Review Date: 10-23-08
Release Date: 2-15-1978
Runtime: 127 min.
Costume Designer: Ann Roth
I think maybe it would be worthwhile to do a Hal Ashby retrospective here on Frocktalk. At minimum, I will hit the big ones, Harold and Maude, Shampoo, Bound For Glory, in addition to Being There, and this incredible film, Coming Home. Hal Ashby was a great director; he just had a certain knack for getting the best performances out of the best actors, and for making films that haunt, resonate, and entertain. We lost Hal Ashby twenty years ago, too early, to cancer. His work lives on forever, and we celebrate his legacy here at Frocktalk.
Marine Captain Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern) is being shipped off to Vietnam. His wife, Sally (Jane Fonda), tries to make herself busy at home to distract herself from his absence. She volunteers at the local VA hospital, where she meets a wounded vet she once knew in high school – Luke Martin (Jon Voight). Luke has been paralyzed from the waist down while serving in Vietnam, and he is angry as hell. Sally builds a bridge to Luke, and slowly they become friends, and more. Luke knows that their affair will end when Sally’s husband comes home, and in short order, he does. Captain Bob returns home a wounded vet, having accidentally shot himself in the leg on his way to the shower. When he comes home, he finds out about her infidelity, and kills himself.
To understand these characters (and how to costume them with empathy), we must understand the social constructs and the societal history that created them. Let’s begin with Sally. Sally Hyde starts out as a repressed good girl, poisoned by old-time society’s postulation that long-suffering wifedom is somehow a virtue. The movie takes place in 1968, and let’s say they are playing Sally for 30 – 35 years old (even though Fonda was older). That would make her born in 1933 – 1938. The social ideology of the early-to-late-middle thirties was that women were born and raised to be mothers and dutiful wives, sublimating their own wants, needs and desires to the greater good (husband, children), and to do it with a grateful smile. To be born during this time was also to grow up in the long shadow of the Great Depression, in the throes of WWII, and in the socially conservative, sexually repressed, cold war, pinko-commie-hating 1950s.
Cut to 1968, a revolutionary time in our country and our world’s social and cultural history. This is the era of counter-culture, social revolution, sexual revolution, recreational drug experimentation, feminism, Women’s liberation, radicalism, subversion, excess, folly and flamboyance! Little Sally Hyde, still living in her repressed wifely bubble, has no idea what is on the other side of the officer’s club, let alone what freedom is available to her in the civilian world. Put yourself in her shoes for a moment: thirty-five years old and never had an orgasm, loveless but dutiful marriage to a guy who is controlling and contemptible, husband thwarts and disapproves of her need to find useful outlets for her time while he is away, no children to distract or enrich her, nothing. Starting to feel where she is coming from? How she might make some of her choices? Good.
Captain Bob Hyde and Luke Martin (if we are imagining that Captain Hyde was born closer to 1930, and Luke was born in the 1933 – 1938 range shared with Sally) surely shared a similar male upbringing in the Great Depression and WWII era. Bob is deeply invested in the old-school mentality that the man provides and the woman stays at home. Only, with no children, there is not a lot for Sally to do at home. Bob is exceedingly disapproving of Sally’s desire to make herself useful to the community; he takes it almost as a personal blow, an affront to his manhood, when he finds out she is volunteering at the VA hospital. Bob is a “company man”, a military lifer, who identifies his self-worth with his job (rank, performance, reputation). In his youth, he surely heard colorful war stories of courage and valor from WWII, and so going into military service was an honor and a duty. One could surmise that his father served in WWII, and that Bob’s military career was inspired by his father’s service.
Luke, on the other hand, was conscripted into military service. The high school football captain, he was a popular young man, accustomed to getting what he wanted. And then one day, military service took his choices, and ultimately his physical freedom, away from him. The machismo inherent in both of these characters is crucial to their story arcs. One takes the machismo with him to the grave, in the form of pride. The other transforms the machismo into activism.
We know that shrapnel, grenade and bullet injuries damage the physical body, however, the psychological wounds sustained in battle are often invisible and impossible to heal. This film does a good job of describing those wounds in Bob and Luke – these psychological injuries shape their character, like a blacksmith hammering hot metal into a blade. Often the effects of these wounds are permanent, and there are a great deal of associated feelings of isolation, depression, and of being overwhelmed. All of this drives the decision-making process in these characters, and those decisions factor into their costume choices.
The movie begins with a group of paraplegic Vietnam vets shooting pool in a room, discussing their situation. As I understand it, all of them but Jon Voigt were actually wounded in Vietnam, and this is a documentary-style opening. These vets all have “fuck the establishment” long hair and facial growth; their clothing is civilian, they wear beads or leather necklaces, and they speak freely. It is this documentary feel that sets up the movie.
