COMING HOME (Hal Ashby, 1978)

A friend has asked if I ever disliked a Jane Fonda performance. I have, and she won an Oscar for it! (Her second.) In Coming Home, Sally Hyde is the kneejerk patriotic wife of U.S. Marine Capt. Bob Hyde—Sally wells up when the national anthem is played on TV,—whose volunteering at a Veterans Administration hospital reacquaints her with former classmate Luke Martin (Jon Voight, best actor, Cannes; also, Oscar), who has returned in the late sixties from the Vietnam War a paraplegic. The one-time high school football star and cheerleader become gentle, caring lovers, assisting Luke in his rehabilitation and bringing Sally her first orgasm. (Bruce Dern plays Bob.) Gradually, Sally’s loyalties, including to Uncle Sam’s war, become confused. Within a year, Sally is more like Fonda herself.
     I find Nancy Dowd’s story, and the script by Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones, for which they all won Oscars, to be by-rote and perfectly ridiculous. It would have been an incredible achievement had Fonda made sense of Sally’s part in it. She does not. However sincere and courageous she may have been politically, Fonda gives a wooden performance. One embarrassing moment finds her Sally with outstretched arms that collapse at her sides because Fonda doesn’t know what the hell else to do with them. One might say that Fonda is desperate to make her role work because it is, in the writing, rigged: Sally’s initial nature is mere set-up for the woman that Sally becomes. Ibsen gave Fonda something brilliant to work with along the same lines in A Doll’s House (Joseph Losey, 1973) and she rose to the occasion. Alas, Dowd and her rewriters provide no such occasion in Coming Home.
     Voight is much worse. Throughout, instead of playing the character of Luke Martin, he projects his own—Jon Voight’s—feelings for this character as Luke experiences his back-home ordeal and various self-discoveries. Voight is such a beautiful actor as The Revolutionary (1970) for Paul Williams, but in Coming Home he is formless, sentimental and out of character for the duration of his performance.
     The two best performances—the ones that might have reasonably won Oscars—come from Penelope Milford as Vi, Sally’s co-worker at hospital, and Robert Carradine as Vi’s brother, Bill, who has returned from Vietnam shattered and suicidal.
     Haskell Wexler brings a softness to the color cinematography that the current DVD-maniacal “enhancement” undoes; but then again his own Medium Cool (1969) eliminates the likelihood of any ironical intent on Wexler’s part. Hal Ashby’s direction is mediocre, except that Ashby presumably deserves some credit for Milford’s and Carradine’s splendid acting. Visually, Ashby seems after only pop sensations. He has made an uninteresting, uninspired film.
     At the time, Fonda promoted Coming Home as “a healing film.” This was to distinguish it from The Deer Hunter (1978), Michael Cimino’s far better Vietnam War film that took home the best picture and direction Oscars, and prominently featured the actress who would replace Fonda as America’s premier current film actress in the estimation of many: Meryl Streep.

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