Screen Test

Fearless self-appraisal, one-dimensional cliches

When celebrities do interviews these days, they are expected to somehow be extraordinary yet relatable.

The illusion of the former follows from their position, appearance or talents. But to conjure up the latter, there is often a disingenuous-sounding recitation of "flaws" - a performance of vulnerability.

It often rings hollow - and that is what makes the unflinching self-appraisal by actress Jane Fonda in an intimate new documentary - Jane Fonda In Five Acts - all the more remarkable.

Director Susan Lacy traces Fonda's trajectory from eye-batting ingenue (Sunday In New York, 1963) to sex kitten (Barbarella, 1968) to double Oscar-winner (Klute, 1971, and Coming Home, 1978).

She then dissects her activism, notably Fonda's much-vilified opposition to the Vietnam War and how she inadvertently became one of the top exercise gurus of all time as well as, through films like 9 To 5 (1980), a figure of female empowerment.

But despite her feminism, four of the five "acts" of her life are named for the men who defined each era.

Jane Fonda and ex-husband Ted Turner in Jane Fonda In Five Acts (above) and J.D. Pardo in Mayans M.C.
Jane Fonda and ex-husband Ted Turner in Jane Fonda In Five Acts (above) and J.D. Pardo in Mayans M.C. PHOTOS: HBO, FX

First, there was her father, legendary actor Henry Fonda, whose emotional cruelty led to her eating disorders.

Jane Fonda and ex-husband Ted Turner in Jane Fonda In Five Acts (above) and J.D. Pardo in Mayans M.C.
Jane Fonda and ex-husband Ted Turner in Jane Fonda In Five Acts and J.D. Pardo (above) in Mayans M.C. PHOTOS: HBO, FX

Then came her husbands, whom she was "too worried about pleasing", which meant "none of my marriages was democratic".


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She allowed her first husband, French director Roger Vadim, to mould her into a sex symbol with Barbarella and dismiss her concerns about his gambling as "bourgeoise".

Her second husband, activist Tom Hayden, fed her social-justice impulses, but perhaps thought she was superficial and not smart enough.

Finally, there was billionaire Ted Turner, a kindred spirit who swept her off her feet, but from whom she still "had to hide a part of me to please him".

It was only after the Turner marriage ended that she realised, poignantly, that she "would be okay - that I don't need a man".

And that is how the film arrives at the last act of Fonda's life - a self-titled one she can finally define on her own terms. You do not have to like her work or activism to relate to this or rejoice with her as she takes control of her own narrative.

Mayans M.C. is a spin-off of Sons Of Anarchy (2008 to 2014), the cult motorcycle-gang drama inspired by Shakespeare's Hamlet.

But in its first two episodes, there is little to suggest that this series might live up to the murderous, Machiavellian original.

At its core is another bright young protagonist who seems tragedy-bound: Ezekiel "EZ" Reyes (J.D. Pardo), a young man with a photographic memory and a promising future - until he kills a police officer and, despite extenuating circumstances, is jailed for two years.

Fresh out of prison and with few prospects, he is recruited by his brother into the Mayans Motorcycle Club, a biker gang operating along the Mexico-California border, where he gets involved in drug-running and other mischief.

EZ is clearly meant to represent dashed hopes and stifled promise. But the show is so busy stuffing early episodes with every organised-crime trope it can lay its hands on - rival gangs, turf wars, gun battles, traitors, informants and torture-filled interrogations - that it forgets to properly establish this.

The only demonstration of EZ's smarts is thoroughly lame - he is observant enough to remember the tattoo on a man who stole a heroin shipment from the club. Oh, and he likes to read books.

As the overstuffed plot lurches from one supposed twist to another, scant time is spent taking the main characters beyond one-dimensional cliches.

Instead, the show expends far more energy on things like an extended gun battle in a cemetery, which is full of sound and fury, but does not advance the plot or make you care more about the key players.

Mayans M.C. may yet turn things around and add a few much-needed layers to this tale. But it should do so quickly because while viewers might come for the blood and brutality, they will stay for the intrigue and relationships.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2018, with the headline 'Fearless self-appraisal, one-dimensional cliches'. Print Edition | Subscribe