Armchair Oscars – 1978

Best Picture

The Deer Hunter (Directed by Michael Cimino)
The Nominees: Coming Home, Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Express, An Unmarried Woman

Coming Home (Directed by Hal Ashby)
My Nominees: 
Days of Heaven (Terence Malik), Gates of Heaven (Erroll Morris), Go Tell the Spartans (Ted Post), Halloween (John Carpenter), Heaven Can Wait (Warren Beatty and Buck Henry), Interiors (Woody Allen), La Cage aux Folles (Eduard Molinaro), Superman (Richard Donner), An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky), Watership Down (Martin Rosen)


Hollywood did not seriously begin deal with the Vietnam War until it was over.  When the subject finally made it’s way into American films, it came in the form of deep, intelligent dramas that saw the war in very realistic terms.  One of those films, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, was the academy’s selection as nineteen seventy-eight’s Best Picture.  It purported to show how the Vietnam war infected the lives of a group of Pennsylvania factory workers over the course of several years.

At three hours, Ciminio wants The Deer Hunter to be a howl of pain, a tribute to the reality of the mental effect of the war for the men who came back from that devistation. For many, it certainly felt that way.  I probably could feel that too if I could relate to any of the characters.  I cannot because the characters feel at arm’s length and the palette of the film is sometimes gritty and real, sometime surreal. What remains is a film with a very uneven narrative.

My favorite film of the year was Hal Ashby’s Coming Home which also deals with soldiers struggling with their experiences in Vietnam. It takes place in California in 1968 where we meet Sally Hyde (Jane Fonda) the dutiful wife of Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern), a hawkish Marine who has yet to experience the war and is excited that he is about to get his chance to serve – the film opens with a brilliant montage transposing scenes of Bob getting in shape against shots of wounded veterans in a hospital being helped into bed and into wheelchairs.

Sally has never been alone and this will be the first time she is left to fend for herself.  She has always been the dutiful daughter, the dutiful wife, she has done what she was told and was proud of her place, standing by her man.  She does what is expected of her. Even when making love with Bob, her face wears an expression that tells us that she knows this is his moment and not theirs.

We see on Sally’s face that she is withdrawn, does not speak out of turn and casts odd glances at those who do.  Even though she has been raised to be her husband’s wife, she finds an unexpected liberation when Bob is gone.  There is no one watching her, no one she reports to and she finds herself comfortable doing things that she knows her husband wouldn’t like.  She rents a house, buys a sports car and volunteers at the veteran’s hospital.

In the hospital she is appalled by the sorry treatment of the veterans who live in cramped quarters, are forced to live with poor facilities and are strapped to their beds when they make trouble.  On her first day she literally runs into Luke Martin (Jon Voight), a vague aquaintence from back in high school, who has returned from Vietnam a paraplegic using two canes to pull himself around as he lays face down on a gurney (later he gets a wheelchair but I initially found myself angry that he didn’t already have one).  Luke is bitter and with good reason, he accuses Sally of being a military wife who helps out the poor veterans in order to have something to brag about at the country club.  That opinion quickly fades away when as he gets to know her.  Something in her smile, her voice or perhaps in her eyes tells Luke that she sees him as a man, not a cripple.

The beauty of Coming Home is the way that these two people connect.  We know that inevitably they will fall in love but what is surprising is how much we care about them.  Sitting down to watch the film I somehow expected a film that would feel like an angry anti-war rally or a dreary howl of pain like The Deer Hunter.  I did not expect a lovingly drawn character study and certainly not a tender love story.  Luke falls in love with Sally, not as a woman to be had, nor as a sex object but as a person.  When he tells her “There’s not an hour goes by that I don’t think of making love with you.”  Note that he says with you, not to you.

The fact that we know they will have sex is tempered by the fact that Luke is a paraplegic, so we know sex is going to be tricky.  That moment is handled beautifully through Haskell Wexler’s cinematography that lingers lovingly on their bodies and not just on the physical act.  Luke performs oral sex on her and we are as surprised as she that one of the rewards of her liberation is her first orgasm.

If sex if affected by Luke’s injury, certainly their romance is tempered by Sally’s marriage.  We know that eventually Bob will come home and that she will have to go back to him.  When Bob comes home, he is a broken man.  He was wounded in a silly accident on the way to the shower and that only fuels his disillusionment of the war of which he is appalled over the conduct of fellow soldiers and the prospect that being a war hero means very little.

Each of the three characters change in one way or another.  We meet Luke as an angry, embittered man who cares little for anything.  He is angry about what has happened to him, but when a fellow veteran (Robert Carradine) commits suicide his focus shifts.  He  becomes determined to keep young boys from joining up to go to Vietnam, first by chaining himself to the gates of the recruitment office then by taking a different path by actually talking to the boys in a high school.  “I wanted to be a war hero, man, I wanted to go out and kill for my country.” he says “I don’t feel good about it. Because there’s not enough reason, man, to feel a person die in your hands or to see your best buddy get blown away. I’m here to tell you, it’s a lousy thing, man. I don’t see any reason for it.”

