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Coming Home

Difficult Transformations


Hal Ashby’s 1978 film Coming Home, about a woman (Jane Fonda) whose husband (Bruce Dern) goes off to fight in Vietnam and meanwhile falls for a paraplegic veteran (Jon Voight) of the same war, was perceived by critics as a Fonda vehicle, and at the same time an opportunity to express her anger in fictional form about the Vietnam conflict. Stanley Kauffmann in his essay collection, Before My Eyes, comments on the advance publicity of the film, and thought it possible “on that slender foundation, to build three or four different scenarios. Obviously it was not Fonda’s responsibility to fulfil any of those private scenarios, though in the most complimentary sense, it was her responsibility that one imagined them.” Gilbert Adair writes in Hollywood Vietnam that, “in view of an average audience’s familiarity with the actress’s personal appearance and much publicised politics, she will necessarily be seen [as she plays the docile, patriotic wife] at the beginning of the movie as being in disguise”. Pauline Kael, in her essay collection, When the Lights go Down”, simply says “Jane Fonda isn’t playing a character in Coming Home, she’s playing an abstraction – a woman being radicalized.”

This was entirely understandable. Fonda had earlier made, alongside her husband Tom Hayden and the cinematographer here, Haskell Wexler, a documentary called Introduction to the Enemy, chronicling a visit Fonda and the others made to North Vietnam. By the beginning of the seventies she was already nicknamed Hanoi Jane for her anti-Vietnam war stance, and in 1971, in protest against the war, toured South East Asia with an anti-war troupe F.T.A. This stood for Free the Army or Fuck the Army. Some thought her stance was so radical she should have been tried for treason. However, as we’ll see later, for all Fonda’s input, Coming Home is less a work of radical politics, than a politicized example of the romantic genre.

One of the general claims made for greater realism in seventies cinema was that the actor was no longer a beautiful figure of audience adulation, developing their persona from film to film; but a figure incorporated into the milieu and into the aesthetic. Donald Sutherland puts it quite nicely when saying of various key seventies filmmakers, “Nic makes Nic Roeg films – you contribute to his process, you don’t dictate. I didn’t realize at the time of M*A*S*H. that [Robert] Altman was a brilliant director. It was all my fault that, on Klute, [Alan] Pakula and I argued. What I was trying to do was impose my thinking. Now I contribute. I offer, I don’t put my foot down.”  Obviously there were still plenty of stars in seventies film – from Newman to Redford, Streisand to Reynolds, Eastwood to…Jane Fonda.  But films generally no longer seemed to be a vehicle for the actor; but the actor merely a driver of that vehicle, no matter if in certain instances the actor also functioned as the producer: Warren Beatty on Shampoo, Redford on All the President’s Men, and Fonda here, through the company she created with Bruce Gilbert, IPC. As Fonda herself says in her autobiography, My Life So Far: “there were a number of things Hal and I didn’t agree on…but I tried to make my points as clearly as I could and then let go and leave it up to him. I had neither the confidence nor the desire to fight with Hal, whom I respected enormously.”

Her producer credentials and her political position may help explain the critical expectations placed upon the film; but the notion of the actor serving the film is partly what explains Fonda’s relatively muted presence in a surprisingly muted work. While many like Kauffmann clearly expected Fonda’s high profile political position to manifest itself in the film, what happens instead is that the political gets absorbed into the aesthetic details of the picture. As Adair notes, the film is fleshed out by “the kind of behavioural detail with which Ashby is most at ease”. Famous for being an actors’ director (The Last Detail, Shampoo), Ashby would let them find their performance on the set, and would thus shoot lots of footage. This isn’t the classic Hollywood freedom of the actor as image and icon; more the freedom of the actor as explorer of human behaviour. Out of this exploration Ashby would then edit the work to bring out the pertinence within the details. A sound man interviewed in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, noted that in one scene in Coming Home Ashby had let Voight “ramble on, and Jon did a lot of stuff that was really stupid, that would have been an embarrassment had it ended up in the movie”. But this was turned around in the editing suite as Ashby’s background as an editor allowed him to see the potential in the lengthy footage.

