Friday, April 21

The Directors: Hal Ashby

Ford, Hitchcock, Huston and all that crowd, no matter where they were as the 1970s dawned on that great sunny playground called Hollywood, must have wondered whatinthehell was happening to their profession?  Or for that matter... Hollywood itself.  Everybody was pissed off, against more than they were for, making depressing movies about real life and doing drugs.  It seemed like a movement to the old guys and they were sure no good could come of it.  Like all good movements, a leader is needed or at least a symbol.  Enter Hal Ashby. 

He had an illustrative career as an editor on The Loved One and The Cincinnati Kid, both 1965, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).   He won an Oscar for his work on In the Heat of the Night (1967).  I was going to start the paragraph by saying he enjoyed a career as an editor but that may not be the case.  The editing room, either alone or with the director, was likely a little too confining for a man of his larger-than-life tastes and views. He claimed he liked the process and loved getting into it with the director.  It wouldn't be long before he just thought he should be a director.  No one knew at the time that he would become a beacon of the 70s and that he would make as many good movies in that decade as anyone.

Ashby was born in 1929 in Ogden, Utah.  He was the fourth and youngest child of a Mormon dairy farmer who killed himself after a divorce and loss of his farm and Ashley discovered the body.  It was a tough, wayward life for the youngster who dropped out of high school and was married and divorced before he turned 19.  It wasn't long before he decided to do what it seemed a lot of people did over many generations when nothing else was panning out... move to California.  He hitchhiked there and into gofer duties in Universal's script department. He then hitched his star to lowly Republic Studios and its poster-printing department and by 1953 became an assistant film editor with the studio and 10 years later was promoted to editor.

Most of his editing chores were on Norman Jewison movies and the two men enjoyed a mutual respect.  It was Jewison who convinced United Artists to take a chance on Ashby and allow him to direct 
The Landlord (1970), a light-hearted look at race relations.  Beau Bridges stars as a rich yuppie looking to get out from under the weight of his intrusive parents and ends up buying a Brooklyn tenement and bonding with his black renters.  Diana Sands, Pearl Bailey, Louis Gossett, Lee Grant and Bridges all deliver wickedly sharp performances.

Ashby received good notices for The Landlord but he achieved cult status as the man who steered Harold and Maude (1971) to that same status.  Thanks in many ways go to the writer of the piece and future director, Colin Higgins, who was there all the way with Ashby.  It is an offbeat story of an indisputably oddball relationship between a death-obsessed young man and a spirited older woman. It is also a rather light-hearted look at death.  Most folks seemed to either love it or hate it and it could pretty much be determined along age lines.  Frankly, I neither loved nor hated it but confess I was positively transfixed by the performances of Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon (two of the weirdest I've ever seen), as a death-obsessed young man and a passionate woman approaching 80.  I promise you that everyone was talking about Harold and Maude

Ashby with "Maude," Ruth Gordon

Everyone was talking about Hal Ashby, too. He was a gentle soul, always looking rather scruffy with his long hair and beard, casual clothes, frequent shades and may have occasionally been a little slow and measured in his speech.  He liked to point out that he was a man of his times... a representative of the counterculture, energetic about delivering films with socially-relevant themes and in the spirit of the anarchist.  Far out. Are you gonna pass that thing?  His next two projects would help in his mission as each would star one of the great messengers of the times and they were best friends, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, and the films were among the most lauded of the sassy decade.

The word bittersweet could have been coined for The Last Detail (1973), my favorite of all his films as well as one of my favorite Nicholson films.  Actually most all of Nicholson's films are my favorite Nicholson films.  He and Otis Young (what promise this short-time actor showed) were brilliant in their hilarious, profanity-laden portrayals of two Navy guys drawing the duty of escorting a petty thief, Randy Quaid, from West Virginia to a prison in New Hampshire. Their decision to turn the trip into a boozy,
property-damaging, sex-ridden embarrassment to them and the Navy also turns the brilliant Robert Towne script dark and smothers those laughs.  Ashby got some joy in presenting the military as a crusher of individuality.

Getting those good vibes with Otis Young and Jack Nicholson

Ashby and Towne must have decided that worked so well with Nicholson they might as well try it with Beatty, too, and out of that came Shampoo (1975), an oh-so-witty-and-clever comedy of manners and sex.  The real-life lothario plays a hairdresser who is not only teasing the hair of his many clients but a lot of their other body parts as well.  All the husbands think his home calls are safe because he allows them to think he's gay. Beatty, of course, fills a roll meant for him, and he looks sensational doing it.  And ditto for Julie Christie.  Goldie Hawn, Oscar-winning Lee Grant, Jack Warden and Carrie Fisher (who should have won something for staying under a crowded restaurant table for so long) all certainly delivered the goods.

