COMING HOME (1978) – AFI Catalog Spotlight – American Film Institute


COMING HOME (1978) – AFI Catalog Spotlight

In celebration of disability pride month, the AFI Catalog shines a spotlight on COMING HOME (1978), the Oscar®-winning Hal Ashby film that takes place at a VA hospital during the Vietnam War. Included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list of the greatest love stories of all time, COMING HOME explores the lives of soldiers who return from battle with profound physical and psychological wounds, and shows the challenges they face while integrating back into a society that is widely averse to the war.

COMING HOME was a project initiated by AFI Life Achievement Award recipient Jane Fonda and was the first film produced by her own company, IPC (Indochina Peace Campaign) Films. Fonda, who was deeply involved in protests against the Vietnam War, was inspired by the real-life story of her fellow anti-war activist, Ron Kovic. Paralyzed from the chest down during his second tour of duty in Vietnam, Kovic was famous for his civil disobedience and his riveting speeches, and later for his memoir “Born on the Fourth of July,” which he adapted into a screenplay for the 1989 Oscar®-winning film of the same name directed by Oliver Stone. Fonda was looking for an opportunity to use cinema as a medium to change the course of history through captivating the hearts and imaginations of her audiences, and COMING HOME marked the first time a Hollywood fiction film overtly took issue with Vietnam.[i] (Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER came out later in the year 1978 and beat COMING HOME for Best Picture at the Academy Awards®, though its position on the war was less distinct. [ii]) Telling the story through the point of view of women who were left behind while soldiers went off to war, COMING HOME was groundbreaking in its depiction of disability, with its characters having dimensionality and passion, devoid of cliché, as well as revolutionary in its “radical departure” in the representation of female sexuality.[iii] At its core, COMING HOME not only examines disability of body and mind, but also delves into the restrictions of gender norms that “disabled” Americans in the late-1960s during the sexual revolution.

Fonda initially wanted a woman to write the screenplay, and she brought her idea to Nancy Dowd in 1973. Fonda had reportedly been doing her own pre-production at the time, interviewing disabled veterans and their wives.[iv] Dowd took Fonda’s research and composed a first draft of the story, titled BUFFALO GHOSTS, but she and Fonda “disagreed on concept” and the project was shifted to the filmmakers who had recent success with MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) and THE DAY OF THE LOCUST (1975), British director John Schlesinger, writer Waldo Salt, and producer Jerome Hellman.[v] (Coincidentally, Salt was currently helping Kovic write his memoir.)[vi] By late 1975, the title was changed to COMING HOME and Fonda had officially been cast in the lead as Sally Hyde. United Artists had been brought on as a distributor, and filming was scheduled to begin in December 1976. The project remained in limbo over the next year, however, as Salt suffered a heart attack with only 36 pages of the script completed and Schlesinger also exited his role, claiming that he understood too little about American culture to depict the impact of the war.[vii]

Hal Ashby, known for his counterculture productions, including HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971) and THE LAST DETAIL (1974), was brought on as a replacement, and he pitched Jack Nicholson for the role of paraplegic Luke Martin. UA, which was concerned that the film’s story would prompt a political backlash, wanted to cast a current celebrity to secure its success and considered Sylvester Stallone – who had just been propelled into stardom after ROCKY (1976) – or the star of THE GODFATHER series (1972, 1974), Al Pacino. With film editor Robert C. Jones (a frequent collaborator with Ashby) added as a co-screenwriter and Bruce Dern and Jon Voight competing for the role of Sally’s husband Capt. Bob Hyde, Nicholson dropped out of the production and Voight won the part of Luke after an intensive campaign which included research, befriending disabled veterans and using a wheelchair himself, eventually joining a paraplegic basketball team.[viii] Ashby turned down an offer from UA to add $1 million to the budget if he selected another actor with star power instead of Voight, but Ashby would not be dissuaded.[ix]

