The melodrama has been used to depict realist situations in literature, theatre and film. Some would argue that the development of characters in a melodrama is simplistic and predictable, falling into the constraints of the genre while others would argue to the contrary. Coming Home, a revisionist melodrama about the Viet Nam War starring Jane Fonda, has been criticized for its pretension as a socially conscious movie while adhering to the conventions of the melodrama. Does it work as a progressive social-issue film? Can a melodrama bring about social change?
In an article in Film Comment, critic David Ehrenstein condemns the melodrama for perpetuating the illusion that they can affect social change instead of creating real change. In his opinion, “Coming Home presents itself in a much different light [than Written on the Wind] — a serious investigation of the effects of the Viet Nam War.” To him, the choice to display the conflict is a pretext for a semblance of credibility. “What does the Viet Nam War have to do with all [the happenings in the movie]?”, he writes. “Very little. Just background really.” He begins his article by citing Geoffrey Nowell-Smith for whom “the importance of melodrama… lies precisely in its ideological failure” and concludes that “melodrama [is] locked within the grip of its essential ideological failure”. But what Ehrenstein fails to realize is the potential impact of the melodrama on the moviegoer.
A re-examination of the Viet Nam War that ended six years prior to Coming Home’s release, the film invokes the spirit of change that was predominant during those tumultuous years. The film recalls the era to the spectator’s mind by having Jane Fonda star as its main protagonist. Known for her activism during the 1960s and 1970s, Fonda was criticized for having crossed enemy lines and posed for photos on a North Viet Nam army anti-aircraft gun, for which she received the nickname of “Hanoi Jane”. On top of leading anti-war protestations, Fonda was active in women’s rights, consistently defending abortion rights in the United States. Coming Home cannot, in my opinion, be viewed outside of this context and when it is, its message is apparent.
One of the first aspects that seem pertinent about Coming Home is its characterization of the woman protagonist. At first, the classic longing wife waiting for her husband to come back from war, Sally Hyde, Jane Fonda’s character, abandons her passive stance and volunteers at the base’s hospital for veterans. Faced, at the hospital, with the consequences of war, she befriends and falls in love with a paraplegic, which will ultimately lead to a confrontation with her husband. The film, therefore, presents two different lives to which the principal character and women in general were confronted in that period: one in which they assume the simple role of wife and mother, and the other in which they involve themselves in social issues and explored their sexuality. This dichotomy reveals the feminist discourse of the film. Desperate to help the veterans, Sally asks the Wives Editorial Club for help; she is rejected, going outside of a wife’s predetermined role in the patriarchal society. This role is accurately described by Chuck Kleinhans in his Notes on Melodrama and the family under capitalism:
As the guardians of the home, as the family member given total responsibility for the emotional life and well-being of the family, women are constantly called upon to sacrifice for the greater good of keeping the man ready for the world of production and raising the children.
It is that role that Sally denies in favour of a more equitable one. Once Bob, her husband, comes back home, her refusal to regress into their previous dynamic forces him to be overwhelmed by the forces of his social affect. “The family, says Kleinhans, is supposed to achieve the personal fulfillment denied in the workplace for adults and denied in school for children.” Back from the production sphere and denied access to the release that the social sphere would provide, Bob, unable to adapt to the change, commits suicide by drowning himself. If this societal change that brings feminism is threatening to Bob, it is, of course, liberating to Sally, forcing her to explore herself. But to David Ehrenstein, it’s a cliché, “The New Hollywood brand of feminism, where the heroine is made to seem to take a stand for her own ‘independence’. To him, ‘Jane Fonda’s orgasm in Coming Home’ can be ‘only there for spice’. But, keeping in mind its context within the narrative and her lover in the scene — an emasculated man, free of the traditions of patriarchy, the feminist discourse of the film is significant in this instance.
The second aspect of Coming Home that seems relevant is its discourse on war and specifically on the Viet Nam conflict. By occulting scenes from the war, the narrative builds a feminine and feminist point-of-view of the conflict, thereby characterizing the war, violent and senseless, as masculine. In the film, Viet Nam is an oppressive and destructive force, repressing the character’s personalities and the main source of their affect; it is the cause of Luke’s symbolic castration. Emasculated, paraplegic, his experience has been a disastrous one. Ehrenstein criticizes the individual perspective adopted in the movie, declaring: ‘We are made to forget social forces, and to view the character’s interaction on an individual-to-individual basis rather than in the context of the societal upheaval in which the war was fought and opposed.’ He seems to confuse Coming Home for a militant movie — which it doesn’t have the pretension to be — wanting it to be as socially rallying than the anti-war movement was. However, although socially conscious and relevant, the film chooses to convey a more subjective message, individual and personal. When Luke chains himself to the gate of a Marine base, it is as a result of the senseless war. To show him becoming ‘an active part of an identifiable anti-war group’ would dissolve the focus of the spectator into an unidentifiable and dehumanized sea of human faces. By concentrating on the individual plight of the characters, the film denounces the man-made structure that could create these oppressions and the symbolic castration, from madness to paralysis, that the characters are confronted with.
By opposing a conservative patriarchal society with this other liberating possible lifestyle, Coming Home certainly threads the waters of progressive social change. Regardless of David Ehrenstein’s opinion, the film provides a socially conscious message, capable of affecting its mass audience but does alienate itself from more militant social films — like Jorge Sanjines’s Blood of the Condor — by concentrating on the individual responses to social repression. However, is the movie in a position to provoke real social change or is it victim of its own limitations, its real impact limited by the expectation and anticipation of its audience? Perhaps that is a more valid point than Ehrenstein’s position.