Hal Ashby (1978)
As a political activist, Jane Fonda is naive but she knows what she’s doing as an actress. Coming Home, a politically and dramatically crude film about the Vietnam War, may well express Fonda’s own views on the subject but is redeemed largely by the tact and power of her performance. The story is set in California in 1968. Fonda plays Sally, the proper, repressed wife of Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern), a US marine who is about to go to Vietnam. We can tell that Sally is repressed because she wears mid-sixties clothes while those around her are letting it all hang out, and because Jane Fonda is acting subdued. Her normally healthy complexion is pasty; the sharp, combative angles and attitudes of her face are softened. But the light of battle is already, and properly, gleaming faintly in her eyes during these opening scenes. Perhaps this is because Fonda simply can’t conceal it but it’s useful in hinting at Sally’s potential for change.
After Bob has gone to Vietnam, Sally befriends Vi (Penelope Milford), a nutritionist at a local hospital which provides care for wounded Vietnam veterans. Her kid brother Billy (Robert Carradine) is a psychologically crippled inmate of the hospital, where Sally decides to work as a volunteer visitor-cum-orderly. A good number of the other patients are paralysed physically as well as mentally. One of the worst injured is Luke Martin (Jon Voight), who was a high-school contemporary of Sally. She was a cheerleader when Luke was a football captain but now he has grown his hair and become a thorough cynic. This sounds flippant but Coming Home’s equation of a change of clothes with a change of mind – of hair growth and mental growth – is pretty facile too. Luke knocks the condescending angel of mercy out of Sally, while she infuses him with hope and sexual desire.
Sally goes to Hong Kong to see Bob when he gets his ‘R&R’ [‘rest and recuperation’] break. After swapping her prematurely middle-aged look for frizzy hair and jeans, she temporarily reverts to her earlier, conventional appearance for the visit to Hong Kong. On the day that Sally returns home, Billy commits suicide in the hospital; unbeknown to the two women, Luke, who’s now been discharged, is catalysed by the suicide into chaining himself and his wheelchair to the gates of a military recruiting centre. Vi and Sally go out to drown Vi’s sorrows and she suggests they take home two (slobby) men. When the foursome get back to Vi’s place, she does a desperate, partial striptease before collapsing in grief into Sally’s arms. One of the men they’ve picked up then suggests watching television. There on the screen is Luke: he’s being interviewed about his protest before being taken into custody. Sally goes to collect him from the police station and tells Luke she wants to spend the night with him. He makes love to her. For the first time in her life, she has an orgasm.
The pair begin a passionate and mutually enriching affair, abruptly curtailed by Bob’s return. He’s been invalided out of the marines and is to receive a medal but his homecoming disintegrates into a foul drunken night out with his friends. Luke and Sally’s affair has been photographed and tape-recorded by the military authorities, who are keeping tabs on Luke after his neo-suffragette protest. Bob is informed of this; he holds his wife and Luke – who arrives on the scene to conciliate – at gunpoint before breaking down. After receiving his medal, Bob commits suicide. The description of his drowning is intercut with scenes of Luke lecturing a room of high-school boys on the evils of war and the tub-thumping of the American establishment. Luke, whose unkempt appearance at the start of the film indicated a broken, sadder but wiser man, has now become, thanks to the beard he’s grown, an almost Christ-like figure.
Coming Home has a simple and unoriginal structure and incorporates antique character clichés. These include the repressed woman sensually awoken by a romantic man (such a woman used to remove her glasses and literally let her hair down); and the bitter, nihilistic man restored to emotional health by the love of a good woman. The legend on the film’s poster virtually admits this formula: ‘A man who believed in war; a man who believed nothing; and the love of a woman who believed in both of them’. The character of Vi is reminiscent of the heroine’s best friend in thirties and forties movies. She is smart ‘n’ sassy: her bold non-conformism is illustrated by the removal of her skirt while the national anthem is playing on her television. Her brittle wisecracking conceals an aching heart (of gold).
Coming Home’s point of view is simplistic too: the war was wrong; its supporters are therefore the baddies and its opponents the goodies of the film. All the former are caricatures and Bob, the most important character among the hawks, is poorly conceived and badly played. Sally’s transformation would be more involving if she were married – as her bland appearance and cheerleading past suggest she might have been – to an all-American boy whose exterior masked his essential brutality and selfishness. Bruce Dern projects furtive insensitivity and menacing neuroticism right from the first scene. It’s rather startling when the smug, flabby wife of the general at the base says to Bob, ‘God bless you’, in a vaguely maternal way because this man seems in need of an exorcism. The experience of war doesn’t reveal Bob’s underlying personality; it merely intensifies his always obvious one.
