The Best Actress in the World

Klute (1971)

Jane Fonda in Klute (1971) | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

Fonda sat down. To test my tape recorder, I said, into the microphone, “This is Hilton Als, observing Jane Fonda.”

Fonda grabbed the mike, delighted to transform the moment into a performance, and said, “And this is Jane Fonda, who loves being observed.”

– Hilton Als, “Queen Jane, Approximately

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In the summer of 1969, Jane Fonda cut off all her hair.

“Hair had ruled me for many years,” she wrote in her 2005 memoir, My Life So Far. “Perhaps I used it to hide behind.” For years, she had molded her image to fit the standards of the men in her life. Hair was part of that, worn long and flowing, voluminous enough for someone to tell her it needed its own agent, and blonde blonde blonde. But now newly radicalized and increasingly politically active, she no longer felt like that version of herself, no longer felt suited to continue to play the part of Barbarella, the American Brigitte Bardot knockoff. She went to a barber in Greenwich Village and instructed him to simply “do something.”

A performative act even in its rejection of performance, the result was a plain, choppy brown shag that came to be known as the “Klute ‘do.” Fonda has often referred to this as her first “hair epiphany”: the shedding of one identity to allow the emergence of a new one. For most people, life does not mirror entertainment, falling out in linear form. Jane Fonda, though, is not most people. Looking back at her life, it plays out like a narrative split into act form, each era marked by a chameleonic new look to fit the new person she would become: ingenue actress, political activist, fitness maven, trophy wife, iconic Hollywood elder. Klute marks the first—and, for a long time after, the last—time the new Jane was one created wholly on her own terms.

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To be a woman is to be a performance artist. Gender norms affect everyone, but women in particular are often forced to conform to societal expectations that are inherently more submissive. “Good” girls and women are obedient. They speak softly, they are selfless, they don’t complain. They certainly don’t draw too much attention to themselves. “Good” girls agree to be whoever it is you want them to be. For Jane Fonda, a woman born into a Hollywood family, the experience is magnified; her entire life has been one long performance under the bright, hot spotlight of celebrity.

As a child, Fonda learned early on how to hide her precocious, tomboy nature to please the adults around her. She knew how to swiftly bury the trauma of her mother’s suicide at the age of 12, surprised and a little delighted that her lack of emotion was mistakenly praised as an act of bravery. As a teenager, she tried to shape herself—literally and figuratively—into what her father Henry thought an attractive woman would be. Painfully insecure, she carefully crafted her image from pieces of her friends’ personalities, afraid of sharing her own, afraid to be anything less than perfect. All of it was acting, mistaken for living. “I simply didn’t know anymore what I knew or wanted or thought or felt—or even who I was in an embodied way,” Fonda writes in her memoir. “I would become whatever I felt the people whose love and attention I needed wanted me to be. I would try to be perfect. It was safer there. It was a survival mechanism that served me well—back then.”

Despite her knack for shapeshifting, Fonda didn’t really want to be an actress. At 19, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to be, really, but she knew she needed to be out of her father’s house. At the suggestion of Lee Strasberg’s daughter, she began to study Method acting. With few other options, she figured there was no harm in trying it out. Taking classes at the Actors Studio was a revelation. Acting, she realized, could be used not to get away from herself, but as a tool to get inside and unearth all the feelings she had buried to please a father who found emotions disgusting, and feel safe doing so. She threw herself headfirst into it. Of this time, Fonda writes: “I felt I was appreciated for the fullness of myself rather than for some ‘good girl’s’ proper facade. I had never been so happy.” 

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Bree Daniels is afraid she’s being watched.

Two years after a violent encounter with a john, she’s receiving perverse anonymous letters in the mail, getting phone calls late at night where the voice at the other end does nothing but breathe. Sometimes she thinks she’s being followed, hears things, sees people lingering too long. Some days she thinks someone has been trying to get into her apartment.

A struggling actress and model working as a call girl on the side, Bree is used to being observed. What she’s not used to, though, is not being in control of who is doing the observing. From the moment we meet her, Bree Daniels is performing for someone: First, audibly, as we hear her disembodied voice on a tape recorder, seducing a customer with calm and cool assuredness. Then, as just another face in a long line of women at a cattle call for a modeling gig, presenting herself up wordlessly only to be turned away.

