…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
Watching Coming Home on 4th of July weekend was certainly not a deliberate choice on my part – it just happened to play out that way in my weekend plans. That said, it’s a very interesting portrait of the effects of war on the men who serve on behalf of our country. War-themed films of the 1940s often portrayed the effects of war poignantly yet with a somewhat sentimental and prideful bent (see The Best Years of Our Lives, Since You Went Away). This isn’t to say their message didn’t hit home appropriately – but in the 1970s, more politically daring films such as Coming Home directly exposed and tackled the mental and emotional havoc wreaked upon veterans of war (in this case, Vietnam). Watching it today, it is perhaps not so much a sharp statement “against” war, but a questioning of whether, in the long run, it’s worth it. It also calls into debate whether we are prepared to take care of those men who are so ravaged by their memories of war that they cannot effectively cope with the day-to-day living of life afterwards. (The end of last year’s Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker, explored this brilliantly as well. I won’t give the scene away for those of you who haven’t seen it, but a scene in a grocery store sums it up perfectly.)
Jane Fonda secured her second Oscar win (after 1971’s Klute) for playing Sally Hyde, the wife of Bob Hyde, a soldier enlisting for service in Vietnam (Bruce Dern). After he leaves for Vietnam, Sally tries to make herself “useful” by volunteering in a VA hospital. While working there, she (literally) runs into an old high school classmate, Luke Martin (Best Actor Oscar winner Jon Voight), who is now a paraplegic after his duties in Vietnam. Understandably so, Luke is bitter about what has happened to him and frustrated at the ignorance of delinquent hospital workers who do not know how to effectively care for paraplegics. Sally reacquaints herself with him and the two develop a fun friendship that steadily leads into a romance. Sally is hesitant at first, because she has never been unfaithful to Bob. However, after a harrowing trip to Hong Kong to visit Bob on a one-week leave, seeing the damage the war is already doing to him and to their marriage – she allows Luke to seduce her. As their relationship takes a deeper and more meaningful turn, Luke’s political grandstanding against the war backfires into the FBI investigating him on the sly, tossing his tryst with Sally into jeopardy as Bob is finally sent home (an ironic ‘hero’ of sorts, as he is sent home for accidentally shooting himself in the leg). Bob’s coming home forces Sally and Luke to face head-on the futility of maintaining their love for one another, as Sally painfully acknowledges that Bob is inevitably going to need her. (and this is where I stop, because I do not want to spoil the ending!)
Without a doubt, the movie makes its point successfully through great performances by the two leads, Fonda and Voight. While I have heard that other nominated performances that year were stronger, Fonda nonetheless turns in an assured performance that comes off more human and real than some of her other roles, in which I often feel she gives off a stony and angry vibe. I like the natural feel she brought to Sally; with her interpretation of the part, it was easy to ride along through the story with her at the helm. Was it Oscar-worthy? Eh… I don’t know. I still need to see the other contenders (one of which – I can tell you – I already liked better, and that’s Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman; see my blog a little ways back). It certainly wasn’t anything that pulled out all the bells and whistles, but may in fact have emphasized and pushed further Fonda’s notorious, outspoken political viewpoints in her personal life (she caused loads of controversy with her stance on Vietnam in particular).
Voight balances Fonda out very well – it is easy to see why he nabbed the Actor Oscar for portraying Luke, especially as you watch a speech he delivers at the end of the film to a bunch of high school students at an assembly. My favorite scenes between Voight and Fonda include a surprisingly honest sex scene (it’s really filmed quite well) and a moment on the beach when they discuss Bob’s return home from the war. The way in which this scene is filmed is moving and very telling of their emotions at this moment – and there really isn’t a ton to it; proving indeed that less is sometimes much more. I especially enjoyed the soundtrack to this film. Look for a sly undercurrent of especially meaningful songs from this era, including the Beatles, Janis Joplin, and a lot of Rolling Stones. The music plays a role of its own, punctuating and reverberating under the film’s action at key moments. It works quite well.
With her win, Fonda beat out fellow nominee and film veteran Ingrid Bergman, who had won several film critics’ awards for her work in Autumn Sonata. Fonda’s next Actress nomination would come in 1979 for The China Syndrome, followed by a supporting nod in 1981 for playing daughter to real-life father Henry Fonda in the touching drama, On Golden Pond.