Jane Fonda’s still got it.
The Dolby Theater in Hollywood was filled with A-list celebrities, with Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep, Michael Douglas, and many more taking the stage Thursday night to celebrate Fonda, who was honored with the American Film Institute's 42nd Life Achievement Award.
The 76-year-old entered the ballroom shortly after 7 p.m., and as she made her way to her table, she was immediately greeted by a slew of stars, first Douglas (her co-star in 1979’s The China Syndrome) and his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, followed by Cameron Diaz, Morgan Freeman, and more. Fonda stunned in Vera Wang and wiped the first of the evening’s many happy tears as she sat down at her table in the middle of the room.
The speeches began with Meryl Streep, whose first big-screen role was in Fonda’s 1977 Lillian Hellman biopic Julia.
"Are you ready to work out?" she opened, referring to Fonda’s workout videos, which jump-started the aerobics craze of the 1980s. "Jane, you helped my career in so many ways. Losing the weight after each child … Almost 40 years ago, you put your arm around me, and like a big sister, walked me into movie making. I was a late starter, I was 28, just out of drama school and I got my first movie."
Streep, 64, recalled how nervous she was first stepping onto the set of Julia because all of her scenes were with Fonda. Maybe for good reason: the August: Osage County star revealed she missed her mark during the first take. But, by day two, they were already best friends (at least, in Meryl’s mind).
She recalled a day on set that someone came up to her, saying how she was glad that Jane was feeling better because she has been “crying all night.” “Why?” Streep asked. She was told, “‘Well, they looked at dallies from last week and [Jane] just thinks she looks so old.” “She was 38 years old and so beautiful,” she continued. “We’re all afflicted with these insecurities, but Jane has a special radar … what she does, she deflects her own anxiety and made me – a day player, a nobody – feel fantastic. After we wrapped that movie, I found out she’d gone back to California and told everyone who would listen about this girl with a weird last name, and opened more doors than I even probably know about today.”
Cameron Diaz and Eva Longoria took the stage next, and gave appropriately respectful encomiums (neither woman has acted against Fonda), but then Wanda Sykes (Fonda’s Monster in Law co-star) came up dressed as Barbarella and turned things into a roast. “Barbarella, that’s what started the war on women,” Sykes said (a DVD of Fonda’s infamous 1968 sexy space movie was gifted to every attendee at the end of the night) before refocusing her barbs on Michael Douglas for a hilarious but unprintable bit. Douglas was a good sport about it, smiling and looking back at Jane’s table. See the photo below and judge for yourself whether Zeta-Jones found the zing as amusing.
After the comedy interlude, the tone returned to the sentimental when Sally Field made touching remarks: “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.” Further praise was showered on her by 9 to 5 partner Lily Tomlin, and The Newsroom's Jeff Daniels, who gave his speech in the form of an original song. Bullock then got the crowd laughing again with her usual, charming self.
"I’ve chosen to come here this evening to express the overall sentiment in the room … That feeling is, that we are all pretty much finding Jane annoying," Sandy joked. "Everything she does, she does it just a little better than any of us did it. And that does not sit well with a room of narcissists … I would like to ask that you continue to annoy us so that we always have an example of how to better ourselves and better our lives, and if you could please, please, just tell me what is the exercise that you do to keep your butt so high? I have been working my ass off – pun is intended there – and it’s just sliding."
Another highlight of the evening was Fonda’s son, Troy Garity, who kicked off his speech with a few jokes but then took a turn for the touching. “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 said, later adding, “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.”
The evening concluded with Michael Douglas, who did not use his time to make any rebuttals to Sykes and instead presented the AFI Life Achievement Award to his longtime friend, bringing the evening full circle.
"What I realized is, I’ve been blessed to work with and know very many geniuses, real geniuses," Fonda reflected as she took the stage. "So many of them are gone now … I’ve had to ask myself, ‘Why didn’t I ask them more questions?’
"People who have been at it a long time are just a treasure trove of wisdom and stories, and in all my years of filmmaking only one person has ever asked me, ‘Tell me about film acting.’ And guess who it was? Her, Meryl Streep," Fonda said, pointing. "It would be her, right? The only one to ask me that question."
Meryl certainly learned from one of the best.
The celebration will be aired on TNT on June 14, followed by reruns on Turner Classic Movies.
Photo Credits: Getty Images