Bright Lights Film Journal

Hooker with a Heart of Darkness: Jane Fonda in Klute

Bree Daniels trumps all Fonda’s real-life characters

Bree Daniels,1 the self-destructive call girl played by Jane Fonda in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, is a talented but thwarted actress. Bree has channeled her talent, quite successfully, into performative-based prostitution, which she finds thrilling in the moment and deadening afterwards. Bree is unable to find joy in the power she wields over her johns; she’s too hung up on her past. After servicing one client superbly, Bree sits alone smoking a joint and suddenly starts to sing a familiar church hymn. The lingering effects of early puritanism stifle Bree’s fulfillment; her guilt numbs her. Her deepest hope is to be “faceless and bodiless … and be left alone.” She is clearly on the road to suicide.

You cannot discuss Bree Daniels without discussing Jane Fonda, for Klute is an actress’ movie (it is also the movie of a cinematographer, Gordon Willis, and a composer, Michael Small, both of whom do seminal work). At a recent signing of her autobiography, My Life So Far, I asked Fonda what she thought happened to Bree after Klute ended. “Oh,” she said, hesitating dramatically. “That’s a tough question.” She paused for a moment. “I don’t know what happens to her, but I know that she gives up hooking. I know that,” she insisted. Fonda was rather emotional at the signing, tearing up at weirdly inappropriate moments, so I did not mention my certainty that Bree eventually kills herself. This is something Fonda would never admit to.

When Fonda was 12, her mother Frances slashed her throat. This suicide has bedeviled and frightened and driven Fonda her whole life. As an actress in Klute, she went right to the source of the demons that killed her mother, so close, in fact, that finally you can only admire her guts. The performance is an agony and an exorcism; every scene is a tour-de-force, filled with discomforting rawness and danger.

In her early years as an actress, throughout the 1960s, Fonda appeared in a series of films that highlighted and sometimes degraded her nervy sexuality. In essence, Fonda had the worst of both worlds: moronic sex comedies in the Doris Day mold (Sunday in New York, Any Wednesday) and empty French “art” films, typified by the drearily voyeuristic movies she made with her first husband, Roger Vadim.

In her book, Fonda obsessively insists that her whole life has been spent in trying to please various men. She does have a Zelig-like ability to morph into what is most acceptable to those around her; most actors do. But Fonda’s mutability is so extreme as to be comic, hellish. She has played Daddy’s girl, sex kitten, political radical, bland liberal, exercise queen, Southern trophy wife, and now (the masterstroke!) Christian social worker. But those Fondas will fade. Bree, looking over all these disparate women, would simply snarl at her creator, “Fuck it.” Underneath Fonda’s increasingly desperate searches for meaning lies the profound, exhilarating negativity of her two best performances: her hardened loser Gloria, a prospective actress trapped in a thirties dance marathon in Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and Bree in Klute.

Gloria is the sort of person you move across the room to get away from. She’s constantly spewing venom like a crazy person on the street, obsessed with protecting herself, staying tough, knowing the score. She’s convinced, just like Bree is, that Central Casting has everything rigged before you even show up. When this towering woman is reduced to tears over a torn pair of nylons, the wound Fonda inflicts on the audience goes deep. Gloria advances remorselessly toward death, but she has to have someone else shoot her. Euthanasia is truly the only option offered by the film. Fonda had trouble playing this last scene at first, for obvious reasons. Her Gloria is one of the great film performances, but with Bree Daniels she went even further.

Marlon Brando is still lauded for his confessional, improvised performance in Last Tango in Paris; some even see it as a pinnacle of the actor’s art. Fonda in Klute goes just as far as Brando in Last Tango, but her performance is more controlled and less indulgent. She is putting out her own sexual and personal insecurities on film, especially in her improvised therapy sessions, but she is using Bree as her conduit, whereas Brando blatantly, sometimes tediously uses his own history to inform his character. Not many can remember Brando’s character’s name at the end of Last Tango (it’s Paul). No one who has seen Klute can forget Bree Daniels.

Klute opens with a Waspy dinner table scene in which we see a standard happy family and friends (one of whom will turn out to be the film’s killer). In a quick, awkward cut, we see that the head of the table is empty: the father figure is missing (in other words, Henry Fonda is off on location shooting). This second scene is marked by utilitarian dialogue, revealing the second-rate part of Klute, its plottiness. In fact, everything having to do with the killer, played by Charles Cioffi, is effective but quite standard. Fonda’s work is so strong, however, that it swamps the film’s flaws (just as Brando joins the lacunae of Last Tango).