If acting was a way for Fonda to get closer to her truth, for Bree, it’s a way to get as far away from it as possible. The philosophy she gives the anonymous caller at the beginning of the film—“I think the only way that any of us can ever be happy is to let it all hang out. Do it all, and fuck it.”—is just a line from a script she made up for the part she is playing. In her real life, Bree is always buttoned up, always on alert, always keeping her cards close to her chest. She never lets it all hang out, not even when she’s pretending to. Why would she? Allowing your true self to be known, all those past traumas and current flaws, even the softest, most delicate parts of your soul, is a treacherous, terrifying act. Performing a version of yourself is easier, a way to keep others at arm’s length, a way to remain in control and avoid getting hurt. You can’t be rejected if it’s not you they’re rejecting. 

Of course, there’s no real happiness in living life this way. Her seductive edict has some truth in it—the only way to truly be happy is to be free—but there’s no easy way to loosen the chokehold she has on life, not without changing her ways in some part. Which is what Bree is in the process of doing, but fixing yourself is long, challenging work, and she can’t help but impatiently wonder why it’s taking so long. In a moment of exasperation, she asks her therapist why she still feels compelled to trick; her therapist replies with a challenge: What’s the difference between being a call girl and being an actress? They’re more alike than they are different, after all. Isn’t tricking just acting? Isn’t that what Bree’s doing when she moans and whispers sweet nothings in the supposed throes of passion with a customer while she checks her watch behind his back? 

The difference lies in the amount of power she has over her own success. As an actress and model, Bree is passed up, her livelihood at the whims of others with exacting requests and near impossible standards. Too tall, not tall enough. Too thin, not thin enough. Too young, too old. Coloring too dark, too pale, eyes the wrong color, too small. A face too new, a face not new enough. It’s an endless no-win cycle, one that all the work of taking acting lessons to develop her talent can’t seem to solve. Tricking, though, allows her to become the writer, director, and the sought-after star. She’s in control of her own narrative (or, at least, she thinks she is), which is more enjoyable than the sex itself. Because when she’s in control, she explains, she doesn’t have to feel anything. 

But this not feeling anything, this disconnect of the head and the body, takes a considerable effort. Performing a version of ourselves in order to get as far away as possible from who we really are has to cost something in the end. What happens when everything becomes performance, and we can no longer see a clear line separating who we truly are and who we are pretending to be? 

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Klute, the first in Alan J. Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy,” isn’t really about Klute (Donald Sutherland), the small town detective hired to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of a businessman—his best friend—in New York City. At its core, the story belongs to Bree, the part-time call girl who’s his only lead on the case. If Bree is the performer, then Klute is her rapt audience. Sutherland’s performance is an exercise in restraint, one in which he does more watching, listening, and observing than anything else. Where Bree gives plenty of falsities about her personal life, Klute gives little at all. Though we could argue that Bree has plenty of reason to not trust somebody so unforthcoming, his demeanor doesn’t seem sinister. Perhaps he gives so little of himself because he knows he is not the person whose story needs to be heard most in this situation. Maybe he spends so much time in silence because he is making room for Bree to speak.

As Klute follows her, his investigation broadens. He still wants to figure out what happened to his friend, but he also wants to figure out Bree. But just because he wants to know Bree doesn’t mean she wants the same. Bree doesn’t want—or, rather, can’t allow herself—to be truly seen by anyone, and certainly not by this sincere stranger from suburbia who lacks the coolly detached energy of her Manhattan fast lane crowd. The mortifying ordeal of being known is perhaps a more terrifying prospect to Bree than the possibility of being killed. And so Bree cycles through her bag of performance tricks—exaggerated self-caricature, seduction attempts, rejection and emasculation—to hold him at a distance until the circumstances change and she is forced to let him in, even if just a little. 

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There’s a story Jane Fonda often tells when speaking about making Klute, so perfectly constructed as to seem like a script that has grown lived in and worn in its frequent retelling. Sometimes a few details get left behind, sometimes she’s more emphatic than others, but the point of it is always the same: If she had had her way, she would have let her own fears talk her out of playing a role that would win her her first Academy Award.

See, Fonda was a budding feminist and already had serious trepedations over whether or not it would be “appropriate” to play a call girl until a friend pointed out the bigger picture: Who cared if she was a call girl as long as she could craft a complex portrait of a real woman? It was an opportunity hard to come by in Hollywood—even as a “new era” began to percolate, the majority of powerful roles were still for men—and harder to come by for Fonda, who until 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? had been stuck in an endless string of forgettable ingenue parts. Tentatively convinced, she went to New York to immerse herself in the city’s then-seedy sex work scene1 to do research.

