Jane Fonda, Coming Home

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Stephen Farber

“Even more crucial to the film's success are the performances by Jane Fonda and Jon Voight. Fonda creates the character of Sally--the repressed, docile, perfectly coiffed military wife--from the inside. Refusing to condescend to the character, as many actresses with her political beliefs might have done, Fonda makes a transcendent effort to understand a woman very different from herself. When Sally stands respectfully as "The Star-Spangled Banner" plays on television, we don't see Jane Fonda winking out at us and mocking the character; we see every fiber of Sally's body straining to believe in the pieties enshrined in the national anthem.

“Even in these early scenes, Fonda makes us aware of Sally's unspoken dissatisfactions. When she meets an other officer's hip girlfriend (excellently played by Penelope Milford), Sally is uncomfortable, slightly disapproving, but unmistakably fascinated by a woman without any of her inhibitions. Then when Sally begins working at the VA hospital, we see her genuine concern for the men battling her fastidious distaste. These contradictions prepare us for Sally's transformation. She finds herself more open to experience than she could have predicted; her shy pleasure in discovering hidden facets of herself is beautifully rendered.

“Sally's evolution is believably gradual; even at the end, she doesn't turn into a feminist firebrand. Because the film doesn't exaggerate Sally's transformation, it succeeds in convincing us that people who are usually submissive, when given a little encouragement, are able to overcome their conditioning. Jane Fonda's performance is illuminated by tremendous compassion and intelligence. Somehow Fonda keeps getting better in every movie; her performance in Coming Home is her most stunning in a growing roster of extraordinary achievements.

“…. [Voight's] performance, like Fonda's, is a triumph of courage and compassion. Since we care about both characters, their developing relationship is spellbinding.

“…. Bruce Dern does some fine acting; but I'm sorry he was cast in the role…. We never quite believe that Jane Fonda could be in love with Bruce Dern. If Luke and Bob had been played by equally attractive actors, the romantic drama would have been more evenly balanced and the ending could have been devastating….

“Fortunately, most of the film is so overwhelming that it survives even the weak, irresolute conclusion….”

Stephen Farber
New West, what's the date?

Molly Haskell

“As far as I was concerned, Coming Home was bound for glory. I’m a Hal Ashby admirer and the prospect of his new film, with Jane Fonda as the wife of a marine captain (Bruce Dern) off fighting in Vietnam, and Jon Voight as a paraplegic verteran with whom she falls in love, sustained me through many a dreary screening these las few months. For that I am grateful, but in the process I failed to pick up the clues that might have prepared me for disappointment.

“First, everybody was talking Meaningful…. Ashby…, the least messianic of the group, was, nevertheless, not one to question the therapeutic fervor that became the film’s animating—and debilitating—impulse. All in all, the determination to make the film, instead of a film, was too strong.

“Then, reports from the early screenings, to which critics were expressly not invited, were curious. Jane Fonda was wonderful. Jon Voight was sexy as hell. Their relationship struck sparks like we hadn’t seen since _____________ (fill in with your favorite thirties couple). But no mention of Vietnam….

“Truth is, Jane Fonda is wonderful, and Jon Voight is sexy as hell, but when he lifts his almost naked body out of a wheelchair and onto the bed and she makes rapturous love to him, their rapport has nothing to do with ex-cheerleader Sally Hyde, whose husband is off in Nam, or paraplegic ex-football hero Luke Martin, whose bitterness has melted away like a premature thaw under Sally’s bright smile. The two starts are stripped to bare essentials, and their love scene—beautifully directed—works for precisely the reason that nude scenes usually fail: In most movies, the moment characters undress they cease to be characters and become merely bodies, whereas in their love scene, Voight and Fonda are momentarily released from their paper-doll personailities, composed of Middle American labels that never quite fit the painfully thoughtful countenances of the two stars.