We see that Bob went for the same reason, he’s a war hawk and believed that the war would be an orderly military operation.  But he found it “boring”, he was stunned by what our soldiers were doing over there.  No one, the movie points out, was prepared for the Hell of this war.  Bob cannot handle the idea that this war isn’t giving him what he wants.  There’s something missing in his experience and he cannot deal with it.

What I like most about Coming Home is that it avoids  rabble-rousing cliches.  The film deals with returning soldiers just as powerfully with soldiers returning home from the Vietnam war as The Best Years of Our Lives had 32 years earlier.  Both films deal with the subject of soldiers in despair and, like the earlier film, we see the characters change, some for better some for worse, as the story progresses.  What it proclaims is the same message that we’ve known all along, that all wars are the same and the only thing that changes are the uniforms.

Best Actor

Jon Voight (
Coming Home)
The Nominees: Warren Beatty (Heaven Can Wait), Gary Busey (The Buddy Holly Story), Robert DeNiro (The Deer Hunter), Laurence Olivier (The Boys From Brazil)

Dustin Hoffman (Straight Time)
My Nominees:
Warren Beatty (Heaven Can Wait), John Belushi (Animal House), Gary Busey (The Buddy Holly Story), Christopher Reeve (Superman), Jon Voight (Coming Home)


If Jon Voight had played Luke Martin, the vietnam vet paralyzed from the waist down in Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, as some sort of noble saint or screaming activist then the movie would have been a bust. We feel more pity for him because he doesn’t ask for it, he is an intelligent man who has been forever damaged by this war and his bitterness is completely justified. He creates a complete character here and not just a propped up symbol to reinforce the film’s point.

It was a masterstroke to cast Voight because he has always been an actor who wears his passion on his sleeve. He is intense, intelligent, intuitive and plays the role with a great deal of heart. That was the thing that got him the Oscar. The academy was ready to reward him for taking on a difficult role but also for playing it without an ounce of over-indulgence. Yet, for my Best Actor choice, I am choosing Dustin Hoffman’s unnominated performance as an incorrigible ex-con in Ulu Grosbard’s brilliant Straight Time.

Voight’s performance in Coming Home is expected, we know that he can tackle this role in his sleep but I think it was a little tougher for Hoffman to convince us that he was a criminal. In Straight Time, based on the book “No Beast So Fierce” by real-life con Edward Bunker, Hoffman plays Max Dembro a career criminal who has had problems with the law since he was 12.  As we meet him, he is on his way out of Folsom prison after a six year stretch for burglary.  When he meets his smarmy, smiling parole officer Earl Frank (the great M. Emmett Walsh), he is told in no uncertain terms that if there is one false move, he will throw him back in the joint.  Earl asks Max why he didn’t show up at the halfway house and Max makes it clear that he has no intention of staying there. He makes Max a deal, he will let him stay out of the halfway house if he can get a job and a place to live by the end of the week

Max makes some strides to go straight.  He makes good on his promise to get a job (working in a cannery) and a place to live. He even takes a typing test at an employment office. It doesn’t land him an office job but he does meet a pretty blonde, Jenny (Theresa Russell) who is charmed by this man despite his recent past. She accepts his offer for a date.

That night he unwisely hooks up with an old friend, Willy (Gary Busey) a lovable lunk who a former criminal buddy who has settled down as a family man despite the fact the he sneaks off once in a while to do drugs. Willy is not smart but while Max has been in jail, he has taken giant leaps toward a clean life. For this reason, Willy’s wife Selma (a young Kathy Bates) politely asks Max not to associate with her husband.

Rekindling their friendship is not good for either Max nor Willy. Willy shoots heroine in Max’s room, Max gets into trouble the next day when Earl pays an unexpected visit and finds a book of burnt matches under his bed. Despite the fact that there is no evidence that he has been shooting up, Earl sends Max to the county lock-up and after his release drives him back to his room while pressing him to find out who was using heroine the night before.  Something in Max snaps and all his intentions to straight are thrown to the wind. He doesn’t want to give up his friend and has no intention of going straight. He grabs the wheel of the car and takes Earl on a wild ride through the freeway while beating the man senseless.  Pulling into the median, he handcuffs Earl to the center divider and pulls down his pants, leaving the man humiliated in the middle of traffic.

Max goes back to the only thing he is good at: crime.  He sticks up an Asian convenience store so he can have cash to take Jenny out on a date.  He begins a relationship with Jenny even though she understands who he is and what he does. He meets up with an old partner Jerry Schue (Harry Dean Stanton) who, like Willy, has settled into a life of domesticity, but he lets Max know that he is looking to get back into the crime game once again.