The screenplay, by Waldo Salt, Robert C Jones and Nancy Dowd, takes the view that Bob’s breakdown and suicide are just desserts for being pro-war. Although the man seems meant to have been driven crazy by Vietnam and his inability to readjust after returning from service, Hal Ashby confuses the issue by suggesting that Bob is destroyed rather by his wife’s unfaithfulness. There are stupid (though vivid) consequences of the characters’ political outlooks generally. Bob is impotent: this is what comes of begin a quasi-fascist. Even though he’s crippled, Luke is a wonderful lover. Bob wants to be a hero: it transpires that the wound that got him out of Vietnam was self-inflicted. Sally asks incredulously why Bob is being decorated. The implication is that, because American involvement in Vietnam was morally wrong, the aspirations to heroism cherished by men like Bob must have been a sham. Coming Home translates this idea literally – as if individual acts of American bravery in the war were a logical impossibility.
Bruce Dern looks to have been cast as Bob in order to supply a definite physical contrast to Jon Voight as Luke. The latter embodies first the all-American type and sensibility soured by experience and, in due course, countercultural resistance. Because he’s so obviously a counterpoint to Bob from the beginning, Luke’s former conventionality is rather submerged, although there are hints of it: in the photograph of him in Sally’s yearbook; in his school nickname (‘The Duke’); and in his final speech to the youngsters. Luke’s cynicism and selfishness disappear with surprising and convenient suddenness. At the end of the film, he has become a battle-scarred but compassionate liberal conscience. Jon Voight won an Academy Award for his performance. Although it isn’t in the same class as his work in Midnight Cowboy, he shows again how good he is at playing, without condescension, men of limited intelligence (I think Luke does come into this category). Voight isn’t dissimilar to Robert Redford in his quiet, intuitive style, in conveying thoughts and feelings primarily through his eyes. Although he shows plenty of range in Coming Home, Voight won the Oscar because the role of Luke gives him opportunities to emote like crazy, weeping and lashing out and breaking bottles. The bottle-breaking is certainly impressive, though – thanks to the contrast between the immobility of Luke’s lower body and the frenetic, violent activity of his arms.
Jane Fonda’s acting is almost as good here as in The China Syndrome. (She won an Oscar too for Coming Home, as did the screenplay!) She’s a little more mannered than usual in Coming Home, possibly because she’s playing a woman who, at least at the start of the film, is so remote from herself – and antipathetic to Fonda. She has an extraordinary grasp of the development of the character, though; a more imaginative grasp than the script has. After some relaxed conversations with Luke, Sally invites him to dinner and regresses at this point to her original uptightness – Fonda does this very well. Her bristling, unconfident indignation at the patronising complacency of the other officers’ wives at the base is marvellous too. (It’s similar to the repressed, righteous anger she gave Lillian Hellman and which transformed parts of Julia.) Best of all, Fonda never lets go of Sally’s behavioural characteristics even after she’s been transformed. Sally is vulnerable, malleable and easily shocked. To the end, she’s simple-minded and sees things in black and white (as the film does). Jane Fonda – it seems instinctively – transmits the fact that Sally has been converted emotionally but not deepened intellectually.
Coming Home is highly sentimental: the sentimentality is a hybrid of political manicheism, old-style Hollywood plotting and commercial shrewdness – and it’s comprehensive. The film’s aims are contradictory, though: the story of Bob’s coming home is undercut by his out-and-out villainy and the implausibility of his being Sally’s husband in the first place. It’s hard to understand how this relationship could have functioned when Bob didn’t even give Sally the things she wanted from marriage – sex, children. Sally must be dissatisfied at the start of the film by Bob’s emotional and sexual limitations rather than by his politics, although Coming Home sees these things as inextricably linked. Hal Ashby handled narrative confidently in The Last Detail and Shampoo (though not, from all accounts, in Bound for Glory, which I’ve not seen). The storytelling in Coming Home is patchy. The early stages of the relationship between Luke and Sally contain some good dialogue; and these scenes are carefully paced and well edited. The sequences in Hong Kong aren’t so good – as if Ashby wasn’t sure what to emphasise – and, from this point on, the film loses cohesion. Vi’s miserable self-abasement goes on too long. The cross-cutting between Hong Kong, Luke, the hospital and, immediately afterwards, his protest, is flabby. Some of the 1960s songs on the soundtrack work well enough (‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, for example); others are effective at creating a mood but play over more than one sequence. Where these sequences are tonally different, the mood established by the music in the first sequence tends to dilute the impact of what follows.
 Afternote: I evidently saw Coming Home after The China Syndrome, although the latter was released first.
 Afternote: And still haven’t seen.