“There isn’t a false note, not a condescending gesture, in Fonda’s performance—nor in Voight’s, but his role, involving no evolution, is simpler. It is just that the script (for which she, after all, bears some responsibility) provides her with only the trappings of an identity, a sociological construct whose destiny is not to fall in love like a normal being, but to undergo a sort of encounter-group transformation of consciousness expression, to become a love person.

“When we first see her, she is at the bar in the officers’ club with husband Dern on the eve of his departure. Sitting there, prim in her McMullen blouse and bouffant pageboy, you know as sure as Hollywood shootin’ that she will not look like that by the end of the movie. But little do you suspect that the conversion from patriot to peacenik will be conveyed solely through a change in coiffure. She doesn’t actually burn her rollers in ritual immolation; instead her hip buddy (Penelope Milford) introduces the blow dryer. The only further evidence of change of heart is the sound track, a hit parade of sixties rock songs that grows progressively louder in volume, apparently to signify the intensification of her anti-war sympathies….

“Even as demographic profiles, Luke and Sally are fuzzy. We know, for instance, how old the world is, but how old are they? Are they, like Fonda and Voight, roughly in their late thirties? Or are they mid-thirties? Or late twenties? For two people whose identities are being carved in relation to the war, generation would be an important factor. And who and what are their families? Why doesn’t she have children?….

“The film is full of symbolic epiphanies in which pain and redemption come cheap. On her first day as volunteer at the veterans hospital, Sally Hyde bumps into the raging Luke Martin, and the contents of his urine bag spill on her miniskirt. This is meant to signify her initiation into the world’s suffering, but is an uncomfortable example of the script’s patronizing of a type—the plastic woman who has never known infirmity—and disguising of contempt because, through the carved-out sockets in Barbie Doll’s head, the warm, intelligent eyes of Jane Fonda are shining through. I resist the implication of blanket insensitivity for which all ex-cheerleaders are condemned until they redeem themselves as angels of mercy.

“With such disregard for its characters as individuals, how can the film’s ultimate messge of regeneration be anything but false? In a final pitch for mankind over men, Sally and Luke are obliged to break up for the sake of her husband, the hero manqué, a man who, from everything we have seen, has neither emotional claims on her nor ones of principle (his Medal of Honor is based on a lie).

“I can never forgive Fonda and Voight for saying good-bye to each other so easily and with so little pain. There are moments, earlier in the film, that take your breath away: When Voight, in the first admission of feeling between them, says “I spend 95 percent of my time at the hospital thinking of making love to you”; or when, returning to his hospital room, she rides on his lap through the corridors. It is these scenes, not the phony three-way reconciliation scene that occurs later, that have the weight and authority of true feeling. In denying them, in subordinating that love to an illusory greater love, the movie sells out its stars without even allowing us—so painless is their mutual renunciation—the emotional luxury of martyrdom.”

Molly Haskell
New York, date?

Pauline Kael

“Jane Fonda isn’t playing a character in Coming Home, she’s playing an abstraction—a woman being radicalized. The time is 1968, the place is Los Angeles, and she’s Sally Hyde, the proper repressed wife of a hawkish Marine captain (Bruce Dern). Sally has been married for several years but has no children and nothing to do after her husband leaves for Vietnam, so she volunteers for work in the verterans hospital. On the day she signs up, she crashes into Luke (Jon Voight), who was an athlete when she knew him in high school and is now a paraplegic in a rage of helplessness. She discovers that the men injured in Vietnam are embittered by neglect, and that the other officers’ wives, frozen-faced, sitting in their club all groomed and primped, don’t want to know about it. As she works among the men, her identification shifts away from the idle-class women. She trades her sexless, crisply laundered clothes for T-shirts and jeans; she stops straightening her hair and lets it frizz up and tangle. Dramatists have always had a terrible time showing their characters “growing,” and have usually had to resort to speecheds announcing the interior changes; movies can spred the transformation, more novelistically, over a period of months or years. Sally Hyde graduallyl (and entertaingly) loses her inhibitions, but she develops only to the level of doctinaire awareness which has been reached by the people who put Coming Home together, and this means that the character has a hollow tone—the same inauthenticity that the home-front heroines had in Second World War movies. Fonda develops that sorrowing-woman smile. The other characters are playing abstractions, too….