Where many critics expected Fonda to give a political performance consistent with her image as activist, Ashby brings out of her instead a performance that is less politically motivated than emotionally emancipatory: about human behaviour over political activism. Kael may say Fonda is playing an abstraction, but probably the appeal of the film lies in its attentiveness to detail; that Fonda wanted to play someone very concrete. This is a film where haircuts matter, where the delicate details of cunnilingus are vital and where a minor injury can potentially cause more psychic damage than losing one’s legs. In the early stages of the film Fonda wears her hair in the tradition of the conservative ‘68 housewife that she is, before about forty minutes into the story swapping it for a frizzy perm. Later, when visiting her husband in Hong Kong we notice that she’s straightened it out, and the hair serves as a metonym for her fidelity. Shortly before leaving for Hong Kong, when Luke (Voight) says, “I spend ninety five per cent of my time at the hospital thinking about making to love with you”, Sally (Fonda) replies that she’s never been unfaithful to her husband. As she says goodbye to Luke just before going to Hong Kong we notice she still has the perm, but by the time she reaches Asia she’s gone back to the haircut her husband is familiar with. Sally’s is the sort of fidelity that is not only about being faithful to her husband sexually, but also being faithful to his image of her. Near the end of the film, after her fling with Luke, after Bob (Dern) returns home, Bob notes the frizzy hairstyle and Fonda says that she’s stopped straightening it out.

Here is a woman being faithful at last to herself as opposed to an image another possesses, and the film proposes there is little difference between her sexual infidelity and her general emancipation as Luke brings her to her first ever orgasm. Though some critics have commented on Fonda’s hairdo as a sign of a “more aggressive approach to sexuality”, in Peter Lev’s words in American Films of the Seventies, the hairdo comes before the orgasm, and it isn’t so much a symbol of her attempt at freedom, as a tentative move towards showing her ‘true’ self: that her hair is naturally curly. Just as we may note Ashby finds the angle upon which to show that Bob’s mild injury which leaves him using a walking stick after a minor accident in ‘Nam can potentially destroy his life, while Luke’s missing limbs can rejuvenate his, so ideas of Sally’s fidelity to her husband and fidelity to herself can rest as much on a hairdo as an orgasm.

Such an attention to detail can potentially seem to trivialise Vietnam, and though critics like Kauffmann were so disappointed he believed the film “could, essentially, have been about the War of 1812”, it is as though Fonda and Ashby wanted to make a work that could find the appropriate details to explore the subject whilst acknowledging the impossibility of filming the war itself. This isn’t to trivialise Vietnam, but to find a position on the war that can allow for small truths to come out of it. The most striking moment in the film comes when Bob says, after Sally asks him what the war is like, “I don’t know what it’s like; I only know what it is.” Ashby chooses not to show what it is like, but instead to explore what it can reveal. The film doesn’t find analogies to war, but concerns itself with the details of its repercussions. The conventional and highly appropriate response to making a film ‘about’ Vietnam could have been how do we make a political statement concerning the devastation the war wrought, but Coming Home seems more provocatively to say how do we make a film full of romantic conventions against the backdrop of a war that created a schism in the country, and could equally divide the self?

From this perspective the film becomes a revealing exploration of the romantic woman’s picture, with numerous scenes giving edge to a genre that can seem an anodyne attempt to get the couple together. We notice this for example in an early scene where in the language of the romantic comedy Sally and Luke meet cute – the introductory meeting that allows the couple to connect. In a film like Notting Hill it is a cup of orange juice Hugh Grant spills over Julia Roberts; in Coming Home it is Luke’s urine bag as he rails against the lack of staff in the hospital, and which leads to Sally offering her services voluntarily. Shortly afterwards we find they were at high school together, but if Luke can’t recall Sally is this because he can’t remember or doesn’t want to confront the time when he was able-bodied? A few moments later he remembers and mentions that she was a cheerleader, and just after that she asks if he was wounded in Vietnam. He responds as curtly as he did when she asked if he recognized her, and the obstacles to romance here are certainly substantial.

