Director Retrospective: Hal Ashby
For my last retrospective (on director Mike Leigh), I mentioned that one of the things that I found myself increasingly drawn to about Leigh’s work was just how consistently underappreciated and underwatched it was (at least among the casual American audience). So…after a bit of a hiatus for travel, I thought that I’d take a look at another director who has always struck me as being “underrated” among casual viewers — a director who I would argue had one of the most impressive decades (in the 1970s) of any director in American cinematic history: Hal Ashby.
The Big List
For this retrospective, I watched 10 (of 11) feature-length films by director Hal Ashby. The list includes: The Landlord (1970); Harold and Maude (1971); The Last Detail (1973); Shampoo (1975); Bound for Glory (1975); Coming Home (1978); Being There (1979); Lookin’ to Get Out (1982); The Slugger’s Wife (1985); 8 Million Ways to Die (1986). [The only Ashby film I wasn’t able to locate was Second-Hand Hearts (1981). If you’ve seen it, let me know what you think.]
The Top Five
Below are my picks for the Top Five feature-length films by Hal Ashby (ranked from #1-#5, with some brief comments on each film)…
Being There (1979) – Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Iannucci’s In the Loop. Levinson’s Wag the Dog. Payne’s Election. These are, to my mind, some of the best political satires in cinematic history, and I’m not sure that any of them hold a candle (in terms of satire) to Ashby’s greatest film: Being There. Based on a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, the story follows Chance the Gardener (later “Chauncey Gardiner”) — an older mentally disabled man who is suddenly thrust out into the real world for the first time, where he accidentally encounters and befriends a wealthy couple with deep political influence. From there, Chance/Chauncey meets the U.S. President, various ambassadors, etc. — all of whom mistake his simple, garden-based trivia as deep profundity on political and economic issues. Peter Sellers — who provides one of his very best roles here — was fascinated by this novel and begged studios for nearly a decade to help him make the film (with himself starring as Chance, of course). The film also features great supporting performances from Melvyn Douglas (who won Best Supporting Actor for this), Jack Warden, and particularly Shirely MacLaine, who really goes for it here in a role that must have required a considerable measure of courage. There is soooooo much going on here in terms of societal critique — whether political, economic, racial, sexual, religious, etc. [Really…nothing is sacred and nothing is spared the satirical fire.] Moreover, for me, Being There is THE film where Ashby’s idiosyncratic directing abilities really shine — creating some truly strange, awkward scenes and using cross-cutting to amazing thematic effect. [I mean…how does someone think of something like this scene and its juxtapositions. Yet…it just…works.] And if that weren’t enough, Being There also features one of the very very very best final shots in all of cinema. Do yourself a favor if you’ve not seen it, and track down a copy of Being There and watch a film that will never not be relevant.
Harold and Maude (1971) – No surprise here with my picks for the #1 and #2 spots in Ashby’s oeuvre, although some may disagree with the ordering. Ashby’s second directorial effort, Harold and Maude, is certainly the director’s most beloved film today and is, for many, an all-time favorite. It might be surprising to learn, then, that Harold and Maude was received poorly by critics upon initial release, as they didn’t seem to find the story moving, the characters interesting, or the humor effective. [It’s one of those cult-classics that hung around for many years and slowly, over time, became a classic-classic among audiences.] The basic premise is that death-obsessed young man Harold (Bud Cort) befriends life-affirming elderly woman Maude (Ruth Gordon) at a funeral, and these two vastly different people eventually form an unlikely romantic relationship. While I’ve watched this film several times over the years, I always seem to forget just how funny and deeply human it is — whether it’s Harold’s numerous “suicide” attempts [seriously, who knew that suicide could be made into an effective recurring gag?] or a heartbreaking confession about the events in our lives that shape us into the people that we become. Both Cort and Gordon are phenomenal as these characters, to the point that it would feel sacrilegious to imagine that anyone else could’ve played these roles. The soundtrack by Yusef (then known as Cat Stevens) features some original songs for the film and provides a fantastic compliment to the narrative itself. [Apparently, Elton John was originally set to play Harold and write the film’s music; but, when forced to drop out due to other obligations, he recommended that Ashby hire Cat Stevens for the score.] And once again, we see Ashby’s penchant for constructing beautifully moving finales via the use of creative editing. The result is a movie that is wholly deserving of its excellent reputation today — a film that everyone should see at some point in life.