“…. Coming Home … has a Waspy glaze to it—a soft, pastel innocuousness, as if all those involved were so concerned to get the message across without offending anyone that they have fogged themselves in. Jane Fonda’s face seems a little vague and pasty, as if she didn’t want to stand out too much; her features seem to have disappeared. She’s trying to act without her usual snap, and the result is so unsure she comes flutteringly close to a Norma Shearer performance….”

“Ashby’s mood scenes can be very personal and touching; a sequence with Luke on the hospital basketball court telling Sally that he’s being discharged from the place and Sally on the other side of the fence telling him that she’s going to Hong Kong to see her husband does everything it needs to do and more—the feelings spill over, and stay with us. The whole picture is evocative of that messy time; it’s permeated with free-floating anxiety, and Luke’s stricken eyes serve as an emblem of the country’s guilty confusion. Coming Home idles, it goes from scene to scene intuitively, romantically, until Sally’s visit to Hong Kong; after that the cutting is often like a door slamming in our faces…. And what is Sally doing in the scene in which she stands holding out her arms to her husband? Every time there’s a cut to her, obediently playing statue, we can practically hear the director thinking, Time stands still; this moment is an eternity. Bad moments are the real eternity….”

Pauline Kael
The New Yorker, February 20, 1978
Taking It All In, pp. 402-403

Stephen Schiff

“Back in the late ‘60s, Jane Fonda was the most intelligent, visible and outspoken entertainment figure to oppose the Vietnam War. She made speeches, organized drives, went on an anti-USO tour of American troops and even journeyed to North Vietnam to film Introduction to the Enemy, a 1974 documentary sympathetic to Hanoi. If anyone in Hollywood had the knowledge and wherewithal to make a major cinematic statement on Vietnam it was Jane Fonda, and her Coming Home, filmed with activist cinematographer Haskell Wexler and liberal director Hal Ashby, promised to be one of 1978’s big events. But what may have begun as a bold political statement has turned out to be a tentative, toothless romance, an anti-Vietnam movie that wouldn’t offend the most vocal hawk…

“…. Trying to make a commercial, home-front anti-war movie, the filmmakers have wound up with a gimmicky, “greening of America” story. Fonda plays the prim, buttoned-down wife of gung-ho Marine captain Bruce Dern; she sports a Gidget haircut and insists on hearing the “Star-Spangled Banner” before her favorite TV station signs off.

[leaving out quite a bit on narrative details of her transformation; maybe include, to partially counter Haskell]

“Fonda’s transformation is fun to watch. She throws away her proper suits in favor of jeans and peasant blouses, lets her hair frizz, and gradually allows some of her familiar nerviness to trickle in. Yet this is the most pallid, reined-in performance she’s given in years. All long-suffering bravery, she tries to be a blank slate on which Vietnam can leave its marks. Such schematicism informs this film throughout: Coming Home is a blueprint for consciousness-raising and Fonda and Voight are demonstrator models.

“Only Voight transcends the manufactured feeling….”

Stephen Schiff
The Boston Phoenix, April 4, 1978
[left out some, as noted]

Stanley Kauffmann

“If there is one film out of recent Americn experience that one could say was waiting to be made and that now could be made, it is a full-length fiction film with Jane Fonda on the Vietnam War. We’ve all known for some time that such a film was en route…; special expectations, unlike those for any other film I can remember, attached to it. The expectations were not overly specific—the film could have dealt with any aspect of the terrible Vietnam decade, toward the end of clarification through art or adequate memorial through art—but the hopes were high. Now the film is here, and in virtually every way it’s a severe disappointment.

