Where to begin with Hal Ashby

A beginner’s path through the offbeat, countercultural cool of Hal Ashby.

2 September 2019

By Ian Mantgani

Hal Ashby directing The Last Detail (1973)

Why this might not seem so easy

It may seem bizarre, if you’ve never seen a movie directed by Hal Ashby, how his fans refer to the body of work as if it has a unified sensibility, even while they talk about each individual film’s qualities as being so wildly different. How can the in-your-face, we-are-the-weirdos cult comedy of Harold and Maude (1971), the coolly surrealist grace of Being There (1979) and the dramatic, hard-edged anti-militarism of Coming Home (1978) and The Last Detail (1973) be so offhandedly considered in the same bracket?

Nevertheless, be assured that this seeming paradox is indeed the reality. Ashby made a string of masterpieces in the 1970s, whose trappings range from blunt caricature to refined melodrama, but while the surfaces feel different, the souls of these works represent a consistent authorial worldview.

Raised in Utah, with a tumultuous childhood that included the divorce of his parents and suicide of his father, Ashby dropped out of high school and moved to California to work scores of odd jobs before spending his 30s in the cutting room, editing such major motion pictures as In the Heat of the Night (1967), for which he won an Oscar.

A committed rebel and inveterate pot smoker, the beat of his drum was in sympathy with a spiritual drift through life, and he scorned authority, systems and indeed earthbound materialism in general. All of his directorial works are in some way about misfits looking for surrogate families, with the strictures of society at large portrayed as cloistering and unnatural at best, murderous and maddening at worst.

“The studio is not your friend; the studio is the enemy of the artist,” director Norman Jewison told Ashby during their collaboration, which is advice he took to heart, constantly battling against executive meddling, and gaining a reputation which came back to sting him when his movies stopped being profitable.

Ashby’s sense of humanism, bound to a sense of antagonism, gives his filmography a bittersweet, yearning tension; with his desperation about America as it was, and hope for what it could be, wrapped up with his own personal demons and hypocrisies. It’s no surprise he was the man to film the life story of Woody Guthrie.

Harold and Maude (1971)

In terms of finding an entry point, there’s a case to be made for picking any of his films from the 1970s at random and starting there – they’re all in some way unique, and all of a high standard. Or, you can work through this period chronologically: the caustic satire of race relations, plantation mentality and Park Slope gentrification that is The Landlord (1970) makes for a brilliant, bracing debut. The equally brash follow-up, Harold and Maude, about the unlikely romance between a suicidal teenage boy and a lusting-for-life septuagenarian Holocaust survivor, is Ashby’s most enduring popular hit.

By the time of his third film, the voyage-to-the-stockade road movie The Last Detail featuring Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid, Ashby had mellowed the rhythmic register of his films but only honed his anger at American power and sympathy with outsiders. Then came Shampoo (1975), set on the eve of Nixon’s election, released in the aftermath of Watergate, with womanising hairdresser Warren Beatty in a roundelay involving Julie ChristieGoldie Hawn and Carrie Fisher – it’s a film that poignantly satirises the obliviousness of free love limping to the finish as society took a darker turn. Bound for Glory (1976), his Guthrie biopic, is a sumptuous epic of awakening and rebellion, and the first feature film to employ the Steadicam. It was followed by his multi-Oscar-winning Vietnam reckoning Coming Home and iconic Peter Sellers vehicle Being There, closing out an extraordinary decade.

However, to approach the work that way takes time and depends on availability, and some of these works – particularly The Landlord and Bound for Glory – are hard to find in many territories. Here’s an alternative way in.

Coming Home (1978)

The best place to start – Coming Home (1978)

It would be easy to suggest you start with the smash hit Harold and Maude, but while a lot of people love that flick, a significant minority find it simplistic in its binary between repression and liberation, or just plain irritating. Ashby’s humour in his first two films is certainly at his most impudent, so it might be more instructive to first look at a work that makes plainer his empathy and fair dealing.

Coming Home pitches Jane Fonda as an army wife whose cocksure husband (Bruce Dern) has gone off to fight. Volunteering in a veterans hospital to while the hours away, she finds herself romantically involved with an embittered amputee (Jon Voight), and stuck between not just two lovers but two competing visions of macho post-traumatic stress. From the cold open featuring a discussion on the war cast with improvising real-life veterans, to the film’s rock-n-roll mini-climaxes as the players crack up about or fight back against the system, to its lyrical moments of intimacy, Coming Home is an accessible, unsentimental spectacle of characterisation that’s an overpoweringly moving and nimbly crafted example of Ashby’s compassion and his rage.

Being There (1979)

What to watch next

If you want to get more of a sense of Ashby’s sense of humour, you don’t need to jump in at the deep end, and in fact Being There will literally demonstrate that in this crazy world, you can walk on water. The quietest of Ashby’s great films is an odd and exquisite distillation of his observational and comedic sensibilities, with Sellers playing Chance, a gardener with the brain of a child who has lived his whole life in the townhouse of a Washington DC millionaire, of whom Chance may or may not be the illegitimate son.

When the old man dies, Chance is adrift in the big bad city, but he quickly fails upwards. Through accident and miscommunication, he ends up surrounded by political elites who believe his name to be Chauncey Gardener, and his simplistic bromides about yard work (“growth has a season…”) are lauded as daring political insights.

The particular balancing act of Being There is to celebrate Chance’s innocence while skewering the vapidity of a ruling class that elevates him, and the film’s bizarre beauty will hopefully hook you on getting more of a sense of what the entire Ashby project was about. The movie contains two sentences that could be Ashby’s mottos: a piece of graffiti that reads ‘America Ain’t Shit Cause the White Man’s Got a God Complex’; and the final bit of dialogue, “Life is a state of mind.”

Lookin’ to Get Out (1982)

Where not to start

Second-Hand Hearts (1981), with a gratingly dopey Robert Blake and a crowing Barbara Harris as a couple who got married while drunk and are stuck between road-tripping to Juarez to start a new life together or just running away from each other and forgetting the whole thing happened, is a painful mess that bears some superficial Ashby trademarks but not his genuine feeling for people. It was a troubling omen for Ashby in the 80s, who would make nothing but box-office flops, exacerbating his ostracisation by studio brass and intensifying his drug use. The rumour mill had sentenced him to virtual unemployability by the time he died of cancer at age 59 in 1988.

Some of his later works have strong qualities – Lookin’ to Get Out has a wired Voight performance, and aims for some of the same weary loser territory as classics like Fat City (1972) or California Split (1974); The Slugger’s Wife (1985) is a romantic rock fable with some charming interplay; 8 Million Ways to Die (1986) is a brutal sunshine noir to sit alongside 52 Pick-Up (1986) or To Live and Die in L.A. (1985).

But you can sense in all these films that Ashby was a man out of time, struggling to find humanity in the garishness of the 80s, feeling tragically boxed in. It’s better to begin with the Ashby films in which hope was still alive. “I live in a world I didn’t make,” goes the final speech in the final film, and you feel it, you really do – but along the way, Ashby made his mark and fought for beauty where he found it.

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