The two conspire to stick up a poker game where they are assured that $20,000 in cash will be on hand.  Max hires a buddy to bring the shotgun.  But the man shows up late and the game ends before the stickup can begin.

The two then conspire to stick up a bank, which first involves Max breaking into a pawnshop to steal a shotgun (he’s been told that stickups don’t work without one).  The plan is to be in the bank no longer than a minute.  Yet, during the robbery, Max doesn’t stick to the plan and continues to pull money out of the drawers after the alotted time has passed.

Thrilled by the prospect of the robbery, they then plan another job, this time a smash and grab at a jewelry store.  Max cases the joint the day before the robbery by taking Jenny there and asking what she likes.  She points to a $15,000 gold watch in the display case that Max knows he will be sure to steal later during the holdup. Max brings Willy in as the wheelman to drive the getaway car.  Jerry makes it clear to Max that the response time on the store’s alarm is three minutes.  But during the job, Max again goes over the time limit, searching for the watch.  He doesn’t find it and the two get away with what they have.  Problem: When they get outside, Willy and the car are missing.  So, they take off on foot where they are pursued by a police officer who shoots Jerry in the back.  Max shoots the cop and gets away just as Jerry dies.

Outraged, he finds Willy and pretends to forgive him, then shoots him in the back.  Max drives into the desert with Jenny and leaves her at a diner after telling her that he is going to turn himself in.

What I love about Hoffman’s performance is that he never gives us a single reason to like him.  He is a criminal, he knows it, he likes it and he has no intention of doing anything else.  He is fairly good at what he does but he isn’t loaded with common sense.  He hires unreliable people who screw up: First he hires the man who is late to the poker game job then he hires Willy who leaves the scene of the jewelry story heist out of panic.  He is hot tempered – killing Willy in a rage over Jerry’s death despite the fact that Willy has a wife and a young son.

He is only fairly good at what he does because when Earl reads his criminal record we sense that, while he is an efficient burglar, he hasn’t learned how to keep from getting caught.  He is a man who sees the prize but not the caution flags along the way.  During the two jobs that he pulls with Jerry, we see that he doesn’t stick to the plan, his greed gets the best of him and in the jewelry store job, it ultimately results in the deaths of two people. What is interesting about Max is that he never asks for our sympathy.  He isn’t Robin Hood nor some wounded saint.  He likes the thrill of the hunt and the movie takes the point of view of a criminal and stays there.

Max Dembo is my favorite of Hoffman’s characters and sadly it is the one that is nearly forgotten. Hoffman, on the DVD commentary, admits that this was his best performance and I agree. It allows him to play notes that we don’t expect. He is short in stature, skinny, with a face that doesn’t fit the stereotype of a standard movie criminal. His motives aren’t clear, his methods aren’t smart. He’s an ordinary man who is impulsive, intuitive, greedy and selfish. When he tells Jenny that some guys prefer prison life to the disorganization of the world outside, we understand what he means. When he gives himself up at the end, we understand that the outside world is too great a temptation for his criminal nature.

Best Actress

Jane Fonda (Coming Home)
The Nominees: Ingrid Bergman (Autumn Sonata), Ellen Burstyn (Same Time, Next Year), Jill Clayburgh (An Unmarried Woman), Geraldine Page (Interiors)

Jill Clayburgh (An Unmarried Woman)
y Nominees: Ingrid Bergman (Autumn Sonata), Jane Fonda (Coming Home), Margot Kidder (Superman), Olivia Newton-John (Grease), Diana Ross (The Wiz)


Definition of the word ‘irony’: Jane Fonda wins an Oscar for her performance in a movie in which she plays a woman who cares for crippled Vietnam vets.

The academy had apparently forgiven (or forgotten) Fonda’s controversial views on Vietnam and selected her as their Best Actress winner for Coming Home.  By winning the Oscar she had overtaken the sympathy vote that many had expected to go to 63 year-old Ingrid Bergman for Autumn Sonata directed by Ingmar Bergman (no relation), a mother-daughter picture that also featured Liv Ullman.  I’m not a fan of Autumn Sonata, it’s a good movie but also good for me, like a plate of broccoli.

Early on it seemed that Bergman might be the winner, but the acting veteran was being edged out by a competition between Fonda and Jill Clayburgh who was nominated for Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (and won Best Actress as Cannes).

I have seen all three films and, in my opinion Coming Home is the better movie but Clayburgh gives the better performance. She plays Erica Benton, a New Yorker who has been married to husband Martin (Michael Murphy) for 16 years and they have a daughter, Patti (Lisa Lucas).  She seems content with her life; she works in an art gallery and frequently has lunch with her middle-aged friends where she listens to them as they discuss their sexual conquests.  At home, things seem normal, Erica and Martin have a happy home life, a healthy sex life and their arguments don’t seem out of the ordinary. But Erica’s world comes unspooled one day when, out of the blue, Martin bursts into tears and announces that he has fallen in love with another woman.  Erica is crushed beyond words and is so overwhelmed that she walks several blocks before she vomits on the sidewalk.

