​Klute (1971) Directed by Alan J. Pakula.  Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Roy Scheider (114 minutes) Rated R

Ostensibly a dread-filled “woman in peril” mystery, Klute is intentionally a character-study of a sex-worker, a call girl in gritty 70s New York City who is menaced by a heavy breathing voice on the phone.  Perhaps, a man who plans to kill her.

Many people still revile Jane Fonda for her political activism, particularly in her avatar of “Hanoi Jane” an activist whose anti-Vietnam war stance enraged her conservative opponents.  All her life, she has been a chameleon; Henry Fonda’s daughter, an interstellar sexpot, an aerobics entrepreneur, a five-times Oscar-nominated actress (she won for Klute and Coming Home) a tv sit-com star, wife of French director Roger Vadim, radical Tom Hayden and millionaire Ted Turner, and still, in her 80s, a marcher for social justice Klute was near the beginning of the most distinguished stretch of her acting career, starting with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, and continuing through Julia, Coming Home, The China Syndrome, 9 to 5 and On Golden Pond.

In 1971, Jane Fonda was still married to Vadim but was estranged from him.  She was broke, having spent her money donating to the Black Panthers and anti-war causes. She agreed to do Klute because she needed the money. Still, she hesitated about playing Bree.  “I’d begun to wonder of it wasn’t politically incorrect to play a call girl.  Would a real feminist do that?  A real feminist wouldn’t have to ask herself such a question “(Fonda 248, italics hers).  She liked the director, Alan J. Pakula, who had only directed one other film, The Sterile Cuckoo, and felt she could internalize some of her emerging feminist ideas within her character, a tough-talking sex worker named Bree Daniels.  She worried that other actresses were better suited to the part, like Faye Dunaway.  Pakula laughed at her insecurities.  Slowly, Fonda found her way towards the character.  “That was it!  Bree wouldn’t be a call girl who wanted to be an actress or model.  She would be an actress, a talented one, whose life experiences, including early sexual abuse and a consequent need always to be in control had led her to choose hooking as the way to pay for acting classes and rent.  From that realization on, I turned a corner.  Work on the film seemed to flow.  Alan and I were so in sync that it was like having the perfect partner in a grand waltz.  I loved him dearly” (Fonda 251).  Pakula’s empathy and his interest in human motivations and respect for women was the reason she finally agreed to make Klute.

On location in East Harlem

Several directors had already turned down the script by Andy and Dave Lewis, and the budget was cheap, $2.8 million.  Pakula was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock but ignored his warning not to include a character study in a thriller.  Pakula wanted to combine the genres and he wanted to explore the whole idea of power within sexual relationships.  “Klute very much deals with power as much as sex, and the impotent and the powerful, and sex being used as power” (Brown 93) But, unlike other directors of his generation, like Brian de Palma, he felt a responsibility not to romanticize the sexual violence, which he did by not showing it on screen. Pakula saw the film as a story of compulsion, which fascinated him, “by bright, rational people who have various behaviors they cannot control.” Bree “has a compulsion to seduce, and it’s that compulsion that almost destroys her in the end” (Brown 105).

He worked closely with cinematographer Gordon Willis to create a distinctive look for the film. “I wanted to get the sense of a very claustrophobic world.  I had a rather disturbing visual concept for the film. It was like the characters were subterranean…it was like the underbelly of the world.  We tried to photograph it that way” (Brown 96).

In this scene, Pakula wanted the lighting to evoke Marlene Dietrich in one of the 1930s films of Josef von Sternberg

The music, by Michael Small is also almost a character in the film.  Pakula did not want an orchestral score, and he did not want the usual notes indicating fear or danger.  He wanted the small ensemble of instruments to reflect Bree’s complex inner life.

Fonda arranged to meet with working girls “I was searching for a way to play a call girl differently. I knew she should be tough and angry, but not totally hard” (Bosworth 322).  She met with the madam of a discreet brothel who catered to wealthy clients, who told her “The more important they are, the kinkier they are.”  Pakula scheduled an appointment at the morgue, to look at images of call girls who had been beaten and killed by the men in their lives, an experience so disturbing that Fonda had to excuse herself to go to the bathroom and throw up.  She met with several call-girls and even went along on a professional date.  But Fonda later said she had met many prostitutes in Paris when her husband arranged menage a trois for them, afterwards, she would make coffee and talk to the sex workers about their lives.  Pakula even hired a call girl as a technical advisor, to be on-set every day.

Bree’s apartment was constructed on a sound stage, and Fonda actually slept there: Pakula had the toilet plumbed for her.  Lying in Bree’s bed at night, she began to visualize the details of her life.  Her books, her cat, her mementos, like a signed photo of President Kennedy.

Ann Roth, who has designed the wardrobe for many of your favorite films (and is still working at 91!) collaborated on Bree’s look with Fonda.  She took her to a hair salon on St. Mark’s Place to get her haircut in the shag that would define an era.  Leather, that tough outer skin, was intrinsic to the look, a fringed bag, a chunky belt, high boots and miniskirts.  She wore stretchy sweaters and didn’t wear a bra.  In modern films recreating the era, that is one detail that is often wrong—probably because modern actresses feel uncomfortable with that look.  But, after Klute, many average women put aside their bras (even if they didn’t burn them) to create a new kind of sexy cool.

This is a fantastic outfit, the soft, ruffled high neck blouse, contrasted with the super short leather mini, vest, thigh high boots and fringed bag.