We next see Captain Bob running laps around the track, sweating it up in his heather greys. I would love to imagine that Bruce Dern had to spend an entire day running around the track, just to get the shots right; hahah, the life of an actor. I have worked with Bruce, and really enjoy his company, so I tease him a bit here. In all honesty, however, I found his hair to be too long for military regulation, and this is distracting in light of the realism the opening of the film tried to create.
Bob leaves for Vietnam – he is wearing his summer tan uniform; Sally wears white (purity, truth, holiness, clean slate), in the form of a pantsuit. Her style in the beginning of the film is what I’d like to call “Late LBJ White House”. It’s conservative, square, and polyester. Her hair is a polished Breck-girl coiffure. Sally gives Bob a wedding ring to wear while he’s away. Weird thing is, she doesn’t have one of her own. In a societal sector that values marriage (the military), to not have a ring is odd, I think. After the men leave, she decides to get a drink with her husband’s friend’s girlfriend, Vi (Penelope Milford). Sally is so prim that she even wears a scarf over her hair while driving (and not even in a convertible), so as not to muss it up on the way to Vi’s house. Prissy! Uptight! Fussy!
The next day, Sally goes to the VA hospital to volunteer. She wears a mint green polyester a-line shift dress, same Breck-girl hair. Here she literally runs into Luke, not realizing that she knows him. Luke is tearing down the hallways of the hospital in the only way he can: on his stomach, on a gurney, pushing himself along like a Venice gondolier using canes. He rounds a corner, crashes into Sally, and his urine bag explodes on her, on him, on the floor. A fine howdy-do. The polyester of her costume probably made the cleanup in between takes pretty easy. Nothing like plastic to repel water!
In the meantime, Sally is beginning to spread her wings in her husband’s absence. Not only is she volunteering (which he forbade her), she has rented a house by the ocean, and purchased a sports car. Feeling free, she invites Vi over to help her unpack, and they see Luke’s picture in Sally’s high school yearbook. Vi’s costume look is distinctly more poor, and has a somewhat batik-y influence to it (freer and more connected to her sexuality/femininity than Sally). The contrast is strong, but not overwhelming, between these friends.
The next day, Sally arrives at the VA hospital, ready to work. She wears a pink flowered coat – it’s girlish, it’s prissy. She still has the uptight Breck-girl hair. She introduces herself to Luke, and mentions their connection. He is surly, but begrudgingly receptive to her friendship. He is still dressed in a hospital gown at this point, propelling himself with canes on the gurney.
Sally goes to the officer’s club, to attend a meeting about the base newspaper, with which she was already active. She wears a white and blue polyester dress/jacket ensemble, with matching accessories. She sports big Breck hair for this meeting. Sally proposes writing a story about the boys in the VA hospital, where she is volunteering. She notes that the hospital is lacking in resources, and thinks a story would be a call to action. The other ladies at the meeting, all primly attired, with pearls, pastel colors, flatly refuse to even entertain her idea. The base newspaper should report on things like little league tournaments. Sally is crestfallen.
Sally continues her work at the VA, wearing the same pink flowered jacket for her work. She grows closer to Luke, who eventually gets his wheelchair, and his attitude improves as a result. In one scene, he performs some fancy wheelchair maneuvers while wearing a ribbed tank top – Voight is ripped! Clearly, he had been practicing on the wheelchair as part of his prep for the movie. His facility with the wheelchair, and his physique as proof of his work are nicely accentuated with the use of the tank top. It all comes together. Around this time, Vi gives Sally a new hair cut, freeing up her natural curls. Sally is falling for Luke, and as she poignantly watches him play wheelchair football with his similarly injured buddies, the wheels of freedom in her own life start to turn.
On July 4, there is a big barbeque/party/gathering on base. Sally and Vi are sitting with Vi and her brother Billy (Robert Carradine). Something is noticeably different about Sally. The polyester is gone; her hair is free. She wears a cotton floral blouse, and her hair is curly. Things are changing in her world. Luke wears what looks like a vintage jacket that says “War Hero” – it looks vaguely like a tour of duty jacket, but to me it feels like the grown-up’s version of a high school letterman’s jacket. It’s a badge for Luke – as if the wheelchair wasn’t enough – the jacket is a proud, angry symbol for him of his sacrifice.
Sally takes Luke back to the hospital, and things heat up considerably. In this intimate moment at the hospital, Sally wears a navy blue sweater – we’ve never seen her in a dark color before. The shift in color alludes to her shift in perception; she’s crossing into uncharted territory – infidelity. Her colors darken.
Bob soon calls Sally to Hong Kong to spend a few days of R & R with him. She arrives, wearing casual plain blue skirt outfit, boots and a light tan scarf. Dern meets her, wearing a squaresville tattersall shirt and chinos. He is angry and cranky from the start, berating her for working in the VA hospital.
