There's No Facelift in Jane Fonda's Future, but There Is a Firm Plan for a Mellow Middle Age

updated 12/17/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

At last it even happened to that relentlessly frenetic activist, actress and author of the best-selling Workout Book. Jane Fonda, 46, realized that she, too, had become middle-aged. Although she could run farther, stretch lower and kick higher than ever, the outward signs were there: wrinkles, liver spots, gray hair, arthritis and occasional back pains, to name a few. Inwardly there was the feeling of fear about how aging would affect her career. Then, too, there was the death of her father, Henry, in 1982, which, she says, "handed down to me the role of elder."

Daunted—but also motivated by her new status—Fonda joined forces with free-lance writer Mignon McCarthy to write Women Coming of Age (Simon and Schuster, $19.95). The No. 3 bestseller is filled with scientific research about nutrition, beauty and aging, and it also offers Fonda's Prime Time Workout, a toned-down exercise program for the over-35 set.

To discuss her new book with national correspondent Lois Armstrong, Fonda took time out from filming on the Guelph, Ont. set of Agnes of God. (Jane plays a high-strung, chain-smoking psychiatrist.) Nursing a cold, it was one of the few days she missed joining the daily aerobics class she organized for the cast and crew.

What is the audience for Women Coming of Age?

It's intended for women from 35 to 65—that's how we define mid-life. Yet everything we have to say in the book is equally valid for men—with the exception of menopause.

Is there a double standard for men and women entering middle age?

You better believe it! I feel it very acutely being a movie actress. I see the actors I started out with—Robert Redford, Warren Beatty—for whom there is absolutely no slowing down in the kinds or quality of roles they get. They just keep going and their leading ladies get younger and younger. For an actress who's 45 and older, there's a decided difference. Women are judged more severely as they age than men are. Men get lines of distinction; women get crow's-feet.

How can women face middle age with optimism and a sense that they are still attractive and productive?

We have to consciously find role models. For me, Katharine Hepburn is a role model; maybe I'm a role model for someone. We can always find women who are older than ourselves who are proof that you're not verging on senility, that you don't have to fall apart, become addlebrained, be dull, lonely or less dynamic.

What else can get women through this?

Women who face the aging process with the most grace and peace are those who have a sense of their identity, a strong inner life. I certainly think that as mothers we have to encourage the development of an inner life in our daughters. Part of this is trying to instill in our kids the realization that education is not exclusively about getting good grades but about taking advantage of the time in our lives when our only responsibility is to learn and make ourselves richer as people.

Psychologically, what are the tough times of middle age?

The big problem is that we are leaving behind identities that are based on youth and fertility. Yet on some level we feel the same inside. I mean, I feel that I still want six kids. But I can't have them. Suddenly we realize we're no longer young and we're not in child-bearing years anymore. But what the heck is our new identity?

What are the pluses of middle age?

The big one is experience, that we've been through everything before, that we can learn from mistakes, that we know what we want and, better yet, what we don't want.

Is there a way to approach things positively—like lines on the face, sagging bottoms, gray hair—without plastic surgery and hair dye?

I am really appalled by what I see going on in plastic surgery in this country. We've got to make friends with those wrinkles and the sags and the gray hairs. We've got to understand that they represent our life experience. We see these women who have been nipped and tucked and injected and peeled to within an inch of their shiny, taut lives. Are they beautiful? No! Where is the personality, the life experience? It's gone. Besides, you can spot an inflated breast a mile away.

But don't Men like the results?

Men want the life experience we bring to a relationship—the sophistication, the maturity, the laughter, the compassion, the children—but they also want us to look young. Get mad at them! They want all the cake. It's not fair!

Has your career suffered from middle age?

I haven't made a feature film in four years. The last film I made was for TV, The Dollmaker. I played a mountain woman, and it didn't matter what I looked like. It's not easy to go to rushes and see lines I didn't see before. It hurts and I think, "Oh God, Redford made a film with Kim Basinger, who's 31. Will he ever want to work with me again?"

How do you cope?

You've got to be Zen. You've got to say, "There are other things in life"—like acting. Acting doesn't have to do with youth but with transmitting human experience.

What about rumors of heart attacks you've supposedly had?

You're required to have a complete physical before you begin a film. So I did the stress test—the treadmill, the most complete heart examination you can have—last October. The doctor said he was astounded by the results. I have the heart of a 24-year-old.

Do you have conflicts about being a working mother?

Of course I do. But I also need other forms of fulfillment. I need to act, and if I had no outlet for that, I wouldn't be a very good mother. But it doesn't mean I don't feel torn about it.

How do you spend time with your husband and kids?

We go out a lot to restaurants and movies. Every year we take an unusual trip, like to Israel or Japan. We go to our ranch on weekends. We go to Florida for bass fishing and to Canada for salmon fishing. My son, Troy, is becoming a good baseball player. I was there when he hit a home run. He wanted us to bronze the ball.

Do you cook at home?

That depends on whom you ask. If you ask my daughter, Vanessa, she'd go, "Yeah!" I make good fried chicken, great cucumber and beet soup and good biscuits from scratch.

What's your day like?

I get up and make the kids' lunches. I'm one of the last holdouts. Vanessa always complains that nobody else takes their lunch to school, and I have no idea if she eats it or not. But I put a great deal of thought into it. There are nuts and fruits and sprouts. Then I make breakfast. And then I go to my office, where I have meetings all day.

Have your kids suffered because of your career?

It's difficult to say. When you're in my profession, you're away from home more. Sometimes you miss out on some of the good things. Troy really brought it home to me once, when I had been away for a block of time a number of years ago. I came home and he said, "Why aren't you here? What's a mother for?" Then about five years ago my daughter said to me—in the way children can when they want to be cruel—"Well, if I'm an actress, I won't have children." On the other hand, they've traveled, met exciting people, and I think they'll be exciting people as a result.

Do you have any thoughts on your old age?

I'm trying to show my daughter that as I grow older, I'm supposed to live with her, because I think older people should live with their children. My mother-in-law lives with us. When Dad was sick, I spent a lot of time with him. You learn so much from people when they're older, when they're approaching death. It forces you to think.

Have your values changed at all with middle age?

My new leaf this year has been to focus my priorities, give more time to what's most important to me: my family No. 1, and No. 2 my movies. There are no more exercise books in the offing. I am taking my own advice: assuming the responsibilities and joys, as well as the fears, of a mid-life woman.

Are you afraid of menopause?

I view it as an adventure. I'm actually looking forward to my first hot flash.

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