Barbarella, Jane Fonda's Horny Sci-Fi Sex Kitten: Facts And Trivia

Entertainment | October 11, 2020

Jane Fonda in 'Barbarella.' Source: IMDB

The 1968 film Barbarella gives us Jane Fonda at the peak of her sex-kitten phase. A pleasure-seeking, galaxy-hopping adventurer, the titular heroine came to define an aesthetic, sort of a groovy and mod vision of science-fiction that envisions the galaxy as a humorless nightclub where everyone gets lucky but nobody seems to enjoy it. Barbarella, directed by Fonda's then-husband Roger Vadim, is not a good movie, but that is almost beside the point. Jane Fonda in revealing and outrageous futuristic fashion, reveling in a future that was all about sexual freedom -- that was the point.

Nobody Has Accused 'Barbarella' Of Being A Good Movie

John Phillip Law and Jane Fonda in 'Barbarella.' Source: IMDB

Barbarella opens with a scene of Jane Fonda stripping out of a space suit in zero-gravity. It's playful, titillating and effective, suggesting that the movie might be a fun and sexy answer to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, released earlier that year. (This hopeful thought turns out not to be the case, not at all.) Critics and viewers generally like that iconic opening sequence; beyond that, the movie disappoints, sooner or later, with a convoluted plot and a dreadful script. If only Barbarella could have delivered on the fun promise of its beginning -- but there are no do-overs in cinema, only remakes.

Writing in the New York Times, Renata Adler said that Barbarella

rapidly becomes a special kind of mess. All the gadgetry of science fiction—which is not really science fiction, since it has no poetry or logic—is turned to all kinds of jokes, which are not jokes, but hard-breathing, sadistic thrashings, mainly at the expense of Barbarella, and of women. There are special effects, of no imagination. There is Marcel Marceau, the brilliant French mime, talking, in a particularly boring part. ... Throughout the movie, there is the assumption that just mentioning a thing (sex, politics, religion) makes it funny and that mentioning it in some offensive context (an angel is jocularly, Daliesquely crucified; Barbarella is picturesquely, viciously bitten by some children's toys) makes it funnier. It is a humorist-advertiser's kind of experiment: Let's stab this through the midriff and see if anyone salutes it.

So, to be clear, Renata Adler did not like the movie. 

Was 'Barbarella' A Setback For Science Fiction?

When we think of the wonders of science fiction as a cinematic genre, 1968 stands out as the year sci-fi schifted from schlock to substance. Which makes Barbarella especially tone deaf. Dan Bates, writing in Film Quarterly, alluded to 2001 and another 1968 sci-fi classic, Planet of the Apes, in his review:

Interesting that, in the year that Stanley Kubrick and Franklin Schaffner finally elevated the science-fiction movie beyond the abyss of the kiddie show, Roger Vadim, in a single French-Italian co-production aimed at the American market, has knocked it right back again. For all its Hugh Hefner-dreamworld nudity and blase sensuality, Barbarella is pure sub-adolescent junk, bereft of redeeming social or artistic importance.

Fonda herself has acknowledged that Barbarella fell short of its potential, writing in her memoir that "it could have been a strong, feminist move."

'80s Pop Group Duran Duran Took Their Name From The Movie

Duran Duran was clearly named for Dr. Durand Durand, inventor of the positronic ray. In the movie, Barbarella's quest is to find Durand and return him to Earth, but the no-so-good Doctor has plans of his own, at one point placing Barbarella in an excessive-pleasure machine that is supposed to kill her with sexual ecstasy. She breaks it, of course.

Durand is uninterested in being returned to Earth by Barbarella. He is instead trying to seize control of the city of Sogo (named for Sodom and Gomorrah) from the Black Queen (played by Rolling Stones muse Anita Pallenberg). 

Alice Cooper's Look Comes From The Movie, Too

Source: IMDB

Shock-rocker Alice Cooper's definitive look comes from Barbarella, but it wasn't the title character who grabbed Vincent Furnier's imagination. The band watched Barbarella over and over, and it was the Black Queen who made her mark on the singer:

When I saw Anita Pallenberg playing the Great Tyrant in that movie in 1968, wearing long black leather gloves with switchblades coming out of them, I thought, ‘That’s what Alice should look like.’ That, and a little bit of Emma Peel from The Avengers.

The third commonly-cited influence on Alice Cooper's image dates to an earlier film: Bette Davis in the 1962 psychological horror flick Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?