The credit sequence plays out over a tape recording of Bree’s voice as she talks to a client (and introduces the main theme of Small’s score: shivery primal tingling garnished by creepy soprano mutterings). Daddy Fonda is gone, and in his place is Jane Fonda’s opponent Daddy figure, Richard Nixon. Indeed, it could be Tricky Dick himself pressing the button to start the tape recorder, for the FBI had been recording all of Fonda’s phone conversations in the early seventies. Pakula caught the paranoia of the times in his films by concentrating on surveillance equipment. In Klute, the tape recorder is a substitute for the sex act itself, just as film can be an erotic substitute.

Fonda has written in her book about the metamorphosis of her speaking voice. In her sixties films it was high and disembodied, but by the time of Klute it was rich and throaty. Fonda attributes this to “finding her voice as a woman,” an example of the endless self-help New Age drivel that ruins her book as a whole. One suspects another reason why her voice had deepened: Fonda was actively bulimic for most of her adult life (in one of her book’s few daring moments, Fonda admits that the act of purging is “somewhat orgasmic.”) All that vomiting is bound to affect the throat, among other things, eventually. Whatever the cause, Fonda’s new speaking voice on the tape let’s us know that this is a whole different kind of performance we’re about to witness: dark, moody, filled with rage and piercing gallows humor.

We first see Bree in a line-up of models at an audition. The camera pans past the girls; Bree is asked to show her hands. She does so, and when the casting directors pass her by, we can see the fiery anger in her face as it reflects outwards at the world around her, which she’d like to attack and destroy, and then inwards, where she can attack herself to her heart’s content. After this fresh humiliation, she stops by a payphone to get a client, a commuter, and with this client she’ll get her own back in spades.

In the commuter’s hotel room, Bree strikes a powerfully sexual pose on a couch, her legs crossed to show off the slit in her skirt; this whole scene has an uncomfortable cinema verité feel to it. “We could have a good time for fifty,” Bree says, nodding her head, her voice challenging and very husky. “If you wanted something extra it would be a little more.” After bringing up business like this, she leans in and bites the cloth of the client’s shirt: this is “sexy,” but all we feel is her rage. When he whispers to her his special request, she laughs and says, “Oh, that’s so exciting!” her voice a sexy purr. “But it’s going to cost you more,” she says, the tone of her voice barely changed. We see both her mastery of men and her deep contempt for them.

Then comes the famous moment: “Oh, my angel!” she cries, as he wimpily humps her (we never learn what his special request was). Bree moans and moans, takes a quick peek at her watch, then keeps on moaning. There’s no real break in the action. If she’d wanted to get a bigger laugh, Fonda would have made the movement of looking at her watch more staccato. Instead, she takes the riskier route, showing that you can have two disparate things going on at the same time without switching from one to the other.

After this, Bree walks home with yellow flowers, clearly satisfied, not well-fucked but well-paid and validated as an actress, as an artist, which she is. She lives next to the (William F.?) Buckley Funeral Home. We drink in the grittiness of the early seventies New York streets and see her cluttered urban apartment (a look that Jane Campion tried unsuccessfully to re-create in In the Cut, even down to giving Meg Ryan the jagged Fonda shag haircut). There is a drawing of John F. Kennedy on her wall, a strange touch that would seem to indicate Bree’s idealism, America’s idealism, and its compromises, its failures. Alas, in her book Fonda writes that she knew an actress who had been ferried to Washington every now and again to sleep with Kennedy, and so she decided that Bree had done this, which explains the drawing too neatly. Fonda improvised the hymn that Bree sings as she smokes her pot, a key part of her character that Pakula, to his credit, left in.

When Klute (Donald Sutherland), a private detective, knocks on her door, Bree immediately reacts defensively, just as Fonda’s Gloria does for most of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? She also starts putting him on, acting like a madcap thirties screwball comedy heroine, slipping into a Southern accent (a send-up of Fonda’s forced accents in George Roy Hill’s Period of Adjustment and Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown).

Bree seizes any chance for control she can; in the next scene, she has to put up with another man who might help her career, a fool who doesn’t listen to her. In a super-charged, out-on-a-limb moment, Bree looks at this man with vulnerable longing, smiles at him, then drops the mask completely, puffing out her lower lip in colossal anger at her own neediness.

