Oscar Politics: Deer Hunter Vs. Coming Home

The uproar surrounding “Julia” and Vanessa Redgrave's inflammatory speech in 1978 was barely forgotten, when another dispute erupted in the 1979 Oscar ceremonies, this time around caused by the nomination of two Vietnam War films for Best Picture: Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter and Hal Ashby's Coming Home, each garnering a large number of nominations.


Unlike World War II, which saw the immediate production of war films, it took almost a decade for Hollywood to make movies about Vietnam. The only exception was John Wayne's The Green Berets, in 1968, an unabashedly patriotic picture endorsing the American involvement in Vietnam. Both studios, Universal in the case of The Deer Hunter, and United Artists in Coming Home, had fears that the public would not support them, though they were proud of their artistic quality: The Deer Hunter opened to rave reviews, and Coming Home to mixed-to-positive reviews.

The Academy voters split the major awards between the two movies. The Deer Hunter won five: Best Picture, Director (Cimino), Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), sound, and editing; and Coming Home received the two lead acting awards (Jane Fonda and Jon Voight), and original screenplay (Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones, using Nancy Dowd's story). Ironically, John Wayne was chosen as the Best Picture presenter, though one could only speculate how he felt about handing it in to The Deer Hunter; this time, the Duke kept his mouth shut!

During the ceremonies, there were demonstrations outside the auditorium, mostly against the racist overtones of The Deer Hunter, and some in favor of the humanism of Coming Home. Director Cimino was accused of violating both historical truth and artistic responsibility, though he claimed that his aim was to make a dramatic picture about surviving the war. “My film has nothing to do with whether the war should or should not have been,” he said. “This film addresses itself to the question of ordinary people of this country, who journeyed from their homes to the darkness and back. How do you survive that” The Deer Hunter is a movie, Cimino explained, “It is not a newsreel.”

But Cimino's rationale didn't pacify his critics. On the night of the awards, the police arrested members of “Vietnam Veterans Against the War,” who protested against the film's misinterpretation of reality. Another dissenting group, “Hell No, We Won't Go Away Committee,” denounced the film as “a racist attack on the Vietnamese people,” citing the vicious violence, particularly Russian Roulette, used by the Vietnamese in the prison camp.

“We didn't want the film to be honored blindly,” said Linda Garrett, who formed the Committee. “Even my progressive friends seemed blinded by the power of the film, its emotional impact. They felt it was a great film despite its racism, despite its misinterpretation of history.” Other critics charged that the Americans were portrayed as innocent victims, which eliminated any discussion of the war's issues. A shocked Cimino continued to insist that his intention was to make an antiwar statement.

Furthermore, the winners' speeches and off-camera remarks were seen as violations of collegial professional ethics. Jane Fonda charged that The Deer Hunter was a racist film that represented the Pentagon's view of Vietnam. Referring to the demonstrators as “my friends,” she said that Coming Home was a “better picture,” even though she had not seen The Deer Hunter. And after winning the Best Actor for playing a sensitive paraplegic war veteran, Jon Voight said, “I accept this for every guy in a wheelchair.”

If you would like to know more about this issue, please read my book, All bout Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards(NY: Continuum International, paperback 2003).