The Landlord (1970) – As I’ve mentioned before in other Director Retrospective installments, it’s always fun to view seminal directors’ first films. Sometimes, you watch that first film and scratch your head, unsure how it was that this person ever evolved into the successful director that they became. Yet, other times, you can immediately see that “it” factor, that auteur quality, that will develop more in future works. Ashby’s first film, The Landlord, is certainly one of those “it” films to me. Based on the novel by writer Kristin Hunter, the studio apparently wasn’t sure what to do with the project until director Norman Jewison — who Ashby had worked for as an editor on films like In the Heat of the Night and The Cincinnati Kid — recommended that the studio give Ashby a chance to direct a film. The plot involves the young, wealthy, politically progressive Elgar Enders, who “runs away from home” by purchasing a large apartment building in the city — originally for the purpose of renovating it into his own mansion but then deciding to serve as the landlord to the working-class, mostly African-American tenants already in residence. As the story progresses, Elgar becomes romantically involved with two African-American women — a dancer named Lanie (portrayed by Marki Bey) and a married tenant named Fanny (portrayed by Diana Sands) — and must navigate issues of classism, racism, etc. Both Bey and Sands are great here, as well as Lee Grant (as Elgar’s domineering mother) and Louis Gossett Jr. (in an early role as Fanny’s husband, Copee). But the surprise performance for me is definitely Beau Bridges — an actor who I’ve never really cared for much — in the lead role of Elgar. Bridges manages to capture both the stupidity and naivete of the (mostly) well-meaning Elgar, as well as the ambivalence at the heart of the white, wealthy “progressive.” Ashby’s editing background is on display with scenes spliced together in interesting ways, allowing a relatively straightforward story (albeit with an absurdly satirical premise) transform into something quite memorable. A vastly underrated film.
The Last Detail (1973) – After Harold and Maude and Being There, it’s probably safe to say that The Last Detail is Ashby’s third best-known film with audiences today; but, even then, it’s not as widely watched as it should be. Based on a screenplay written by Robert Towne (best known for writing Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, as well as doing some uncredited script-doctoring on The Godfather), the plot follows two veteran Navy petty-officers, Buddusky & Mulhall, (played by Jack Nicholson and Otis Young, respectively), who are tasked with transporting a Navy recruit, Meadows (played by Randy Quaid), to a military prison several states away. As the trio travel, “Bad Ass” Buddusky decides it’s only fair to help Meadows experience some of the things that he never got to do as a free man before he serves a long sentence for some minor theft. They get him drunk, they take him to a brothel, they instigate a fist-fight with some Marines, etc. etc. Towne’s script — most famous for its, at the time, excessive use of the word “fuck” — is very strong; and Ashby’s direction provides a guiding hand without being as overt as in films like Being There and The Landlord. (Ashby is wise to let the writing and the acting take the lead in this film.) Speaking of the performances, Young and Quaid are solid in their roles, but it’s Nicholson’s Buddusky who really shines with a rascally and charismatic energy. In retrospect, it’s pretty amazing that, in just one decade, Nicholson gave iconic performances in Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and The Shining; and it’s roles like this one that cement his status, in my mind, as the greatest actor of his generation — i.e. better than Pacino, De Niro, Hoffman, Hackman, etc.
Coming Home (1978) – Right in the middle of Ashby’s filmography, the director’s sixth film, Coming Home, was also his most critically successful endeavor upon its release — garnering a total of eight Academy Award nominations (including for Best Picture and Best Director, etc.) and three Academy Award wins (for Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay). Informally inspired by a chance meeting between Jane Fonda (who helped get this movie made) and paraplegic Vietnam Vet Ron Kovacs (whose story would later become Born on the Fourth of July, directed by Oliver Stone), Coming Home explores a romance between a military housewife (Fonda) who — when her husband (Bruce Dern) is deployed — begins to work in a nearby veterans’ hospital, eventually starting a romantic relationship with a wounded soldier (Jon Voight). As mentioned earlier, the performances here are very strong by everyone and especially by the three principle characters: Sally (Fonda), Luke (Voight), and Bob (Dern). While Fonda and Voight both received Oscars for their portrayals, it was Dern’s performance that stuck with me, bringing his typical strange energy to a character who is largely unlikable but also, by the end, somewhat sympathetic in his trauma. Specifically, the film’s final scene, juxtaposing Luke’s speech about combat with Bob’s “transformation” (of sorts) is emotionally compelling in ways that we might not expect. Overall, a highly empathetic and human look at the emotional, social, and physical costs of combat — both on veterans and their families. A grossly underrated “war film.”