By the time filming began in early January 1977, the script was incomplete, the ending was undecided, and the budget had nearly doubled to reach $4.85 million.[x] Since UA had already deemed the project risky and controversial, it offset its investment by giving deferred salaries to Ashby and the other principal cast and crew, offering them a smaller income but a percentage of the film’s gross. Ashby, who refused UA’s proposition and demanded $400,000 up front,[xi] continued to work on the script every evening after a full day of shooting, usually writing all night only to get a few hours’ sleep before heading back to set. Fonda, Voight and Dern would also improvise scenes in character, and Jones would work their interactions into the shooting script.[xii] Since the VA refused to sanction the project, contending that it portrayed veterans negatively, Ashby was unable to film at an actual VA hospital as planned, and shooting took place at a civilian hospital in Downey, CA, which specialized in spinal cord injuries – all of the quadriplegics and paraplegics in the film, with the exception of Voight and Willie Tyler, were actual patients at the hospital.[xiii] Though many disagreed with Fonda politically, she won them over with her knowledge of their conditions and her empathy for their predicaments.[xiv]

During production, Fonda was criticized in the press for being “anti-American” and for using the film as a vehicle for her own propaganda, but the actress disputed these claims and stated in a February 1977 Los Angeles Times article that COMING HOME was instead “an affirmation of human potential in the face of adversity” and an exploration of the subject of disabled veterans that “has been swept under the rug.”[xv] A review in Daily Variety warned that “Fonda’s real-life identification with Vietnam protests could obscure full appreciation of her performance here, since audiences may tend to add in that extraneous element. That would be unfortunate, because, if anything, she and Ashby have reined in any tendencies to be smug or pedantic.”[xvi] Other critics noted Fonda’s fearlessness in depicting female sexuality, a subject often portrayed from a masculine and misogynistic perspective in the history of Hollywood filmmaking.

Fonda was ultimately rewarded for her courage, as a producer of a contentious story and an actress who was able to convey intimate vulnerability. Despite UA’s efforts to bury the finished movie, which they thought would be a financial liability, audiences flocked to theaters to see it and it grossed over $8 million, marking one of UA’s main successes of 1978.[xvii] By the time of the Academy Awards® in April 1979, COMING HOME had earned more than $16 million, and it was nominated for eight Oscars®. Fonda and Voight won for Best Actress and Best Actor, and the writers (Dowd, Salt and Jones) were also honored with awards for Best Screenplay. UA responded by releasing over 100 new prints, expanding viewership across the country, and recognizing American’s demand for movies that thought critically about the war.[xviii] It was also a watershed moment in the depiction of disability onscreen, portraying a man in a wheelchair as a hero and a sexual being instead of someone who elicits pity. For Ashby and Fonda, the film’s popularity was its main accomplishment. Getting audiences to witness and emotionally connect with the reality of disabled veterans was a crucial step in cultivating compassion and promoting peace. As Ashby stated: “I feel as though people are starting to listen, and that’s as much as I can ask for.”[xix]

Watch the official trailer for COMING HOME:

Watch Jane Fonda accept the Oscar® for Best Actress and acknowledge the deaf community:

Watch the last scene of COMING HOME:


[i] Nick Dawson. Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009).

[ii] Christopher Beach. The Films of Hal Ashby (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009), 67.

[iii] Marilyn Adler Papayanis. Our Orgasms, Ourselves: Meditations on Movie Sex. (Bright Lights Film Journal, April 30, 2011).

[iv] Patricia Bosworth. Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2011).

[v] American Film Institute. Coming Home.

[vi] Bosworth, 2011.

[vii] Dawson, 2009.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Bosworth, 2011.

[xii] Dawson, 2009.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Lee Grant. “Four Projects for Jane Fonda.” (Los Angeles Times, February 7, 1977), E8.

[xvi] American Film Institute. Coming Home.

[xvii] Dawson, 2009.

[xviii] American Film Institute. Coming Home.

[xix] Dawson, 2009.



Learn more at the AFI Catalog


Comments (1)

Molly Ciliberti

Great movie. Our generations reply to “The Best Years of Our Lives”. The use of the music of our lives was perfect with “Once I Was” heartbreaking. This movie and The Wall in Washington DC are all you need to see into the hearts of the Vietnam War generation. War sucks.

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