Headliners

Biographies of Norma Shearer and Jane Fonda illuminate the movie scene, past and present

CITIZEN JANE: THE TURBULENT LIFE OF JANE FONDA, By Christopher Andersen, New York: Henry Holt, 389 pp., $19.95 NORMA SHEARER, By Gavin Lambert, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 381 pp., $24.95

WHEN it comes to biographies, Hollywooders want it both ways. While they delight in the approval a serious scholar might accord their lives and careers, they fear for The Legend if an outside (read impartial) observer is let loose.

So, many motion-picture biographies end as unauthorized clip jobs, drawn from old newspapers and magazines - too often from publicity eyewash or downright fabrication.

It even makes perverse financial sense: Why should a star big enough to demand a lucrative publishing contract give it away to some writer? The compromise is often a ghostwritten or an as-told-to version, no more truthful than anything else created through patronage.

In any case, where is truth when even the subjects have lost track of it?

In ``Citizen Jane: The Turbulent Life of Jane Fonda,'' Christopher Andersen takes a highly controversial subject - the 1960s sexpot, the Vietnam-era radical, the Reagan-decade workout guru - and confers upon her as much legitimacy as she is likely to receive.

Andersen rather guilelessly concludes that Fonda is in constant flux, hence unknowable. Yet he often asserts the opposite, declaring that she has been driven all her life by men - needing their approval, while rejecting their control. Her rebellion against America in the '60s was also a rebellion against her emotionally aloof father, Henry, whose screen image was the American archetype; she settled down after he died in 1982.

And just as she struggled to correct her past in 1989 on Barbara Walters's TV special before the protested Connecticut filming of ``Stanley and Iris,'' so she fought to gain her father's approval during the making of ``On Golden Pond'' in 1981, and, indeed, until the very moment of his death. Is this pragmatism? Hypocrisy? Both? Fonda seems not to care, though one insider notes, ``She has now become the very thing she once fought against.''

Andersen relies heavily on interviews with primary sources - the Fondas (Henry, Jane, Peter) and their co-workers, plus archival material. His position as a longtime Hollywood writer provides good sources, whose data he handles carefully.

There is conflict between Andersen's restrained style and the content of Jane's life. Such revelations as Jane hated being touched by her mother (who later committed suicide), had plastic surgery in 1987 (a year after denouncing it), was actually nude on screen during the titles for ``Barbarella'' in 1968, and thought nothing of having various people squeezed out of projects (``Coming Home,'' ``They Shoot Horses, Don't They?'') should be the stuff of scandal. But ``Citizen Jane'' offers them as part of the complex, imperfect fabric that is Jane Fonda.

Her recent metamorphosis from Marxist to mogul is ironic but, as Andersen shows, not surprising. A hint of this transition appeared during ``Horses,'' which used a '30s dance marathon to comment on American venality, and helped her shed her ``Barbarella'' image and gain respect as an actress. She allowed screenwriter James Poe to be fired as the movie's director after he had fought to cast Fonda. Her former husband, Roger Vadim, spoke of her ``ability to forget compassion when it was a question of better results.''

And she has, indeed, achieved that through a succession of films that use the remarkably similar plot of an uninvolved woman who learns about commitment by addressing social concerns: nuclear power, sexism, high finance, Vietnam, illiteracy, alcoholism, etc.

Is she a ``cause of the year'' person, or is she taking the right side on significant issues, often ahead of the country, and always ahead of Hollywood?

Such prescience has been costly: Jane Fonda is now an icon, the sum of the parts she played, seeking to become a person. In ``Citizen Jane'' Christopher Andersen suggests that the ends don't only justify the means, they may also define them.

ANOTHER star fares better in Gavin Lambert's grand, exhaustive ``Norma Shearer,'' which is as much about the old studio days as it is about the widow of MGM's renowned Irving Thalberg. Though he never fully explains Shearer's apotheosis in Hollywood heaven, Lambert - a novelist and screenwriter with a deep romantic sense and a movingly elegant style - pegs her as proof of what the old system could do when it was fully cranked up.

And MGM worked hard at handling the Canadian-born Shearer, whose spindly legs, oversized head, and pale, squinting eyes demanded special attention, which, as the boss's wife, she always got. Lambert places Shearer as an accomplished, if limited, actress overshadowed by her powerful husband, yet thriving because of him.

Born in 1902, she was in films from 1920 to ``Her Cardboard Lover'' in 1942. Her best known roles were in ``Marie Antoinette,'' ``The Women,'' ``Idiot's Delight,'' and as the vastly overaged lover in ``Romeo and Juliet.''

Long after her 1942 marriage to Martin Arrouge, her unsung role for MGM insiders was that of Mrs. Thalberg - the woman who had defeated the raging Louis B. Mayer over her late husband's contract.

That determination, presented in what appeared to be a vulnerable (but, as Lambert reveals, carefully crafted) package, gives ``Norma Shearer'' the kind of texture seldom found in Hollywood biographies. Lambert cuts cleanly through the hype, while also acknowledging it. He has written a valuable book about the star system that happens, almost incidentally, to focus on one of its most successful products.

Since fame is what most actors crave, they tend to generate whatever publicity will secure it. Little of this is annotated and much of it is contradictory.

Movie biographers must overcome data as simple as false birth dates or as malicious as false credits. They are thrown off by arranged romantic affairs, wishful salary figures, wasted projects, and blithe statements uttered to some slavish writer sweating a deadline, and, of course, the hiring of press agents to slip lies into the newspapers.

Meanwhile, nobody wants to read about, say, the obscure sound recordist who may nevertheless have witnessed 50 years of real studio history.

More than traditional biography, the responsibility of Hollywood biography has been ceded to star-struck fans or dutiful reporters, but rarely scholars. That may be grand testimony to the allure of the movies, but history - unlike film - is not made of light and shadow.

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