The Underrated One
Ashby’s first film, The Landlord, is vastly underrated — especially for a directorial debut. And while it received critical acclaim upon its initial release, Coming Home gets overlooked nowadays despite its interesting exploration of vets and PTSD, probably because it’s a tonal anomaly among Ashby’s other greats. But I’ve already talked about those two films above. One film that I haven’t mentioned yet is Ashby’s most commercially successful film: Shampoo. And while that movie has a certain degree of near-satirical enjoyment because of its exploration of both Hollywood and the romantic-comedy genre, it’s merely a solid-to-good effort overall. Therefore, my selection for the “underrated film” in Ashby’s filmography is his biopic on Americana folk-singer Woody Guthrie, entitled Bound for Glory (1976). Featuring a surprisingly memorable and charismatic performance from David Carradine (of Kung-Fu and Kill Bill fame), Ashby’s exploration of the American icon has less to do with Guthrie’s music than with the class, regional, and political factors that helped to shape his ideology and helped to find his voice. Make no mistake: Bound for Glory isn’t a perfect film — in fact, there were several times in the first 30ish minutes where I was ready to give up on it, as the film’s pacing leaves a lot to be desired. However, as the movie progresses, one does become increasingly interested in the America and the Americans that Guthrie encounters on his travels. And, as a cinephile, it’s beautifully shot and features an early use of (perhaps the first use of) Steadicam technology, so there’s that too. Check it out if you’re interested in music biopics.
The One to Avoid
It’s generally accepted that Ashby’s directorial efforts take a serious nosedive in the 1980s and, yeah, that’s pretty much the case. [I’ve not seen Second-Hand Hearts, so I can’t comment on that particular movie. But the other three 1980s Ashby films are lackluster-to-terrible.] Lookin’ to Get Out isn’t totally awful — that said, it’s also completely forgettable. Even though it features Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia being Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia, 8 Million Ways to Die can’t overcome a trashy script by Oliver Stone or an uncomfortably horrendous performance from Rosanna Arquette. [I do suppose that one minor pleasantry from watching this particular film is that it creates a weird, unintended frame for Ashby’s directorial career — his first film starring Beau Bridges and his last film starring Jeff Bridges.] But my pick for “The One to Avoid” is 100% The Slugger’s Wife (1985). Yikes. Based on a stupid premise and a terrible script by Neil Simon, featuring utterly horrendous performances from the entire cast, and lacking any semblance of his typical visual creativity, The Slugger’s Wife is EASILY Ashby’s worst effort as a director. In fact, I can’t think of one reason — NOT. ONE. REASON. — why this movie should exist or why anyone should ever watch it. I couldn’t locate a free copy for this retrospective, so I had to pay $3 to watch The Slugger’s Wife online; and, if there’s an afterlife, I plan to track down Ashby and demand my $3 back. That’s just how bad this movie is — it’s “hunting-down-the-filmmaker-in-the-afterlife-bad.” Oof.
The Place to Start
This may come as a surprise (given the popularity of Harold and Maude today), but I think that, if one were interested in watching Ashby’s filmography, I’d probably suggest starting with The Last Detail (1973). No…I don’t think it’s as good a film as Harold and Maude [see rankings above], but I do think it’s an “easier” and, generally speaking, a more immediately approachable film. [Because Harold and Maude has transitioned from cult-classic to mainstream classic, it’s easy to forget just how quirky — and, arguably, narrow — its humor and sensibility sorta is.] So…yeah. I’d suggest starting with The Last Detail, and, if you like that film, then moving on to Harold and Maude and The Landlord and then perhaps Coming Home (for a slightly different, more dramatic Ashby film). Although I think that Being There is Ashby’s greatest film and an undeniable masterpiece, I do think it’s best seen and best appreciated after establishing a foundation with the director’s other works first.
The Final Word
As mentioned at the start of this retrospective, it’s difficult to express just how superb the quality of work is/was in Hal Ashby’s 1970s films. In fact, all seven of the movies made during that decade are good. Some are even very good (e.g. The Last Detail, The Landlord, and Coming Home). And some are legitimate masterpieces deserving of preservation (i.e. Being There and Harold and Maude). And yet, for whatever reason, Ashby gets forgotten among the other titans of the “American New Wave” filmic period — i.e. directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, etc. Part of this overlooking is undoubtedly classist snobbery, as Ashby’s films were never seen as “educated” as some of his peers despite their superior emotional intelligence — probably because Ashby approached filmmaking from the editing-room rather than the film-school. Part of this overlooking is due to Ashby’s own personal demons — his substance abuse, his antagonistic attitudes toward studios, his own editing perfectionism that slowed post-productions to a crawl, etc. Part of this overlooking is because there may be no other director whose work can be so clearly demarcated: the 1970s = good/great Ashby, while the 1980s = bad/awful Ashby. Regardless, Hal Ashby is certainly a director who I have grown to respect more and more over time. For filmmakers, in particular, Ashby seems to have figured out the importance of beginnings and endings — that you can make a lot of mistakes and take a lot of chances during the course of your film, IF you have a great open and a great close — as there aren’t many directors who I can think of that so effectively bookend their films with such powerful opening/closing scenes. If you haven’t had a chance to watch his films, I’d certainly encourage you to check them out!