The set was tense, because many in the crew were adamantly opposed to her counterculture causes and were demonstrative in their objections. Pakula wanted to improvise and try different approaches, which at first Fonda found frustrating, she was happy to play a scene as written.  But the director helped her find the character of Bree within herself.  Pakula loved the collaborative process of filmmaking.  He worked repeatedly with the cinematographer, Gordon Willis, the composer, Michael Small, George Jenkins, the production designer, and Fonda, herself, who acted in in three of his films.  His eight-time location manager, Celia Costas said, “He loved the idea that 125 of his close friends were going to show up every morning and solve all the problems” (Brown 92).

The improvised scenes with Bree’s analyst reveal the soul of her character.  Originally, the therapist was going to be a man, but Fonda thought Bree would feel more comfortable in sessions with a woman, played by Vivian Nathan.  Fonda, Nathan and Pakula discussed the topics of the meetings, and Pakula gave Fonda several books about the psychology of prostitution.  “Jane found sources in herself that she had never known existed.  I posed the questions and Jane talked and talked” merging Fonda’s own feelings about sex and control, trust and intimacy with Bree’s (Bosworth 327). Fonda asked for those scenes to be filmed at the end of the shooting schedule when she was deeply familiar with her character.  One of the reasons that she was thinking and processing these issues was because she was involved in a passionate affair with her co-star, Donald Sutherland (according to her biographer, and others). Sutherland shared her political ideals (they would later travel to Army bases with a show called FTA or “Free (sic) the Army”) very different than the controlling relationship she had with her husband, Roger Vadim.  In her autobiography, Fonda describes her relationship while filming with Sutherland as that of a friend, not a lover.

Wonderful behind the scenes photo shows the ease between Sutherland and Fonda

When Klute opened in mid-1971, Fonda got the best reviews of her career, so far.  Few reviewers were more important than Richard Schickel in Life magazine, who wrote “Jane Fonda has emerged as the finest actress of her generation with a mercurial, subtly shaded and altogether fascinating performance…she is a rock of integrity…and one should see Klute if only to be present at her moment of triumph” (Bosworth 348).  In general, the reviews of the film were negative, as it stubbornly refused to confine itself to one genre or another.  But, especially after Fonda’s Oscar win, over time, it became a classic.

One significant question is why the film was called Klute, when Sutherland’s police detective, John Klute, is clearly a less important character.  The film was not called Bree, for fear that people would think it was about cheese.

Fonda was nominated for an Oscar along with Julie Christie in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Glenda Jackson in Sunday, Bloody Sunday, Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots, and Janet Suzman in Nicholas and Alexandra. She was conflicted about accepting the award, but she wanted the validation of her peers.  Asking her father, Henry Fonda, he told her brusquely just to accept the award if offered and say, “thank you.”

She was extremely sick with the flu on Oscar night.  She was dressed in a black Yves St. Laurent wool pantsuit with a high collar (described by some as a “Mao” collar).  Her hair was a little longer than Bree’s but still worn in a shag, and she was thin, she said she only weighed 100 pounds.  Before the ceremony, mulling over what to say, should she win, she asked her party, including her lawyer.  He advised her on her acceptance speech, “There are a lot of things to say, but now is not the time to say them.  Thank you very much” and then leave, satisfying both the left, who wanted a statement, and the right, who decidedly did not.  This version is according to her biographer, Patricia Bosworth, in her autobiography, she credits the brief speech to her father’s suggestion.  When she did win, looking very shy and girlish (it might have been the flu) she paraphrased her rehearsed speech, out of nervousness, and was stunned by the warmth and enthusiasm of the applause from the audience.  But, burning with fever, she skipped the Governor’s Ball, and after a quick stop for some dinner, went home.

Gene Hackman won the Best Actor Oscar for The French Connection when Fonda won Best Actress for Klute.

Klute holds up remarkably well.  I deeply appreciate the non-exploitational way the sex and violence were handled, rare for a film from this, or any, era.  The design leans into the squalor of bad old New York, filming in crumbling East Harlem (there was a movie studio on 127th Street).  The sound is exceptional, focusing on the hiss of reel-to-reel tape recorders and the ringing phone; in those days people felt compelled to answer the phone every time.  The nerve jangly music penetrates the psyche like a dripping faucet, and the shadowy depths into which Bree must constantly enter create an aura of menace.  People in the city are both alone, and never alone.  Someone is always watching, even in solitude.  The film is extraordinarily sympathetic to Bree.  Is there is another film that treats a sex worker so much like just another human being?  Fonda’s performance is remarkable, you can see the emotions flutter across her face as she decides, recalculates, reconsiders.  The sessions with her therapist are a triumph of improvisational acting.  Klute shows how a woman like Bree, smart and capable but damaged and hard makes the decisions she does, and how policeman John Klute’s relentless normalcy begins to wear down her defenses.  I hate movies that make prostitution seem kooky and fun (!) like Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Pretty Woman.  Besides, Bree treats her cat MUCH better than Holly Golightly.

Bree’s cat is not named but is clearly loved and taken care of.

Fonda said in her autobiography, “Even now, when I watch Klute, I admire everything about it.  In these times of mega-special effects, when we’ve grown almost numb to what we used to find terrifying, Michael Small’s ominous music track is still heart stopping; Gordon Willis’s photography, which caused him to be dubbed ‘the Prince of Darkness’ sucks you in and then slams you with terror.  Alan Pakula was alert to every nuance and knew just how to draw it out of me, As a result, a year later, I would win my first Oscar for my performance as Bree Daniel” (Fonda 253).


Jane Fonda:  The Private Life of a Public Woman by Patricia Bosworth, My Life So Far by Jane Fonda, Alan J. Pakula: His Films and his Life by Jared Brown