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Coming Home (1978)

April 24th, 2008 · 6 Comments

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Synopsis
Luke Martin (Jon Voight) is at the pool table of a VA hospital with the other disabled veterans, who start to talk about whether they’d go back to fight if they could. One of the vets states that this logic makes sense to him only because some of them need to justify to themselves what they did over there. Meanwhile, Marine Captain Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern) is enthusiastic about being sent to ‘Nam, likening it to going to the Olympic games. His sheltered wife Sally (Jane Fonda) sees him off with, “Just come back.”

With help from another Marine wife – the bohemian Vi (Penelope Milford) – Sally moves into a new apartment by the beach. When the car breaks down, she buys a new one. Needing to occupy herself while her husband is at war, she gets a job, volunteering at the VA hospital. Luke doesn’t recognize her, but Sally reminds him that they went to high school together. He takes his hostility out on her initially, but soon they become friends. Sally’s eyes are opened to the plight of the disabled vets. Luke stops feeling sorry for himself.

The couple begins an affair. Vi has a brother, a traumatized vet (Robert Carradine) who kills himself. Luke responds by chaining his wheelchair to the gate of a Marine recruit depot in protest. This attracts the attention of the FBI, who shares information of Luke and Sally’s relationship to Bill when he returns home on a medical discharge, having “accidentally” shot himself in the foot. Knowing he doesn’t belong in the Marine Corps and realizing he doesn’t belong in the new life Sally has made, Bill confronts the couple.

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Production history
Although she’d won an Academy Award for Klute, by 1972, Jane Fonda found that her trip to Hanoi and pleas for U.S. pilots to stop their bombing had come at a cost to her career. Not being offered roles she wanted, Fonda talked with fellow activist Bruce Gilbert about what her ideal film project would be. Her answer was always that it would deal with the Vietnam War. With fighting still raging and the shooting of combat scenes in Vietnam unfeasible, the decision was made to focus on the battle at home.

Speaking with disabled veteran and activist Ron Kovic in January 1973, Fonda recalled him saying, “I may have lost my body, but I’ve gained my mind.” Feeling this would be an interesting angle to explore in a movie, Gilbert worked on a script with another friend of Fonda’s, Nancy Dowd. In two years they had a finished draft – titled Buffalo Ghost – but Fonda’s agent Mike Medavoy told her, “Kid, that movie will never be made. You’ve got a paralyzed Vietnam veteran, and you’ve got a love scene no one wants to see. It is the worst, least commercial idea I have ever heard of.”

Fonda and Gilbert turned to Waldo Salt for help. Salt – who’d been blacklisted by Hollywood over his Communist Party affiliations before winning an Academy Award for adapting Midnight Cowboy – didn’t like the script either, but wanted to write about Vietnam, which had yet to dealt with in any serious way in a movie. Salt took the job on the condition he could conduct his own research with disabled veterans. He also brought in Jerome Hellman and John Schlesinger, who had produced and directed Midnight Cowboy respectively, to make Coming Home.

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Hellman took a treatment Salt had written to United Artists and got the studio to commit a $5 million budget. But Schlesinger didn’t feel he could relate to disabled vets and begged off the project. Hellman approached Hal Ashby to take over. Ashby wanted a blue collar type like Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino to play the disabled vet, and an all-American like Jon Voight to play the officer husband. Voight was so eager to be involved that he took the lesser part. When Nicholson and Pacino turned down the role of Luke, Voight successfully lobbied Ashby for the chance to play it.

With production due to start in seven weeks, Salt had only finished thirty-six script pages. After a tense meeting with Ashby over his slow progress, the screenwriter suffered a heart attack. Ashby gave the script to his film editor Robert C. Jones, who was an aspiring writer, and asked him to finish. When shooting commenced in January 1977 in Los Angeles, there still wasn’t a script. Gilbert, Hellman, Voight and Dern all wrote their own versions of various scenes, which Ashby would cobble together on the day of shooting.

Jane Fonda had always seen Coming Home as an unconventional love story, which would in her words, “talk about what really makes a man. Is he the gung-ho guy who’s going over there to get the gooks and come back and fuck your brains out, or is he the guy who’s more sensitive and knows how to use other parts of himself, like his hands and his mouth?” She clashed with Ashby over the logistics of the sex scene, which the director felt should involve penetration. Though a double was used for several shots, Fonda refused to cooperate for her close-ups. The end result was largely left up to the imagination of the audience.

