|Sabrina Crews| During my recent volunteer shift at the Trylon, I watched a dazed, nineish-year-old boy walk out of Police Story. The kid, a little breathless, looked up at his guardian and, referencing a trailer he’d seen earlier, said, “Dad, whoa. What was up with that, that Barbarella?” Dad shot a glance at me, cleared his throat, picked up his pace, and they were gone. I never heard his answer.
As much as I wanted to witness that conversation, I’m preoccupied enough with the question. Like, the kid just watched 106 minutes of groundbreaking acrobatic stunts and explosions, and he’s still shook from the three-and-a-half minutes of Barbarella that preceded it? What’s up with that?
The simplest answers here—cleavage, bare legs, guns, an orgasmatron—aren’t necessarily correct, especially when you can get most of that (not the orgasmatron) in a Jackie Chan movie. No, there’s only one force in that trailer potent enough to compete with high-speed car chases and suicide backflips in a developing straight dude’s memory and that, in a word, is Jane.
Unparalleled sexiness is only part of it. Jane Fonda even said she approached the role of Barbarella earnestly. It was never her intention to play into the vamptitude that Jean-Claude Forest’s original comic book character exudes. While her opening striptease might already render that strategy useless—the girl, I guess, can’t help it—keep watching and you’ll find aspects of Jane’s performance that seem defiantly, well, unsexy. She speaks not in a sultry alto but no-nonsense baritone. Her portrayal of the astronaut’s virginity is more schoolmarm than corruptible ingénue. She also wasn’t the first, second, or even third choice to appear in the titular role.
Producer Agostino “Dino” De Laurentiis offered Barbarella to a string of illustrious Euro babes, all of whom promptly refused: Virna Lisi (too fed up with Hollywood), Sophia Lauren (too seasoned), and Brigitte Bardot (too protective of her image). Some sources also include Raquel Welch (too little info available). As it turns out, Brigitte and Jane shared more than a potential role—specifically a husband, specifically Roger Vadim, who later joined Barbarella as director. According to noted biographer Patricia Bosworth, Brigitte and Jane also shared the occasional meal, which Jane reportedly cooked, and an ambulance ride—along with Vadim’s former flames Catherine Deneuve and Annette Stroyberg—when the filmmaker fell and broke his shoulder on the set of 1964’s La Ronde. It was a memorable bonding experience for all involved. How French.
Throughout filming Barbarella in Italy, Jane—battling an eating disorder, a speed addiction, and an alcoholic spouse—feared that Roger secretly thought her body didn’t measure up to ex-wife Bardot’s. Vadim had met the French film star when she was 15, married her when she was 18, and subsequently turned her into an international sex symbol. With two marriages and ten films behind him, Roger fell for Jane at her 26th birthday party. They were still newlyweds when, in 1966, Dino invited Jane to appear in Barbarella. Jane chucked De Laurentiis’s letter. Vadim retrieved it. Didn’t she realize that sci-fi sex comedies were about to have a moment? She should do it. He would too. Eager to please her man, Jane acquiesced.
Babarella opened in October 1968 to lousy reviews. In The New York Times, Renata Adler dismissed it as a “special kind of mess,” and wrote that while Jane performed as well as she could have, Vadim presented her naked body to viewers “as usual, slowly, like some proud and solemn chef.” Although Fonda allegedly forfeited the title roles in Bonnie and Clyde and Rosemary’s Baby to make Barbarella, she snapped back with a Best Actress Oscar nomination in 1970 for They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, and in 1973, a divorce from Vadim. She also couldn’t have anticipated the enduring impact Barbarella would have on contemporary culture, particularly pop music. Everyone from Duran Duran to Prince to Ariana Grande wink-nods to the space goddess. If the film’s cemented cult status had Lisi, Lauren, or Bardot reconsidering their refusals, we’ll never know.
You could maybe argue that Jane’s an amalgamation of Barbarella’s prior three contenders. She possesses the golden-age elegance of Sophia Lauren—she was blessed with her father Henry’s genes, after all—and Virna Lisi’s intent, smoldering gaze. Her opening nude scene jump-starts Barbarella with a velocity so fierce it rivals, if not eclipses, Brigitte Bardot’s naked launch of the Godard masterpiece Contempt. But I say she’s more than the sum of these parts.
By playing it straight, embracing her idiosyncrasies, and letting her body take care of the rest—as little faith as she might’ve had in it—Jane proved she should’ve been the frontrunner all along. She was so much more than sexy; she was a Hollywood singularity. She still is. That’s why, being not just fourth in the running for Barbarella, but fourth in its director’s succession of partners/centerfolds, Jane Fonda—talented, agreeable, insatiably curious and still figuring herself out, not unlike a certain famous 41st-century space adventurer—was the wife who captured and never relinquished Roger Vadim’s heart. And it’s probably why, 51 years after the film’s release, prepubescent boys (and/or bourgeoning high-camp aficionados of any gender preference and sexual persuasion) leaving their friendly neighborhood repertory cinemas with their dads can’t get sweet Jane out of their heads.
Edited by Greg Hunter
The Trylon, in partnership with Cult Film Collective, will be playing Barbarella as part of a double feature with Silent Running starting this weekend, Friday, July 11 and going through Sunday, July 14.