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Things I Learned at the Dazzling AFI Tribute to Jane Fonda: “stay curious”

Things I Learned at the Dazzling AFI Tribute to Jane Fonda: "stay curious"

Jane Fonda drew a wide and starry crowd to Hollywood’s Dolby Theater Thursday night, where the American Film Institute honored her with the 42nd Life Achievement Award, in an evening that appropriately feted the visionary actress’ myriad accomplishments from the past, present, and yet-to-come.

Among attendees were Mel Brooks, Sally Field, Lily Tomlin, Morgan Freeman, Sandra Bullock, Cameron Diaz, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Eva Longoria, Diane Lane, David O. Russell, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, late arrivals Catherine Keener and Nicole Holofcener, and a marvelously beautiful Meryl Streep, who shared anecdotes about their budding friendship on the set of “Julia” (1977). 

“She was smoking, very louche, and had an almost feline alertness,” Streep said, in between wisecracks about Fonda’s workout collection including the classic “Abs, Buns and Thighs.” “Jane deflected her own anxiety and made me, a day player, feel fantastic.”

Visibly tickled, and visibly nervous, Jane Fonda sat with brother Peter and son Troy Garity as clips from her luminous career unspooled — from her awkward start in “Tall Story” opposite Anthony Perkins, to playing the original manic pixie dream girl in “Barefoot in the Park” and a brainy ex-pat journalist in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Tout Va Bien,” and, of course, the Oscar-winning Bree Daniels in Alan J. Pakula’s “Klute.”

“Being directed by Alan Pakula was like doing a waltz with Fred Astaire,” said Fonda — who never stopped working even as she began protesting Vietnam, and situated herself on the forefront of the battle for human rights — in an AFI video interview.

In between clips and tribute speeches, we gulped wine and ate violet cauliflower sea bass from Wolfgang Puck that melted in your mouth, and a distressingly good 64% dark chocolate cake.

Fonda, on the audience camera, struggled to look comfortable as Wanda Sykes, in full-on Barbarella garb, picked on her, and made some jokes of questionable taste — and context — about Michael Douglas attributing his throat cancer to excessive amounts of oral sex. “Never mind the drinking and the smoking; it’s eating pussy that’ll kill you.” Okay then.

An also lovely Sally Field’s hysterical memories of the early years of their friendship entertained — “She would show up at lunch, hair wet from the shower, saying ‘I just came from a workout’ and order nothing but orange juice.”

The motif of the night was, really, how does she do it? Fonda has been so prolific, starring in over 50 productions — including “On Golden Pond” with dad Henry, “They Shoot Horses Don’t They,” iconic and sexy “Barbarella,” women-in-the-workplace comedy “Nine to Five,” “which grew out of an organizing movement and built the movement” — writing several books, being a role model for women, leading political causes, fly-fishing, moose-hunting and, oh yeah, shooting those workout videos.

“She’s a boat rocker, a peacenik, a vagina warrior, and more sexually adventuresome than anyone in this room,” said “Nine to Five” costar Lily Tomlin in the night’s funniest, and best, tribute. “I’m not going to marry you, but I do love you.”

“We all pretty much find Jane annoying,” Sandra Bullock snapped, as the accolades and achievements piled on and on. Fonda, after a long and uproarious standing ovation, accepting the prize from 2009 AFI honoree Michael Douglas, finally did make her way to the stage.

“I think of the list of extraordinary people who have received this honor,” Fonda said, nodding to Brooks, Douglas, Shirley MacLaine, and others in the room. “I’m really happy to be among them. I’ve worked with and known many real geniuses. So many of them are gone now and I’ve had to ask myself, ‘why didn’t I ask them more questions?’ Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck asked me to give them their AFI Awards and I said, ‘of course, I’m honored,’ but why didn’t I say, ‘let’s have dinner the week before?’!” Fonda said.

Finally, she left us with a great pearl of wisdom before exiting the stage: “Ask questions. Stay curious. It’s much more important to stay interested than to be interesting.”

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