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Once the studio got a look at Coming Home, they were dumbfounded. Convinced that no one would want to see a movie about Vietnam, it was set adrift in theaters February 1978. The film received decent reviews, but was ignored at the box office. Eight Academy Award nominations later in the year sent the film on its way to $35 million in grosses worldwide. Though The Deer Hunter was ultimately awarded Best Picture, Fonda, Voight and the original screenplay all won Oscars.

Opinion
While The Deer Hunter wears its ignorance and insensitivity like some kind of an honor badge, Coming Home, the “other” Vietnam film, draws just as much – if not more – emotional power by exploring its characters, whose internal lives contract and explode like supernovas over the course of the story.
For Hal Ashby – the former film editor who also directed The Landlord, Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound For Glory and Being There in the 1970s, it’s also his finest film.

Fonda, Voight, Dern and Robert Carradine turn in some of the strongest performances of their careers, but the sensibility of Coming Home is what remains most vital about it. Instead of lecturing the audience about right or wrong, the film conveys a moral complexity worthy of its subject matter. It also remains one of the bravest portraits of feminism ever put on screen. Haskell Wexler provided the capricious cinematography, while the soundtrack is potent, particularly Ashby’s use of Tom Buckley’s “Once I Was A Soldier” over the final scene.

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Barrie Maxwell at DVD Verdict writes, “Coming Home is certainly an indictment of the war, but that is not its sole intent. This is as much a film about relationships and the complications in them that major upheavals in people’s lives, such as war, cause … That this film is able to convey to non-participants even in a small way what effect those experiences might have on combatants (without showing any combat sequences) in itself lifts it well beyond most other films of its genre.”

“The film only lapses during the occasional moment where things seem to go too over the top to believe outright, but given the emotional turbulence of the time it was made in, such indulgences seem forgivable. Voight is in absolute tip-top form here, and if there were no other reason, Coming Home merits viewing just to see him act,” writes Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews.

Jeremy Heilman at MovieMartyr.com writes, “Politics aside, there’s little to complain about in Coming Home. Ashby’s direction is incisive and rarely allows overstatement, and the film evokes its period with an uncanny accuracy. The editing is especially noteworthy here, and the non-intrusive integration of its pop soundtrack should serve as an example to filmmakers today that often let their music dictate the mood of the scene instead of using it as accentuation. Haskell Wexler’s earthy cinematography pushes the film’s mood from the didactic and glitzy toward the realistic.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Brother/sister relationship · Military · Prostitute · Unconventional romance

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Daniel // Apr 25, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    I really need to see this again, especially since I was touched by Stop-Loss (even though I was in the minority there). Thanks for your thoughts, Joe. I wait anxiously for your review of A Simple Plan…

  • 2 Chuck // Apr 28, 2008 at 5:56 am

    I’m an Ashby fanboy, and I think Coming Home has its merits, but I thought it was too beholden too its “message”, the characters don’t run away with this picture like they do in other Ashby films. Matter of opinion of course, but my preferred Ashby would probably be, whew that’s a tough one, I’ll go with Being There, but that could change any day of the week.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Apr 28, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    Daniel: A distinction here is that there wasn’t a single Vietnam themed movie to be released until five years after the war, with the vast majority not even coming until Platoon was released thirteen years after the war. I think a case could be made that these Iraq-themed films and TV shows haven’t gone over well with audiences because the fighting still hasn’t been resolved. That said, Stop-Loss looked like the class of the bunch and I’m interested in seeing it.

    Chuck: We’re two sides of the same coin here. I’m in awe of what Ashby was able to accomplish in the ’70s, but while Coming Home is my favorite film of his, Being There might be my least favorite. That was a movie I could not buy into, with the President of the United States and Shirley Maclaine and all that business. Peter Sellers is tremendous. I just wasn’t able to relate to it like I was this film. Of course, my opinion might change later in the week as well.

  • 4 christian // Apr 30, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    BEING THERE is one of my absolute Ashby faves. For Peter Sellers alone, but there’s a great supporting cast. It’s pure satire so I go along with the plot and with Chance in that awesome final scene.

    But I’ve never seen COMING HOME. I will now.

  • 5 David // May 19, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    One of the best flicks, ever.

  • 6 Georgy // Jul 12, 2010 at 3:08 am

    This is one the very best films of all time. It has it all…it has important points to make, it has romance, it has incredible drama, heartbreaking realism, and incredible acting by Bruce Dern, Jane Fonda, and Jon Voight. It feels so real, each time I watch it I forget it’s a movie. I wish it lasted 6 hours.

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