“Advance publicity told us that, in Coming Home, Fonda was playing a Marine captain’s wife. It was possible, on that slender foundation, to build three or four different scenarios. Obviously it was not Fonda’s responsibility to fulfill any of those private scenarios, though in the most complimentary sense, it was her responsibility that one imagined them. What is her responsibility is that, after her public activity in the Vietnam years, after our rightful expectations of hehr, the Vietnam film she chose to appear in is a shaky sentimental triangle drama that could, essentially, have been about theWar of 1812….

“…. I’ve rarely seen a big scene handled more ineptly than the one in which the maddened husband, bayonted rifle in hand, faces wife and lover. Nothing was linked; the three people seem to be hanging in space individually, especially Fonda.

“Fonda’s performance seems—and I admit this may be my projection—crimped by the role’s careful sterilization. There’s nothing much more than Jane Wyman pertness at the start, to which is later added some Elissa Landi soul. I choose ‘30s references [Jane Wyman in the ‘30s?] because, under the ’68 trappings, a perennial movie-movie is what Coming Home is.”

Stanley Kauffmann
The New Republic, March 4, 1978
Before My Eyes, pp. 118-120

Andrew Sarris

“Coming Home is clearly a labor of love, but somewhere along the way it has miscarried. The characters do not connect as they should; the rhetoric seems forced and unearned. It is a pity because there is considerable chemistry and charisma in the cast, and there are enough creative credentials involved for a season of worthy films. As the production notes teel us, ‘Coming Home represents a blend of some of the most viable talents in 1970s cinema….

“…. As it turns out, these half-dozen characters must bear the psychic and physical burdens of a whole decade of dissent and disillusion. As written, or, rather, as unwritten, they are not up to the task….

“It occurred to me, as the film unraveled, that the players are trying to get inside of characters they did not really understand. Jane Fonda is certainly pretty enough to have been the high school cheerleader who married a Marine captain, and Jon Voight is certainly muscular enough to have been the high school football hero who went charging off to fight for his country. Hence, on the iconographic level of Fonda and Voight, their explicit sex scenes together are lyrically archetypal. But on the sociological plane of Sally Hyde and Luke Martin, they can find very little to talk about. The whole idea was to show how two sweetly apolitical people by the war and the natural flow of their own emotions. There are probably case studies on file with precisely this kind of recorded transformation. Sally Hyde and Luke Martin, however, do not convey to us a plastic past because Fonda and Voight are unable or unwilling to strike a note of congenial triviality….

“Hal Ashby’s framing and editing contribute to keeping the characters in a loosely lyrical relation to their situation, as if they were only trying to keep in touch with their feelings and nothing else….

“…. As it happens, I am writing this pan with more recgret than relish. I would just as soon see Ashby, Fonda, Voight, Dern & Company have a big hit. They are among the industry’s most prominent risk-takes, and they deserve to be given thebenefit of every doubt. Perhaps Coming Home will be as wildly overrated as Julia was. I hope so. I would like to see these people have the opportunity to take more chances in the future. As a critic with gut-level responsibility to my readers, however, I cannot conceal my disappointment simply to influence long-range policy decisions in the film industry….

“… [T]he main problem seems to be the rambling ballad form to which Ashby seems to be increasingly addicted. It worked, in my opinion at least, in Bound for Glory because of an overpoweringly vital and detailed personality at the center of the film. In Coming Home, unfortunately, the characters seem to have been denied fully distinctive personalities because of a misguided pursuit of universality. I could never believe for a moment that Sally Hyde and Captain Hyde (where’s Jekyll?) had ever spent any more time together beyond that required for Fonda and Dern to perform their chores on the set…. I often had the probably illusory feeling that the best part of Coming Home wound up on the cutting room floor. I was waiting, waiting, waiting, but finally there was nothing left on the screen, and I had to go home to write this review. Please see the film for yourself, nevertheless. Fonda and Voight are icons of a very special kind, and I wouldn’t miss them for anything in the world.”

Andrew Sarris
Village Voice, February 20, 1978

Monday, March 27, 2000

John Simon

"There are perfectly splendid performances by Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, but they cannot make up for a script in which preposterousness vies with tendentious banality.

John Simon, National Review, April 14, 1978