By Richard Winters
My Rating: 10 out of 10
4-Word Review: Falling for injured vet.
Sally (Jane Fonda) is the military wife to Bob (Bruce Dern) who’s been deployed to Vietnam. Since she now has more free time she decides to volunteer at her local VA Hospital. It is there that she meets Luke (Jon Voight) a former classmate from high school who has now come back from the war a paraplegic. Luke is very embittered about his condition and he’s initially angry and confrontational with Sally. Eventually he softens and Sally invites him to her house for dinner. It’s there that their romance begins to bloom and eventually they become intimate. Bob though, having suffered a leg injury, returns to the states and while Sally and Luke agree to keep their affair a secret Bob soon finds out, which leads to an ugly confrontation between the three.
The idea for the film was inspired by Fonda’s meeting with Ron Kovic, an injured vet who had written his autobiography Born on the Fourth of July that later, in the 80’s, became a movie starring Tom Cruise. Fonda though wanted to make a film with a character that was similar to him and got together with screenwriter Nancy Dowd in 1972 to write a script, which initially focused completely on the hospital setting without the affair, or B-story dealing with the conservative military husband. After many rewrites and bringing in Oscar winner Waldo Scott to help bolster the story the script finally managed to gain interest amongst the studios though many were still cautious about producing a movie dealing with the after-effects of the war, which at that time had never been done before, up until then only films dealing with the war, or those coming back with psychological issues, but not actual physical impairments and thus making this a first in that category.
Since Fonda was instrumental in getting the project produced she was the only choice to play Sally. I think she’s a fine actress who deservedly won the Supporting Oscar for her work here, but since she was on the front lines of the war protest and in many ways even became the face of it, the transition of her character isn’t as profound. Having an actress whose name wasn’t so aligned with left politics and who could better fit-into the part of a conservative housewife would’ve then made the character’s arch more dramatic. I felt too that Sally is too understanding of Luke right-off, the history of them going to high school together should’ve been excised, and instead she should’ve feared Luke when she first encounters him as he does act out-of-control and the romance between them happens too quickly.
Also, once her character changes her hairstyle from the old-fashioned straight to curly it should’ve remained as this visually establishes her character’s changing perspective and not go back to the straight look when she visits Bob in Hong Kong. To remedy this she should’ve decided to keep the curly look even if she feared Bob might not approve, she was technically becoming more empowered with him away anyways, and this would’ve signaled to Bob that she wasn’t the same person he knew when he left, or had the hair change occur after the Hong Kong visit, but having the hair style flip-flop works against the arch, which should be linear and not zig-zagging.
Voight, who won the Best Actor Oscar, and who had to lobby hard for the role as the producers originally wanted Jack Nicholson, is outstanding and there’s not a flaw in his performance with his best moment coming at the very end when he gives a lecture to a room full of high school students about his war experiences. My only complaint, which has nothing to do with his acting and more with the script, is when he bluntly tells Sally, when he goes to her place for dinner, that he dreams of making love to her, which seemed too forward especially since they end up having an impromptu kiss later. Since movies are a visual medium it should’ve settled with the kiss exposing the underlying brewing romance without his character having to explicitly state it. I also found it interesting that the DVD features a commentary track with Voight, Dern, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler, but Fonda is conspicuously not present and I wondered if this may have been due to Voight becoming a hardened conservative as he’s aged and because of their political differences Fonda not wanting to be in the same room with him.
Dern, like the other two, is excellent. His improvisational Dernisms as I like to call them come into play particularly when he gets intense I even learned what the slang term Jody meant, which is what he calls Voight at one point. You also, at the end, get a full view of his bare ass. Now, on the celebrity male naked ass scale I still say it’s a distant third to Dabney Coleman’s in Modern Problems and Tim Matheson’s in Impulse, but it’s not bad.
Accolades must also go to director Hal Ashby, who was not the first choice as the studio initially wanted John Schlesinger. While Schlesinger could’ve been great I felt Ashby’s use of all natural lighting is what really makes the difference and becomes the over-riding look of the film. He displays keen use of the music too at the end when the song ‘Time Has Come Today’ by the Chamber Brothers is played and the lyrics are used to expose the underlying ticking time bomb of the situation that the three characters are veering speedily into.
My Rating: 10 out of 10
Released: February 15, 1978
Runtime: 2 Hours 7 Minutes
Director: Hal Ashby
Studio: United Artists
Available: DVD, Blu-ray