“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.”
New York, date?