SANTA BARBARA – First thing’s first. Ladies and gentlemen, 98-year-old legend Kirk Douglas is currently rocking a white-haired ponytail. Douglas briefly appeared on screen during the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s tribute to Jane Fonda, this year’s winner of the Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film. Truly though, that humorous anecdote pales to Fonda’s accomplishments, so let’s get to it, shall we?
Considering her remarkable career acknowledging that Fonda has had quite the year is truly saying something. The 77-year-old actress starred alongside Lily Tomlin in the hit Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” (already renewed for a second season) and has earned considerable Oscar buzz since Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth” debuted at Cannes this past May (read my review). This may have only been the 10th Kirk Douglas Award gala, but Fonda joins an already illustrious group of honorees including Robert DeNiro, Harrison Ford, Quentin Tarantino and Jessica Lange, among others.
The evening began with a tribute reel and quickly segued to a salute from an unexpected participant, Elizabeth Banks. The always friendly “Pitch Perfect 2” director and “Love and Mercy” star chatted with this pundit (actually a number of pundits on hand) during the dinner portion of the evening. Banks revealed she was first introduced to Fonda backstage at a talk show five years ago and they’ve been friends ever since. In her speech she added, “The first time that I met Jane Fonda she was wearing a crystal embroidered cat suit and I thought to myself, ‘That smoking hot boss is on fire.’”
The now classic “9 to 5” was a movie that inspired Banks as a kid and she ended her remarks quoting Dolly Parton’s title track from the movie as the perfect way to describe Fonda’s career, “What a way to make a living.”
It was left to another longtime friend of Fonda’s, Diane Lane, to actually present the award. She gave a glowing tribute remarking, “Edith Warton said they were two ways of spreading light, to the candle or the mirror that reflects it. Jane you are both. It is such a blessing to me to be able to partake in honoring you here tonight. It’s a chance to thank you a bit for being the woman who has informed my life, our lives with the courage and honesty of your tremendous spirit.”
Most intriguingly Lane recalled, “Recently during promotional requirements for a movie I was asked, ‘Who Wonder Woman is to me.’ Well, what do you think my answer was? Jane Fonda. To me Jane is the most generous journeywoman in her craft, certainly, but in her life as a leader, for the healing of humanity through the earth and for her passionate activism.”
And, Lane succinctly notes, “You are not a mere star, you are a fucking constellation.”
After an impressive standing ovation, Fonda began by thanking Lane and Banks (“we need more female directors”) and then adding, “What about Kirk Douglas? He looks good in a ponytail. I hope I’m having cocktails when I’m – what is he 99?”
The award was special to Fonda not only because it’s an extension of Douglas’ legacy, but because the gala itself is a fundraiser for the Santa Barbara Festival’s educational outreach programs. Fonda remembered that in the late 1970’s she and then husband Tom Hayden began an arts camp in the hills of the coastal California community. The kids who attended were a mix of Hollywood offspring (Michael Ovitz’s kids, Angelina Jolie) and those from underprivileged backgrounds.
“All of them had their lives changed from being exposed to art,” Fonda says. “Performing art. Writing, performing, directing and this when I learned up close and personal what art can have on young lives.”
Fonda, who has previously described her life as three acts, bluntly admitted that at one point she thought she’d never act on screen again.
“I thought I left the business forever. Turner, my favorite ex-husband, you know and off I went and I didn’t miss it for a second,” Fonda reveals. “And I came back at 65 which is pretty incredible and I feel very, very blessed that I was able to have a new career so late in life. And, as a result, be able to spend time with people who are so profoundly inspired and moving and talented. And I’m so happy to say that I’m almost 78 and I still feel like a student.”
She continues, “I’m so glad I feel that way because one of the things that can make you really old is when you stop wanting to change and grow and stay curious.”
Amen to that.
“Youth” opens in limited release on Dec. 4. The 2016 Santa Barbara International Film Festival will be held Feb. 3-13, 2016.