They go out that evening, to a bar with a fabulously sequined Western Chinese singer. He reminds me of the Thai Elvis impersonator at Palm Thai on Hollywood Boulevard. She wears a prissy chiffon dress, and she gets into a fight with __ about why Vi didn’t also come to Hong Kong. Here, Sally is back in the prison of her old “look”, the unnatural fibers, the Stepford quality from which Luke is helping to free her.
Sally spends the next day in Hong Kong wearing a floral top and a Chinese straw hat. She is symbolically breaking free from Bob. Bob wears a red, white and blue polo shirt. They go back to the hotel and have a row – Sally wears a pink floral kimono. She’s not the girl he married, and it is starting to show.
Back in Oceanside (and I am assuming this is Oceanside, CA, where Camp Pendleton Marine Base is located – I mean, it sure looks like Oceanside), Luke has had enough. Wearing his “War Hero” jacket, Luke chains the gates of the recruitment depot together and locks them shut. It is his act of defiance and rage against the military machine that maimed him and caused the death of others.
Sally picks Luke up from jail and takes him to her apartment by the ocean. There, in a very sensitively handled scene, Sally and Luke take their emotional connection into the physical realm. It is here that Sally first experiences orgasm, and probably for the first time in her life, experiences a real physical expression of love.
From this point on in the film, Sally’s costumes are different. Sally’s clothing becomes looser, freer, she wears flowers in her hair. Luke and Sally spend a day at the beach, cuddling. Sally wears a gauzy white Indian-hippie blouse, and Indian-feel earrings. Her hair is curly, loose and free. She is a changed woman. Unfortunately for her and for Luke, some intelligence faction of the armed services is watching them. Rooms are bugged, pictures are taken; their relationship is being documented.
Sally gets word that Bob has been shot in Vietnam and is coming home. She and Luke both know that their affair must end – as much as she has changed, she is still bound by the duty she assumed with her wedding vows. Sally arrives on the tarmac to pick Bob up, and she wears a blousy white top and her hair free. Not exactly the polyester Breck-girl he left at home. Bob wears his tan service uniform, still proud, and walks with a cane to greet her.
Sally and Vi, happy to have Bob home, ask him about his war wound. Bob refuses to talk about it, but when pressed, admits it was an accident, his own fault. He carries a great deal of shame about it, as he is due to receive the Purple Heart for injury sustained in war, but really his gun went off and he shot himself in the leg; hardly Purple-Heart-material to a man like that. In a frustrated huff, Bob leaves to join his Marine buddies at a bar. They come back to the apartment drunk, boisterous, and eventually Bob goes to sleep with a gun in his bed. He has become unhinged in the war, and sleeping with a gun is just the beginning of it.
Bob finds out about Sally’s dalliance with Luke, and goes to confront him poolside at Luke’s apartment. Bob, wearing his full tan uniform, with hat, tells the chambray-shirt-wearing Luke about the tapes, and Luke realizes that Sally is in imminent danger. Bob gets home and starts to go nuclear on Sally; Luke shows up at the apartment, trying to assuage Bob’s anger and explain some of what happened. At this point, Sally is wearing a gauzy white blouse, a peasant skirt, and hair full out, curly. Sally is on a different planet from Bob at this point. Bob is in his tan service uniform, losing his mind – not just at the infidelity perpetrated by Sally, but also at his inability to fit in, anywhere. Luke arrives, calms Bob somewhat, and prevents Sally from becoming a victim of his violent rage.
In the final sequence, Bob is in full Marine Corps dress blue uniform; he is going to receive his Purple Heart medal. Sally is on her way out to the grocery store to get steaks to celebrate – she wears a pink-ish peasant blouse and jeans. Luke is speaking to an assembly of high school-aged kids, giving them an anti-war speech from a firsthand perspective. Luke wears a blue shirt and a blue jacket with yellow trim – the “War Hero” jacket is long gone. All three of their activities are inter-cut, with the plaintive Tim Buckley song, Once I Was, setting the tone.
Bob returns from the Purple Heart ceremony and walks straight out to the beach. He strips off his uniform, piece-by-piece, until he is naked. All of his clothes are neatly folded over the lifeguard station in the sand. Finally, he removes the wedding band that Sally gave him before his deployment, and places it gently on the rail. Bob takes a look at the ocean, and walks purposefully forward. His nakedness is quite literal – everything that he believed was valuable (good reputation at work, conformity, marriage) has fallen apart. He doesn’t belong anywhere; his life has become unmanageable, and probably in his eyes, unlivable. He makes his decision to leave, right there on the beach.
This movie is worthwhile in so many ways, but especially notable for Ann Roth’s great work and skillful character arcing using costumes. We follow Sally’s story, her progression, through her change in costume – from polyester LBJ White House to peasant blouse/skirt. It’s quite an arc for her, and it feels natural in this film. While it wasn’t nominated for a costume award, Roth’s work on this film is executed on that level. It’s not fancy or flashy costuming, but it is appropriate, evocative, and an integral part of the story.