During that week, Fonda says: “Not one pimp looked at me twice. Didn’t even wink at me. And what that said to me was—it played right to my insecurities—They know. I’m just an upper class privileged pretender.” She told Pakula she wanted out. She wasn’t right. He should cast Faye Dunaway instead. He refused, and much of the resulting film was shaped out of collaboration between the two, with Pakula listening to and incorporating her ideas (a rarity for the era) about what made Bree tick: her backstory, her living arrangement, her pastimes and interests. Even the character of Bree’s therapist was recast as a woman at Fonda’s request; Bree, she argued, would never open up to a man. Locked into the film for better or worse, Fonda submerged herself in the life of character, spending nights on the soundstage set of Bree’s apartment, visiting a city morgue to look through the case files of murdered women. It wasn’t just researching another person’s life; it was attempting to truly become them.  

Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else in the role but Fonda. In some ways, it’s difficult to tell where one woman ends and the other begins. Some actors so fully transform into a role as to entirely disappear, while others seem to always leave the audience with an awareness that they are watching the star play the part. Fonda somehow manages to do both, bringing as much of herself to the character as she does come to embody the character itself. Moises Kaufman, the playwright and director who directed Fonda in his 2009 play 33 Variations, said of her: “She makes no distinction between the world in which she lives and the work she does on the stage. The things she learns in one realm help her in the other.”

In her later work, this melding of two worlds—personal and professional—meant bringing her passions, political beliefs, and familial strife into projects she had a hand in developing as a producer. In Klute, it meant bringing her own experiences into her understanding of Bree’s past, and in turn using Bree’s trauma to help make sense of her own: the motherless childhood that informed her view of women as victims; the difficult to please father who influenced her eating disorder; the way she had constantly been acting out an image projected onto her, and never really whole. 

If much of Fonda’s life both before and after Klute was marked by losses of her own identity as she attempted to mold herself into whatever the dominant man in her life wanted, Klute captures a rare and specific transitional moment. For the first time in her adult life, she was on her own. As the Me Generation got underway, Fonda found herself out from under her father’s roof, estranged from one controlling husband and not yet tied to another. She was trying to crack open her shell and figure out who she was on the inside. Pretending to be someone else—who is also attempting to change her life—helped.

“In retrospect,” Fonda writes, “I see the parallels between myself and Bree, a woman who felt safer hooking than facing true intimacy.” 

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Bree agrees to help Klute with his investigation, but it soon becomes too much for her to handle. They’re meeting too many dead ends and, with no one left for her to pawn him off to, she knows he’s only going to get closer. As they drive through the city, she jumps from his moving car and runs away. In that moment, she looks more like a scared little girl testing someone—will you love me even if I’m bad—than the cold, unfeeling grown woman she is pretending to be. 

That evening, Bree finds herself lost in the frenzied crowd at a party; it may seem more safe than sitting in solitude in her dark and silent apartment, but it isn’t. It’s just dangerous in a different way. Stumbling through the scene, high and drunk, saturated with sweat and physically melting in front of us, Bree flashes a smile and tries to flirt. When one man fails to express interest, she’s onto the next, falling into the lap of a stranger and kissing him as his friends—men who know she’s in bad shape, but do nothing to stop it because her misfortune benefits them—watch on and cheer. Even in all its boisterousness, it’s a scene that’s just as unsettling as the minimally scored moments of suspense. It’s so easy to think of all the ways in which something could go very wrong, the ways in which she is easy prey for any man there, how many of them wouldn’t think twice about taking her to bed, fully aware that she’s in no state to say yes. By the end of the night, she’s fallen back into the lap of her sleazy ex-pimp.

Changing her life is uncomfortable business; playing the familiar part of Bree Daniels is easier. In that moment, it seems as if it’s a part she will continue to play, even if it will eventually kill her. Maybe her fate won’t be at the hands of the stalker who has already killed two of her friends, but it will catch up to her sooner or later. All this running from herself is wearing her down, making her a vulnerable target, even when she thinks it’s working to the opposite effect. People aren’t meant to be “faceless, bodiless, and left alone,” which is what she desires more than anything else. We are meant to connect with others, meant to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known—we wouldn’t make memes about it if it wasn’t such a universal difficulty. Klute has caught Bree with the barricade down—scared, ugly, whorey, mean—and he accepts them all without judgement. The feeling of being seen, really seen, is utterly foreign to her, is disconcerting. Her instinct is to destroy it.

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Time has a habit of showing us the ways in which it is a flat circle, always continuing but never really changing. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a film like Klute remain so relevant 50 years later, to the extent that it is not just timeless but shockingly and shamefully timely. It’s full of characteristics that can date even the most enduring of films—the costuming, the era’s technology, the vocabulary used to discuss sex work, the down and dirty version of New York City—but its subject matter still strikes a chord. What remains most chilling about Klute today is not the plot itself, but the thought that we are all slowly becoming Bree Daniels, playing versions of ourselves while trying to make it through a world that is still no more safe to exist in with a female body.