Bree’s most important client is an old garment worker who pays her to tell him a story and take off her clothes. Small’s score turns into a gloppy Middle-European rhapsody as she walks into the old man’s office in a shining black metallic gown and feather boa. “Bree,” he sighs, as her beautiful made-up face fills the screen (surely the most indelible close-up of Fonda’s career). She then does a long monologue for him about the virtues of older men. Willis keeps Bree in darkness for the whole scene as she strips. Though we have paid, only the old man gets to see her body.

Bree puts on a show for Klute, too, when he insists on questioning her. She fills him in on the man he’s looking for (plot exposition mainly), and she says he reminds her of her uncle (a man who most likely took liberties with her). Flipping between fear and toughness, she then lowers her voice and shifts into sultry mode, complimenting Klute’s mouth. She defends her garment district client, sentimentalizes him. She admits she’s afraid of the dark. Then she turns around, reaching her arms up, very much aware of being on display, and unzips the back of her dress. When she throws a look over her shoulder, Fonda is in full command of her sexiness, and Bree seems to enjoy her sexiness too, for a fleeting moment (this image, the least complicated moment for the actress and the character, was predictably used on the film’s advertisements).

Klute finds out from Bree’s former pimp Frank (Roy Scheider) that one of the other prostitutes deliberately set Bree up with a client who almost killed her. Bree takes this in, and it seems to run right through her, this betrayal. “Well, she’s dead,” Bree says. It’s an ambiguous moment. Bree doesn’t say this toughly, as if the girl deserved to be dead. She says it as if the girl’s death evens the score. It’s as if Bree is trying to make this bit of justice cancel out the girl’s jealous, horrific cruelty. Bree is capable of seeing the larger picture sometimes, but not when it really counts.

Klute is intrigued, but he falls in love with Bree when he sees her doing a far-out accent at an audition. He sees that she’s talented, that she’s a special person trying to escape her dead-end life. She is frightened; she knows someone is stalking her, watching her. Inevitably, she goes to bed with Klute, and we can see Bree respond as he makes love to her. Her protective kiss-off is a stunner: “Are you upset because you didn’t make me come?” she asks, with brutal quickness. “I never come with a john,” she sneers, then swashbuckles off into the night, back to her potential killer.

Bree flees Klute and gets high. She wanders through a dance club, sweaty, all over the place, throwing out some lethal fake smiles, making out with a random man. When she spots Frank, she sits down by him and puts her head on his shoulder; he removes it, granting her no affection, not even for an instant. Klute stays with her as she comes down from the high, and he begins to get through to her, to love her. And she starts to love him.

But Bree won’t have it. In her next two therapy scenes, very akin to Brando’s speeches in Last Tango, she talks about her love for Klute and how all her instincts tell her to destroy the relationship. She can’t relax, longs for the comfort of being numb. Fonda uses her hands expressively in these scenes, and when the second one ends, her hands cover her face as she stares, quite palpably, into an abyss: nullity, death. Fonda is looking at these things, as an artist, and showing them to us directly. And Small’s saxophone love theme cannot ameliorate the dread Fonda has caught.

When Klute gets into a fight with Frank, Bree grabs a knife and stabs Klute in the shoulder, rabidly lashing out at him. The anger she held down has burst out of her; she has reached her full dark potential. After stabbing Klute, she truly has no one. Her therapist is out, and Bree turns to the only person she thinks cares about her: the old garment district client. This is her fatal mistake. When she calls him and asks to come to his office to talk, he is not there. His secretary hands Bree an envelope filled with money. It is the final humiliation, the final insult. And the killer is waiting for her.

Bree is saved from the movie killer, just in the nick of time, of course (the insult here is to Fonda’s work). But Bree’s soul is damned. She may give up hooking, as Fonda suggested, but this won’t solve her problems. She has nothing left. She will drive Klute away, and she will eventually destroy herself, slowly, maybe, but eventually and finally. Fonda’s life is high comedy. Bree Daniels is high tragedy. It is Bree who haunts us.

  1. In the film’s credits and some other sources like the Internet Movie Database, Fonda’s character is listed as Bree Daniel; in the film itself and sources like the New York Times, she’s Bree Daniels — perhaps Fonda went for the plural because she, like Bree, contains multitudes. []