Doc Corner: Movie Stars - Fonda, Kael and Dukakis
Tuesday, November 13, 2018 at 10:05AM
Glenn Dunks in Actressexuality, Doc Corner, Doc NYC, Jane Fonda, Olympia Dukakis, Pauline Kael, Reviews, documentaries, film critics

by Glenn Dunks

DOC NYC is still going in New York, running until this Thursday the 15th. We’re looking at just a very small selection of films screening at the festival including these today based around three iconic names in American cinema: film critic Pauline Kael, and Oscar-winning actors Jane Fonda and Olympia Dukakis.

I noted on social media as I sat down to watch my screener of Rob Garver’s biography that there were certainly worse ways to spend one’s Sunday evening than surrounded by the words of the late, great Pauline Kael and an abundance of film clips. Sometimes a film can give you exactly what you ask for and that’s exactly what I received from What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael about the much loved (and loathed) film critic...

Kael proves to actually be a very smart choice for a documentary, and not just because her cinema-centric life allows for Garver – who also edited the picture (as well as wrote and co-produced) – to go all out in the film clip department, tying a selection less to what is spoken but often times more about the feeling being evoked. This is also smart because Kael was a very autobiographical writer, imbuing her writings with personality, anecdotes, reflections and memories. Wisely, too, since so many of us watch movies not from an academic point of view or with an overtly critical eye, but with something akin to gut instinct. I don’t know what I like, but I know when I see it.

Her writings reflected where she saw something, who she saw it with and what was happening in her life when she saw it. She would actually fit very well into contemporary journalism as her more stream-of-conscious writing style is far more commonplace now than it was during her active years (although she had far more wit and sheer writerly skills than much of the more cynically content driven work that could be mistaken for autobiographical yet is really just self-absorbed.)

The film is wonderful at telling Kael’s story and her all-too identifiable struggles as a film critic. Her words are nicely narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker when Kael's own voice was unrecorded. Garver’s film also works as a great overview of the sweeping changes in both filmmaking and film culture over the course of her career from the perspective of someone in and yet not of the industry. What She Said’s greatest achievement, however, may be how well it reveals a part of the viewer. It shares a similar quality to her writing in that way. It may reveal a memory or provoke a response. It made my heart hum and inspired me to seek out more of her work. It reminded me why I write and why I read and why I watch; I have to embrace a film that can do all of that.


There is something relaxing about Susan Lacy’s Jane Fonda in Five Acts. Fonda herself has, at 80 years of age, worked her way back into the popular culture enough that her mere aura is recognisable and Lacy is wise to not mess with what has allowed her career to endure despite the controversies and the public vitriol that continues to find its way to her. This documentary produced by HBO is glossy and edited to a refined point. Five Acts is such an easy watch that one can almost feel the breeze from her beach house or the mountain air as she rides horses in the mountains.

Many of the stories – like how the highly successful Jane Fonda Work Out videos were a way of paying for the activism of her and her husband, or how Ted Turner asked her to quit acting when they got married – have been recalled on television interviews for years, and those who have read Fonda’s memoir will recognise almost all the rest. Her one-liners, like growing up in the shadow of a "national monument" that was her father, are clearly written and well-recorded. And yet it still makes for entertaining two hours with smart use of clips and archival footage amid the talking head interviews (primarily with Fonda as others are refreshingly kept to a minimum). It would be nitpicking to argue that a documentary about Hollywood royalty isn't pushing any envelopes of form or style. It would likely be far more jarring if this film did.

If the 80 years of Fonda's life feels too truncated by the two-hour runtime then that’s hardly surprising considering the life she has lead and the fact they the movie all but starts at her birth and tells her story right up to the current day. I'm more surprised that each of the five acts is titled after the men in her life. Her mug shot may be used as the central marketing hook, but there was so much more to Fonda than just “Hanoi Jane” and I liked that Five Acts gave equal weight to all of her work both on and off screen. They illustrate a life of defiance, personified by that famous photograph yet not defined by it. She is such a potent figure and powerful dramatic force that even though there is nothing particularly awe-inspiring about the movie, I was engaged for every moment of it.

Jane Fonda in Five Acts can currently be streamed on HBO.


Far less shiny is Olympia by Harry Mavromichalis. Rough around the edges, scrappy and and yet still illuminating documentary about Oscar-winning actor Olympia Dukakis. Of course best known to most of pop culture from Moonstruck and Steel Magnolias, Dukakis has had – and continues to have – a near unparalleled career on stage thanks to her theatre in New Jersey, where she has performed all the greats. We’re lucky to catch a mere glimpse in this documentary.

The centrepiece of Mavromichalis’ film is a segment of archival footage of Dukakis and her husband preparing for the Academy Awards and later winning while her family watches on from home with excitement. Where they pulled this material from, I don’t know, but it’s a delight to see not just from our world of Oscar-watchers but also from the angle of a Greek woman over the age of 50, a so-called plain looking one at that, receiving the highest honour in the film world. That was an achievement worth celebrating and I’m so glad it was captured on film.

Of course, that moment is juxtaposed somewhat by a rather humorous moment in which Dukakis, preparing for a night on the stage, opens a movie script in her dressing room and bemoans that the role just another screaming European mother role. It’s moments like these that allow Olympia to move past its more humble beginnings. A moment where she yells as a Toronto International Film Festival programmer for not selecting her lesbian road trip drama Cloudburst. A late afternoon brunch with Tales from the City author Armistead Maupin (Dukakis appeared in the documentary about him from last year, too). A trip to Greece where the locals stop her, star-struck over a national hero. Her riding as a marshal in a gay pride float and musing that “some of these people don’t know who the fuck I am.” While it may end on a metaphor that’s too obvious for its own good, Olympia proves to be a winningly defiant demand for this woman to be recognised as one of the greats.

Article originally appeared on The Film Experience (
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