I think about how we not only offer ourselves up to strangers on a daily basis—filming and photographing ourselves, tweeting our every thought out into oblivion, constantly performing versions of ourselves meant for public consumption, constantly asking others to watch—but how we are expected to. Technological advances have only made public life more public, into a gamified version of the world we’re all forced to play in some way or the other. Maybe this is the logical end point of the Me Generation depicted in its nascent form in Klute. Maybe bettering yourself isn’t really bettering yourself; maybe it’s just play acting at a better version of yourself, the drip from person to persona so slow that you don’t even notice when the line between the two begins to blur. Maybe there is a paranoia thriller in here somewhere, as well.

Like Bree, it’s easy to think that we are in control of our own lives and images, but the truth is that it can—and often does—go wrong at any time. We only have a say in the supply, not the demand; we don’t know who’s watching, not really. We don’t know what people will do with what we give to them, what more they want and what they’ll do to get it. I’m not saying we are willing participants in the violence against us or that we are asking for it. Capitalism is no kinder in 2021 than it was in 1971; like Bree, most of us have to do a proverbial dance for enough money to make it in some way or another. 

If anything has truly changed in the 50 years since Klute’s release, it’s that, rather than eradicated, the danger for women is just less obvious than it once was. We are told—and we want to believe—that society has grown and evolved, that we have made the world better than what it once was. Haven’t we cleaned up our filthy streets and softened our language? Haven’t we fed girls and women empowering messages that they can be anything, that their bodies are theirs to do with whatever they choose? Sure, but it doesn’t amount to much more than superficial lip service, the careful construction of a veneer of safety and control more than anything else. Very little has been done to actually solve the real problems, and even less attention has been paid to those most affected by them.2 At the end of the day, no matter how safe a city’s streets may seem, a woman still cannot walk alone at night without the threat of harm at the hands of someone who is supposed to protect her.

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The man who has been following Bree eventually corners her one evening in a client’s office. She’s trapped, and he’s going to try to kill her, of course he is, but he wants to explain himself and his predicament first. Even he isn’t immune to the pull to perform distance between yourself and the truth, desperate to convince her—and himself—that he is still a good man despite his unspeakable actions. The scene, much like the rest of Gordon Willis’ cinematography for the film, is all shadows, impossible to truly read the looks on their faces as the extended cat and mouse game plays out. When we hear Bree trying to calmly talk Cable down, it’s the same cool and persuasive voice she uses on her johns in the beginning of the film. But she can’t pretend to be unafraid anymore. The tables have turned. He’s the boss now, not the customer, and she no longer has any power. As she listens silently while he plays a recording of her friend made just before her death, and hears the fear rising in her voice, she begins to break down.

In preparing to film the climactic scene, Fonda decided to not prepare; she wanted her reaction in the moment to be genuine and unforced. “Instead of fear for myself I was overwhelmed with an archetypal sadness,” she writes. “It was sadness for my friend, sadness for all the women who are victims of men’s rage, sadness at our vulnerability. It felt…inevitable.” Grounding a performance in sincere and spontaneous, rather than planned, reaction is a core pillar of the Method technique; in most other films, Fonda’s choice would be a given rather than something that stands out. Here, though, the absence of performance is radical. When Fonda cries, she’s not acting. For once, neither is Bree. 

Bree leaves the city with Klute in the end, but he’s no white knight cliché. The choice is hers, and hers alone; she won’t pretend to go along with small town life if she’s unhappy, can’t promise she won’t come back if she gets scared. But trying out a new set can’t hurt. It’s a decidedly ambivalent ending that leaves the future still to be determined, much like life. Still, I can’t help but feel a twinge of optimism every time I watch her give up a bit of control and allow whatever happens to happen. It’s not that I think Bree’s life will end happily ever after, or that leaving New York is the healing wave of a magic wand she wished for earlier. It’s just that for the first time, I think that maybe she’ll at least just be okay. Like maybe, like the woman playing her, she’ll find herself after all.  

  1. Although Klute presents a fairly enlightened view of sex work for the time—never insinuating that it is demeaning and always making it Bree’s choice without judgement—it does make a conscious choice to depict not the glamorous high class environment in which Bree once worked, but a decidedly grimier one filled with people with substance use issues, shabby flop houses, and parasitic pimps.
  2. The fact that sex work is not only still criminalized, but that sex workers often experience abuse at the hands of police, is a glaring example.