Historical Circuit: Coming Home (****)

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Coming Home

Jane Fonda’s angry attack on the United States and President Richard Nixon for American involvement in Viet Nam earned her the nickname “Hanoi Jane” and the hatred of the American government. Fonda had begun her career as a light comic actress- sex kitten before becoming a major dramatic actress with her Oscar nominated performance in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) which would win her the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress. Two years later she was back on the stage of the Academy Awards accepting an Oscar for her brilliant performance in Klute (1971) which won her a second Best Actress plaque from the New York Film Critics Circle. That performance, as a hooker being stalked by a murderous client, the actress gave one of the cinema’s greatest performances, surpassed by only Meryl Streep in Sophie’s
Choice (1982) and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939). Her career was soaring, she was on the cusp of becoming America’s greatest actress, and she turned her back on film to protest the war in Viet Nam.
Fonda made a major comeback in 1977 with a superb performance in Julia (1977) which earned her a third Oscar nomination, and proved her box office power with the hit film Fun with Dick and Jane (1977). During this time Fonda was also working on a film about the war in Viet Nam, initially entitled Buffalo Soldiers. Screenwriter Nancy Dowd, best known for the superb Slap Shot (1977) screenplay fashioned a powerful story that Fonda would produce and take a role in the film. After being turned down by Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Sylvester Stallone for the male lead, she turned to Jon Voight who at once headed to a veterans hospital and sat himself in a wheelchair that he refused to get out for the entire shoot. Character actor Bruce Dern was cast as Fonda’s husband, a man who cannot wait to get to war, but once there finds it is very different than he believed it would be.  Hal Ashy was invited to direct the film, and working with Fonda quickly made it his own picture, bringing that brilliant insight Ashby brought to all of his work.

When released, Coming Home was the first major film of the seventies to deal openly with the was in Viet Nam. Apocalypse Now (1979) had been shooting since 1976, but was still two years away from a screening, and The Deer Hunter (1978) would not be released until December of 1978. Thus when Coming Home came out in the spring of ’78, it had the distinction of being the first major film to deal with the war since John
Wayne’s dreadful The Green Berets (1968). Sally Hyde (Fonda) watches her husband Bob (Dern) leave for war, happy, and cheerful that he has finally been called to serve his country. He cannot wait to get there.  When he leaves Sally finds herself with nothing to do so she volunteers at the veterans hospital where she encounters a man she went to high school with, Luke Martin (Voight) now a paraplegic, recovering from injuries suffered in Viet Nam. They awaken something in one another, and Sally begins to change, discovering her independence and sexuality. With Luke she has an orgasm for the first time in her life, and begins speak out about the war. She visits Bob in Hong Kong during a liberty week, and is startled to see how the war is impacting her husband.

She and Luke fall in love, and then Bob comes home, possibly from a self inflicted injury. He feels betrayed by his country, betrayed by the military and eventually when told about his wife’s dalliance with Luke, is betrayed by his wife. Holding Sally at gunpoint, he roars at her until Luke comes to their home, and gently coaxes Bob to put the gun down and try to come to terms with what has happened to him over there. The final scenes are stunning, almost overwhelming in their raw, emotional power. As Luke speaks to a group of high school students about the war, Bob stands alone on the beach in his military uniform, having just been honored as a hero. Sally tells him she is going to get some steaks for the barbecue, as it is likely a long since he lit one. He nods a wry smile, with images of fire bombing no doubt in his head. With Sally gone, Bob begins to take off his uniform staring at the ocean with purpose. Gently on the sound track, the Tim Buckley ballad “Once I was a Soldier” begins, as we cut back and forth between Luke’s speech and Bob’s undressing. Luke breaks down in front of the students, telling them, “I did a lot of shit over there I find fucking hard to live with”, as he sobs. Bob now naked, runs into the sea, swimming out to his death, as Luke finishes
his speech.

Coming Home opened initially in the spring of 1978, to strong reviews but middling box office. Aware that the picture had awards potential, it was released again in the fall and began winning awards for Voight, which saw the box office come up. The performances in Coming Home are among the finest of the decade, they are simply perfect in every way. Jon Voight won every major acting award in 1978 for his superb performance as Luke, a man determined not to carry the ghosts of Viet Nam around his neck for the rest of his life. He understands the value of life, and plans to live his life despite his hand-capped. Honors for Best Actor came to Voight from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, the Golden Globe and the Academy Award. Fonda would win a second Oscar as well as the Golden Globe for her exceptional performance as Sally, and Bruce Dern, one of the seventies greatest character actors was nominated for both a Globe and Oscar, winning neither though he was certainly deserving. Sadly Dern had been typecast playing “crazies” after killing John Wayne in The Cowboys (1972) and often critics failed to notice the depth of his characters. He was nothing short of brilliant in Silent Running (1971), and superb again in The Great Gatsby (1974). He shared the screen with Jack Nicholson in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), the two of them crackling with electricity throughout the picture. His best work was in Black Sunday (1977) as a Viet Nam vet being used by a terrorist group for their dark work. Dern should have won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his electrifying performance as Lander, and for Coming Home he should have won Best Supporting Actor, losing to Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter (1978), a good performance but not a great one.

Hal Ashby’s gentle direction allowed the actors to be emotionally naked on camera, to go to places they had not gone before as artists, to challenge themselves as much as one another and do some of the finest work of their careers. His decision to use music from the period on the track was simply genius, because we are plunged back in time the moment we hear the Rolling Stones on the soundtrack. No doubt his skill as an
editor helped the cutting of the film, because the film, despite being a Fonda production is very much an Ashby film. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, the film won three, the two acting awards and a screenplay Oscar for original work. In my opinion Coming Home was a superior film to The Deer Hunter, something the Los Angeles Film Critics Association recognized and honored the movie as
their Best Film. Watching Coming Home today, it has a somber quality, a mood and tone that is quietly haunting throughout the film, taking us back to the sixties when the times were indeed, a-changin’.