One of my favorite Ashby movies is Bound for Glory (1976), despite the fact I can't watch it too often because I have to be in an especially good place to watch something this gloomy.  From a historical viewpoint, it is about a gloomy time, the Depression. Chiefly, however, it is a damned good biography of activist-folksinger Woody Guthrie portrayed by David Carradine in the best role he ever had.  Haskell Wexler's photography hauntingly captures the time, leaving no viewer unclear as to why it was called the Depression.

Ashby's most controversial films is without question Coming Home (1978)... another entry that caused everyone to have strong, if not fierce, opinions which were based, more or less, along political lines.  My liberal leanings were more with Ashby on this one.  The other side likely found the film too sanctimonious.  The story of American life at the end of the Vietnam war, it concerns two military vets and a woman who is married to one and having an affair with the other, a paraplegic. Jane Fonda and Jon Voight both won Oscars and Ashby nabbed his only directing nomination.  I have always felt the film wasn't quite what it could have been with Fonda in the lead.  The words Fonda and Vietnam didn't mesh well in a sentence at the time. It was, however, her production company and her acting was spot on.

I did not like Being There (1979) when I first saw it but it's one of those I saw several mature years later and wondered if Ashby had been passing me too many of those funny little cigarettes.  I found it to be a very witty meditation on the theme of the emperor's new clothes in that a simple-minded gardener whose child-like utterances are interpreted by others as words of great wisdom.   Peter Sellers, in his final role, gave perhaps his best-ever performance and Melvyn Douglas received his second supporting Oscar as a Washington D.C. insider.  Someone once reviewed it as a horror film, a testament to how easily the public can be fooled by a little window dressing and a few idiots with even the most basic understanding of life.  Of course, it's just a movie... it could never happen in real life.

With Peter Sellers on the set of Being There

The 70s were over and so was all of Ashby's good-to-great work. Some would say the change came about as a result of the liberal 70s giving way to the conservative 80s. Under that thinking, Ashby would have to go. But that can't be the definitive answer to what really happened to that string of seven wonderful films and the man with the Midas Touch.  His final years of directing were marred, it's been said, by spiraling out of control on drugs, black moods, showy displays of contrariness, self-pity, bad judgment both on choice of scripts and in his dealings with studio execs and films that went into production without finished scripts. He became hard-to-handle and unreliable. Worst of all, perhaps, some of his later films were taken away from him after they finished production.  That means he had no say-so in the editing process and he was an Oscar-winning editor.  As a result, the life-long recluse became more of one.

I could never bear to watch Robert Blake act so of course I missed
Second-Hand Hearts (1981) but I understand this so-called comedy with the delightful Barbara Harris is Ashby's worst film.  The story of a spirited wife and her meek husband who set out to get her kids back from her ex-husband had very little play.  

Lookin' to Get Out (1982), actually made before Second-Hand Hearts, was deemed so bad that it sat on the shelf for two years collecting dust.  A Las Vegas buddy film (zzzzz) that had embarrassingly bad performances from Voight and Burt Young is recalled by very few.

It didn't do much for Ashby's ego that his reputation had been sullied.  We've all heard how you're only as good as your last movie. How about if your last two stunk to high heaven?  What does a guy do?  Well, this guy, always a lover of the Rolling Stones, directed a musical documentary of them, Let's Spend the Night Together (1982). Followers of the group loved it.

Still, he stayed away from directing movies for three years, his longest down time, and then returned with The Slugger's Wife (1985).  He didn't seem particularly suited to direct a Neil Simon romantic comedy. Despite a rush to establish Michael O'Keefe and Rebecca DeMornay as viable, young stars, the film felt dated and it was another flop.

If Jeff Bridges were asked to name the worst picture he ever made, he may very well name 8 Million Ways to Die (1986). He was certainly miscast as a private eye whose life falls apart after he accidentally kills someone during a drug bust.  The whole affair had a flabby feel to it and the film went quickly to video.  It would be Ashby's last big-screen movie. 

Despite that experience, history will show that he usually cast his idiosyncratic films as carefully as he directed them and worked with some of the top actors of the 70s, a number of whom received Oscars or Oscar nominations.  Ashby also worked with some of the best technicians in the business, exquisite writers and cinematographers at the top of their form.  Many of his characters were stuck in life but Ashley was joyful in helping them find the silver lining.  He liked to instill hope in troubling times.  His films overall had a great sense of black humor and more than a touch of irony.  He brought a harsher and more penetrating look to the world he inhabited.  His keen editor's eye served him well as a director. Many of his films contained musical scores that rocked and lifted up the story.

Ashley, who had five brief marriages and two children, was working on getting Truman Capote's Hand Carved Coffins to the screen when he died of liver and colon cancer in Malibu in 1988 at age 59.

Next posting:
The Remarkable Charlotte

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