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Revisiting Jane Fonda's career-defining performance in 'Klute'

Jane Fonda is an undisputed icon of Hollywood. Hailing from one of the most distinguished families in the history of cinema, her father, Henry, only needs no real introduction. Coming from a family that was seemingly always in the sights of the media, it was up to Jane to forge her own career, to follow a path that was her own, and it was something she did to glorious success.

Fonda was a countercultural heroine who also established herself as one of the most famous actors of the day. The 1960s was her own, and the sci-fi romp, 1968’s Barbarella, remains of her most enduring performances. However, it was in 1971 where she truly arrived as a legend, and it was one project that truly allowed her to understand the context of her standing in life.

Starring as Bree, a high-end call girl in Klute, the first instalment of Alan Pakula’s ‘Paranoia Trilogy’, Fonda confirmed herself as a brilliant actor in her own right, dealing with many of the film’s taboo themes with expertise and maturity that culminated in her winning the Academy Award for Best Actress the following year. Fonda broke from movie stereotypes, and her performance of Bree was a multi-faceted, captivating display of her natural technique.

Famously, when preparing for the role of Bree, Fonda spent a week in New York observing some of the city’s most expensive call girls and madams, and, at times, also accompanied them on outings to the after-hours clubs in the hunt for clients. This was to be a wake-up call for Fonda, who has at many points when discussing the making of the film, admitted that she was surprised that none of the men showed interest in her. Ever humble, deep-down, Fonda knew that it was because they could easily see past her veneer, as that she was just an “upper-class, privileged pretender”.

At first, Fonda also had doubts as to whether she could play such a character, given that her background was the antithesis to that of Bree. With that in mind, she asked Pakula to rescind her contract and hire everybody’s favourite femme fatale, Faye Dunaway, instead. In one of the most important moves of his career, Pakula refused. 

Another of Fonda’s main concerns was, that at the time, she was only just becoming immersed within the feminist movement, something that until only very close to filming, she had been resistant to. Still getting acquainted with the ethics of the movement, Fonda thought that as a feminist, she shouldn’t be playing the role of a prostitute. This sentiment would prove to be very ironic for obvious reasons. 

Still batting around her concerns, Fonda later discussed her intellectual impasse with a friend, the jazz icon Barbara Dane, who quickly dispelled the notion, insisting that it was a chance to dig deep into the character and, more crucially, that digging deep and understanding a character fully is feminism at its finest.

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Fonda then used her memories to help devise a more 3D character for Bree. She remembered the call girls she had known whilst living in France, those who worked for the iconic Madame Claude. She recalled that every one of them had been sexually abused as children, and this was her first step to giving Bree a tangible edge, something that went way further than the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ stereotype which, even in 1971, was long outdated. This idea became the entry point into Fonda understanding Bree’s motivations into assuming that line of work, even if a tad presumptive. 

The most enduring part of Fonda’s turn as Bree, however, has to be the haircut. Five months before filming Klute, Fonda remembers that she had her first “hair epiphany”, and didn’t want to have a lot of long blonde hair to deal with, as she did previously while starring in Barbarella. Fonda asked her husband at the time, Roger Vadim, the man behind Barbarella, to give her the number of his barber, Paul McGregor, the man who created the iconic ‘shag’ haircut. 

The hair that Fonda rocks in Klute was the result of her asking McGregor to “do something”. Her hairdo broke from the norm and, almost instantaneously, it became iconic. At first glance, people didn’t even recognise that it was Fonda, again owing to some of the themes of anonymity and identity at the centre of the film. It became a symbol of defiance, and again, this instilled Bree with a real dense quality that has endured for 50 years. 

Jane Fonda’s performance in Klute is nothing short of remarkable. Be it the sheer depth of Bree, or her onscreen chemistry with her opposite number, Donald Sutherland, one would argue that it is Fonda’s definitive film. She dug deep and went against what was expected and, as a result, ended up helping to further the feminist cause. She gave insight into the world of call girls, a huge step in peeling back the taboo about that line of work. 

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