Trying to get a handle on her life, she is coiled with pain and resentment and a hatred for all men.  She finds no solace; a doctor makes a pass at her; she walks out of a restaurant and blows off a man who tries to talk to her; she throws Patti’s boyfriend out of the house when he catches the two of them together; she fights with a man in a cab when he tries to jump her.  Scared, angry, hurt, confused, she can’t sleep.  With Martin out of the apartment, she wakes up one night and begins throwing out the things he left behind.

She goes to a therapist where she reveals intimate details about her childhood and about her life with Martin.  The therapist advises getting back into the swing of dating.  She has trouble grasping that concept after being completely faithful to Martin for 16 years, but her first step back into the single life is to find a man and have sex.  For that, she meets a guy named Charlie (Cliff Gorman), he is a self-titled ladies man who doesn’t date and doesn’t go out with the same woman twice.  He seems to have a decent sense of humor but after a one-night stand she realizes he’s a pig. Later she meets Saul (Alan Bates), a divorced artist with two kids who likes her and actually turns out to be the genuine article.  He seems to understand her and respect her wishes, but he would like a relationship with her which she rejects because she wants time to feel her independence before she ties herself down again.

Jill Clayburgh’s specialty here is that she is able to take Erica through the darkest pits of rejection and pain and then work her way to a place where she is free to make her own happiness.  She seems happy in the first quarter of the film, even practicing a fantasy ballet around her apartment.  Her face is full of contentment when listening to her friends talk about their problems with men.  But her bright eyes and cheery smiles melt away in the moment when Martin breaks the news.  Her face is filled with pain and disgust and she is in a state of shock as she walks away from him, walks several blocks before finally vomiting.

Director Paul Mazursky never allows Erica to be manipulated by the plot; the script has dialogue that seems to come from the character’s personalities.  Good example: When Martin tells her that he is in love with someone else, Erica’s first words are of their daughter “You tell Patti”.  She remains appropriately resentful throughout.  Even in the end, Erica is still resentful of Martin even if, in their last conversation, some of the anger and pain has become uncomfortable pleasantries.

Clayburgh has moments that are perfect like the scene in which she walks into a single’s bar fully intent on a night of casual sex.  Her face is expressionless as she surveys the place for her conquest.  She has no intent on finding someone to settle down with, this is just a one-night stand, she knows it and she doesn’t apologize for it.  I also liked that sexual encounter with Charlie, they make small talk before she starts to take off her clothes but turns off the lights out of embarrassment.  Then she giggles when he touches her.

The movie stays focused on Erica, there are no moments that deal with Martin’s new love, there are no confrontations between those two women (we never even meet her) and even the divorce proceedings take place off-screen.  We hear Martin and Erica discuss Patti but it’s only to help us mark a mental timeline.  There are three scenes with Martin after he leaves Erica and they are all confrontational.  The only predictable scene in the film comes at the end when Martin meets up with her to tell her that he has been dumped and he wants to come home.  Martin is painted as a selfish, egotistical jerk who walks out on his wife and child and then wants to come back.  It helps our sympathy for Erica while also helping us to understand the freedom that she is now experiencing.

The theme of An Unmarried Woman is Erica’s ability to have to rebuild her life and find a foothold on her independence.  She has been deeply hurt by Martin, she doesn’t want a full-time commitment with Saul, she has seen the walls of her marriage crumble around her and she wants to see what is in the world that will make her happy.  This is very much a film of the “Me Generation”, of self-exploration and about a woman trying to find something more in life than being subservient to a man.

The movie is very tough on the men.  Most of them are viewed as predators, always wanting something.  Martin is childish and lacking an easy-going sense of humor.  Charlie is a pig.  Saul is a nice guy but he can’t understand why she won’t spend the summer with him.  Plus there are various man who come into her path with sexual intentions.  The point is to see them through Erica’s eyes; she doesn’t want to be manipulated.  The movie extends her the same courtesy, not pushing her into the arms of “the right guy”.

Jill Clayburgh was right for the role, she was a gifted actress and this was her best performance.  Before this she had tooled around in films of varying quality, taking project of quality rather than profit.  She would be nominated for two Oscars for this film and the following year for the comedy Starting Over.  It’s too bad that she never won an Oscar because it might have gotten her better projects.  She would spend the 80s in lackluster fair like The First Monday in October and Where are the Children? Then slumming in TV movies will titles like “Unspeakable Acts”.  I don’t know if an Oscar would have changed the direction of her career but an award for this brilliant performance might have given us an opportunity to find out.

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