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Jane Fonda was at a career peak when she signed on for the post-modern western Comes a Horseman (1978). She had just completed Coming Home (1978), the project for which she'd obtain her second Best Actress Oscar®. The new film seemed to be offering a comfort zone, as it would be directed by Alan J. Pakula, who helmed her first Academy Award-winning performance in Klute (1971). Further, she'd be re-teamed with Jason Robards, Jr., her co-star with whom she rendered another award nominated performance in Julia (1977). Throw in the added star presence of James Caan, and the cinematography of Gordon Willis, and it sounded like another batch of gold statuettes would be in the offing. However, the end result from this talented collaboration didn't quite gel, and the Academy would largely ignore this interesting misfire.
The story is set in the wake of World War II, and Colorado land baron J.W. Ewing (Robards) is looking to expand his empire by absorbing the spreads of his struggling cattle rancher neighbors. Chief amongst his targets is the willful, flinty Ella Connors (Fonda), whose resentment of Ewing has simmered since the time he bedded her in her youth. She's not looking for an ally to fend him off, but she soon finds one anyway in the presence of Frank Athearn (Caan), a local rancher who's returned from combat overseas a changed man.
As they pool their resources and hold Ewing at bay, it takes some doing for Ella to finally soften and accept Frank as a partner in business and in romance. The scheming Ewing, however, is facing battles on another front; it seems that he does love the land as much as he covets it, and he finds himself locked in battle with oil company exec Neil Atkinson (George Grizzard) in order to keep the derricks out.
Comes a Horseman did allow Fonda to show her chops in a de-glamorized role, and Pakula felt it was uniquely suited to her talents, as expressed in George Haddad-Garcia's The Films of Jane Fonda. "In most westerns the woman is in a calico dress, running after the hero on the horse saying, 'Nothing is worth dying for,' or she's a gun-toting Calamity Jane. The ideas of dealing with a heroine in the West, very much a woman yet willing to fight with the same passion as men, was a great attraction. I thought there was no one better than Jane Fonda to represent that kind of strong yet vulnerable American woman."
In reviewing the film, New West critic Stephen Farber noted that Pakula's works "often demonstrate a subtle but troubling sexual prejudice. He is fascinated by strong women but also seems somewhat frightened of them; he wants to put them in their place. In The Sterile Cuckoo  the abrasive Liza Minnelli was finally rejected by the sensitive hero; in Klute Jane Fonda was rescued from degradation by supercop Donald Sutherland. Comes a Horseman reworks the same story; a strong, proud woman 'realizes' that her salvation comes in submitting to an even stronger man."
Ultimately, the industry legacy of Comes a Horseman will be the boost it gave to the career of Richard Farnsworth, the 58-year-old veteran stunt rider and bit player who received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® nomination for his efforts as Ella's grizzled ranch hand Dodger. Even critics who savaged the movie singled out the weathered, endearingly charismatic Farnsworth as a bright spot, and he brought the film its sole nomination from the Academy.
Farnsworth got to enjoy a second act in life providing flavorful support in projects like Tom Horn (1980), The Natural (1984) and Misery (1990), and a lead as an aged train-robber trying to get re-acclimated to society in The Grey Fox (1982). For his work as a senior citizen who makes a 300-mile journey by riding mower in order to make peace with his estranged, dying brother in David Lynch's fact-based fable The Straight Story (1999), Farnsworth received his only Best Actor nomination, becoming the oldest performer to ever do so. Sadly, within a few months afterwards, Farnsworth committed suicide.Producer: Ronnie Caan, Robert Chartoff, Gene Kirkwood, Dan Paulson, Irwin Winkler
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Screenplay: Dennis Lynton Clark
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Film Editing: Marion Rothman
Art Direction: George Jenkins
Music: Michael Small
Cast: James Caan (Frank 'Buck' Athearn), Jane Fonda (Ella Connors), Jason Robards (Jacob Ewing), George Grizzard (Neil Atkinson), Richard Farnsworth (Dodger), Jim Davis (Julie Blocker).
C-118m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg