By John H. Foote 

COMING HOME (1978) (****)

Hal Ashby was a bonafide free spirit, a hippy who hated the system that held the power of making movies. He loved making movies, loved it with an unbridled passion, but he hated the suits that held the power to making those movies. During his most fruitful period, the seventies, Ashby directed many of the most powerful films of the decade, Harold and Maude (1972), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), his masterpiece, Coming Home (1978) and the searing, comedic political satire Being There (1979). Collectively those films earned twenty-five Academy Award nominations, but more important, to Ashby, the revered position he held among those he worked with, they loved him, no, they adored and revered him as a filmmaker. Yet he remains, curiously unknown to many, though as he would want, his films speak for him.

His greatest work was Coming Home (1978) the first major American film to deal honestly and openly with Vietnam, without a single scene of combat footage. Ashby let his actors tell the story, he believed in them, trusted them, made them collaborators in his work. He believed in his actors, to the extent he would often toss the script away and let them improvise. There was a deep, inherent trust between Ashby and his actors, and often the actors were awarded with Oscar nominations and wins.

Jane Fonda brought the film to Ashby after commissioning a screenplay from writer Nancy Dowd who wrote the clever and profane Slap Shot (1977). Ashby signed on at once and they began looking for male actors. Ashby spoke with Jack Nicholson, his first choice for Luke Martin, but Nicholson declined to direct his comedic western Goin’ South (1978) a move he later regretted. Al Pacino turned them down as did Sylvester Stallone, but Jon Voight who had been cast as Bob Hyde, Fonda’s gung-ho husband in the film, asked about playing the part. Fonda agreed, Voight was cast and Bruce Dern came in as Bob, it was as though the movie Gods were smiling down on them.

Sally (Fonda) goes to work in a veterans hospital when her military lifer Bob, ships out to Viet Nam. He cannot wait to get there, while she fears it. In the hospital she encounters Luke, a man she went to high school wife, now a paraplegic, the result of the war. Angry, embittered, Luke rages at the world, but his feelings for Sally thaw him, and they fall in love. Luke speaks out against the war, drawing the attention of the FBI, who place him under surveillance.

In Vietnam, nothing is going as planned for Bob. When Sally visits him in Hong Kong, she is shocked at what she finds. Haunted by what he is seeing his men do, betrayed by the very military he believed in, Bob is a shell of who he was. He does not touch his wife, chastises her for massaging the gimps in the hospital, and sleeps with a loaded weapon in his hand.

When Bob comes home under mysterious circumstances (he might have shot himself in the leg) he is made aware of Sally and Luke, and his already shattered mind cannot take the third betrayal. The army, his country, and now his wife? He brings a weapon into the house threatening Sally, but Luke arrives to end the fight.

Luke is invited to speak before students about the war the same day Bob is to be decorated. During his very frank speech, Luke breaks down at what he did and saw over there, while Bob stands silently at his ceremony. Returning home to the beach house, Sally goes for steaks, while Bob walks to the beach and begins undressing. Stripped naked, he runs in to the see, swimming to his death.

Perhaps the wisest creative move Ashby did was to allow the entire soundtrack to be music from the time. Melancholy, haunting, each song seems perfect for the narrative, none more so than Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was” as Dern is undressing and Luke speaks to the kids. His gifts as a film editor come into play here, a brilliant juxtaposition of two warriors broken by the war.

The performances are sublime.

Jon Voight is stunning as Luke, his heart filled with compassion for others who fought the war and returned broken, his eyes showing the wounds he suffered right through to his very soul. The performance won the actor every major film award that year including the Academy Award and the New York Film Critics Award.

Fonda too won the Oscar for Best Actress for her fine work as Sally, a woman, naive perhaps who is awakened by what she sees in the hospital. She cannot understand the disconnect between the army and the men returning, she cannot fathom how they cannot understand that the men are in trouble. Sally grows, and Bob cannot handle how she has grown…she has become a woman, an independent woman.

Though nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Bruce Dern did not win the Oscar, but he should have. Dern was astounding as Hyde, and watching him see the war betray him, his country and wife, we understand how he breaks apart. One of the great supporting performances of all time, Dern too should have been an Oscar winner.

The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards in all, including Best Picture and Best Director. It is one of a handful of films to earn nominations in all four acting categories, and all six major categories. Sadly, The Deer Hunter (1978) was released late that year and initially impressed critics and Oscar voters. Had voting happened one month later it all might have gone very different. By then it was clear Director-writer Michael Cimino has fabricated stories about being a Vietnam veteran, having witnessed Russian Roulette used as torture, had lied through his teeth about everything to do with the war.

Coming Home (1978) was the best film of 1978 and should have won Best Picture and Best Director, besting The Deer Hunter (1978).

Watch the opening scene, as real vets play pool and just talk about the war, while in the background Luke listens. The script had called for Luke to interject, to talk about the war, but Ashby and Voight decided the veterans words spoke volumes, and Luke’s silence spoke louder than any words. That scene, unscripted displays both the artistry and courage of Ashby, creating a sequence that was real, truthful.

Every moment of Coming Home (1978) feels real, every moment of The Deer Hunter (1978) now feels forced.

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