The Character Comes From A French Comic Book

Source: Humanoids publishing

Barbarella first appeared in V Magazine in 1962. Creator Jean-Claude Forest envisioned her as a pleasure-seeking heroine whose adventures in space reflected the sexual liberation bubbling under in the early '60s that would come to be known as the Sexual Revolution. Barbarella has been described as the first adult comic book, although its depictions of Barbarella's conquests are extremely tame compared to what followed. The V Magazine strips were collected into a book, Barbarella, in 1964. Three other books followed: Les Colères du Mange-Minutes (The Wrath of the Minute Eater, 1974), Le Semble-Lune (The False Moon, 1977), and Le Miroir aux Tempêtes (The Storm Mirror, 1982 with art by Daniel Billon). Jean-Claude Forest died in 1998.

Starring... Brigitte Bardot As Barbarella?

Brigitte Bardot at left and right wearing Paco Rabanne designs; Fonda as Barbarella in a Rabanne-designed costume. Sources: Pinterest; IMDB; Pinterest

Legend has it that Jean-Claude Forest based his comic-book character on Brigitte Bardot, and the heroine as he drew her certainly looks a lot like a young Bardot. Of course, Bardot was such a cultural phenomenon and living embodiment of early-'60s sex appeal that it would be hard to conceive of a sultry and promiscuous character -- in French comics, no less -- who didn't have some element of Bardot to her.

When casting the film, Vadim didn't initially have his wife in mind for the part. His first pick was, indeed, Bardot -- to whom he had been married from 1952-57 -- and he also had Italians Virna Lisi and Sophia Loren on his shortlist.

Barbarella Was The Peak Of Fonda's Sex Kitten Trajectory

Fonda in 'La Ronde.' Source: Pinterest.

Jane Fonda is a woman of many phases, which bring out both positive and negative reactions. In 1968, she was known neither as "Hanoi Jane" nor as the VCR workout queen -- she was a talented actress, glamorous daughter in a Hollywood family, who was on a streak of risque performances that earned her the designation as a "sex kitten." One of the movies that built this reputation was the 1964 French film La Ronde (Circle Of Love), directed by Vadim, in which she had a nude scene. Iconic stills of an undressed Fonda lying chest-down on a bed were used in posters and lobby cards for the film, and the image was also splashed across the side of a building in Times Square, causing a sensation. Fonda appeared nude in another film directed by Vadim (who was by then her husband), The Game Is Over, and photos leaked from the production were published in Playboy, which further enhanced the actress' sex-kitten persona.

Producer Dino De Laurentiis Made Back-to-Back Comic Book Films

Jane Fonda and John Phillip Law. Source: IMDB

Barbarella was filmed at Cinecitta in Rome, the largest film studio in Europe. Shooting took place after the completion of another Dino De Laurentiis-produced comic-book movie, Danger: Diabolik, and certain members of the cast and crew worked on both films -- most notably John Phillip Law, who plays Pygar the blind angel in Barbarella and Diabolik in Danger: Diabolik

Though Danger: Diabolik, directed by Mario Bava, was also poorly reviewed and underperformed at the box office, the years have been kinder to it than to Barbarella. In a retrospective review, Roger Ebert wrote

Although it's too long and eventually loses track of Itself, Danger: Diabolik is very nearly the movie Barbarella should have been. Both films came out of the Dino De Laurentiis Rome production line at about the same time; both employ violence, high adventure, sex, camp set designs, simplistic dialog and incredible coincidences; and both were based on popular European comic strips. ... Danger: Diabolik actually looks better put-together (although its budget must have been smaller).

Buck Henry Missed Out On The Supposed Orgies

Roger Vadim making some alterations to his wife's costume. Source: IMDB

Fonda and Vadim rented a villa outside of Rome during the filming of Barbarella, and would entertain famous house guests in the evenings. Gore Vidal, Joan Baez, and others would stop by, flocking together as celebrity intellectuals tend to do. Buck Henry, who was in Rome writing the screenplay for Catch-22, came by to see what the fuss was about. He told Vanity Fair:

I’d heard about orgies, acid, a lot of drugs. I was never invited. I wanted to be. ... I’d go in and just feast my eyes on Jane. She was unbelievable. So beautiful. And unattainable. Those long, long legs, so much blonde hair. Sexy. Jane was born a movie star.

Tags: Barbarella | Jane Fonda | Movies In The 1960s | Roger Vadim | Science Fiction

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Josh Robertson


Josh Robertson is a freelance writer who lives in the past -- and likes it there. He's a former Playboy and Yahoo! Internet Life editor and current social media whiz/hack. He prefers Martin Denny to Herb Alpert, still reads his Kurtzman-era Mad magazines, thinks margarita mix is an abomination and believes Lazenby was the second-best Bond, deal with it.