazzale, AFI president and CEO, presented the Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal to producer Anne Garefino, a member of the AFI class of 1988.

Email: gregg.kilday@thr.com
Twitter: @gkilday