By reversing the expectation of the film being an examination of Vietnam that focuses too readily on the love story, to a romance that incorporates Vietnam, we can see the film offers the political as the personal, as a romance that exists within a complicated reality of which Vietnam is only a part, however significant. Though critics including Kauffmann and Kael believe the film lacks political impetus, is even politically naïve, and in Kael’s words, “the war is condemned on the basis that our soldiers are maimed and killed in it”, these are the sort of criticisms also levelled at Ashby’s earlier Shampoo. As with Coming Home it was about 1968, and Kauffmann reckoned that while the events were set on the eve of the ’68 election, Shampoo uses “the gimmick of satire the way ‘30s gangster films used the gimmick of last-minute moralizing as a cover up for violence. Here the social-comment façade is used to justify fake porno of a particularly revolting kind.” It as as though the critics expected a certain type of film in each instance, and argued from the position of their disappointment: a point Kauffmann more or less admits in the passage we quoted from his Coming Home review. However, from another perspective Coming Home works as a sometimes subtle examination of the difficulty of emancipation in the context of what one owes to oneself, one’s lover, one’s husband and one’s country. Shampoo, meanwhile, was an ironic film in that the political was absurdly relegated to the inessential from the characters’ point of view as they concentrated on their own love lives and careers. Yet one of the key lines in the film comes when Warren Beatty’s central character is told that his ex, who’s now the lover of the rich business man he is talking to, is a whore. Beatty wonders whether we’re all whores, and the viewer might believe that under the sort of advanced capitalism voted for (Nixon won the election), and the lack of trust and feeling the characters show towards each other, the characters are denying themselves the opportunity of a political system that would eventually allow for moments of true feeling. Coming Home is the opposite, an unironic film about true feelings moving in various directions. But both contain the political; they aren’t expressions of it.

Fonda may have been for a long time a politically radical figure in the US, but as she said in a Premiere interview in 1979, shortly after making Coming Home, her background was bourgeois liberal, her father a Roosevelt and Stevenson Democrat, and that she wanted to be “responsible, positive, constructive. And I want to be the best actress I can be. I am a political animal, I am a woman who is personally engaged, and I am an actress. It has taken me some time to reconcile the two positions.” It is the comment of a woman of reflection, and what Coming Home captures so well is that any emancipation comes with a price, and the cost is likely to be greater given the war that functions as a stubbornly present background.

The film seems interested chiefly in the problem of transformation, a mainstay of the romantic comedy and the romantic film generally, but here functions as a question of integrity and disintegration. In one scene in Hong Kong there is an incongruous moment where the camera shows us a close up of an Asian singing a country and western song; and we may wonder whether this is what happens when transformation is without conflict, when one culture superimposes itself on another. Nothing is made of the scene, but it seems to sum up the problem of adapting to cultural expectations. But what are those expectations back in California, where your lover thinks Vietnam is a useless war, where your husband wants to be a hero in it, and where you were brought up, as Sally says, to show respect to the national anthem, even when it plays on late night TV? By the end of the film Sally, Luke and Bob have all been transformed but the romantic aspect cannot lead to happiness due to the unhappiness that Vietnam creates in all their lives. Obviously those looking for a more politically oriented film will insist that the devastation inflicted upon US citizens by Vietnam is nothing next to the untold misery the US inflicted upon the Vietnamese. That is not the film’s perspective, however, and Ashby seems honest enough to accept that Coming Home is finally not even about devastation; that would be much more The Deer Hunter’s theme, released the same year.  Ashby’s film concludes in a parallel montage to Tim Buckley’s Once I Was, with its lyrics of transformation, and we see Luke talking to high school kids about how he has changed from the captain of the football team who wanted to kill for his country to someone who thinks the war is wrong, to Sally shopping with her friend as we notice her frizzy hair, to Bob apparently unable to cope with the pain of change and looking like he will kill himself in the waves as he swims out to sea. Ashby gives us a conclusion that suggests where in the romantic film the transformation often comes easy by the third act, in Coming Home the film’s emotional heft comes much more from its difficulty, a difficulty all the more pronounced when war doesn’t bring a people together, necessarily, but creates deep divisions. Coming Home may not be a film about the Vietnam war, but could it have been quite the film it is, would the ending have the resonance it has, had it been another war altogether, as it takes the romantic notion of transformation and plays it against the backdrop of a war taking place at a time when the US was undergoing plenty changes of its own?


©Tony McKibbin