Despite having one of the best filmmaking streaks of the 1970s, Hal Ashby is largely unheard of. But with a new biography and some vocal acolytes, the director may be finally getting his due, writes Daniel Arizona ...
Why don’t people know the name Hal Ashby? Despite having one of the best filmmaking streaks of the 1970s, directing such cult-classics as “Harold and Maude” (1971), “Shampoo” (1975) and “Being There” (1979), he has been eclipsed by fellow maverick directors from the era. Never is Ashby mentioned in the same breath as Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese. Yet his eccentric sensibility and offbeat stories are spliced into the DNA of just about every independent film or quirky major release coming out today.
Consider “Rushmore” (1998), perhaps Wes Anderson’s finest film, which hit screens exactly ten years after Ashby’s death. Like “Harold and Maude” (pictured above), my all-time favourite Ashby work, it features a socially maladjusted but precociously intelligent boy, who seeks the wisdom, love and acceptance of wonderfully flawed adults, all to the uplifting strains of Cat Stevens. Throw in some inherited wealth, absurd affectations, Vietnam and a few more connoisseur 1960s B-sides and it’s all of a piece. Jason Schwartzman, the star of “Rushmore”, claims to have watched “Harold and Maude” regularly during the making of the film, in order to capture just the right note of teenage frustration.
Ashby’s relative unknown has been attributed to his lack of a personal style. He is accused of allowing his actors too much room to improvise, of not being a visionary tyrant on the set. But this claim is hard to swallow. Whether his camera is following Harold’s movements as he prepares to hang himself during the opening credits in “Harold and Maude”, or tracking Jon Voight right above the water level in a hospital swimming pool in “Coming Home”, we feel Ashby’s powerful presence and thoughtful choices. If only more directors had so “light” a touch.
But besides his tight editing, unerring use of music and unconventional camera placement, his films all feature uniquely alienated characters and his distinctive brand of biting humour. He bravely mixed silly misunderstandings (such as the "sex scene" of "Being There") with more serious questions about life and death, ensuring films that are difficult to classify.
In “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”, a landmark book on the New Hollywood era, Peter Biskind lent some insight into why Ashby has been lost in the shuffle: he was miserable to work with. Difficult, erratic, distrustful and aloof, Ashby often spent months editing his films at home in a haze of pot smoke while seething movie executives cooled their heels. Even in the permissive, anything-goes atmosphere of the time, Ashby was at the top of Tinseltown's black list for being an auteur who made uncommercial films in an uncompromising manner.
Having grown up in Utah in an unstable Mormon household as a child of the Depression (his father committed suicide), Ashby was a rebellious kid who had already married and divorced twice before he was 21. At the tender age of 17, he hitchhiked to California in the mid-1940s and worked scores of odd jobs before he managed to get a position as an apprentice film editor. He honed his skills by cutting film for days on end.
In the 1960s Ashby embraced the counter-culture, grew his hair long and began a fruitful collaboration with Norman Jewison, a director. Ultimately his monkish devotion to his craft was rewarded by an Oscar for Best Film Editing for Jewison's ''In the Heat of the Night'' (1967), which went on to win Best Picture, beating out such films as "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate".
This award marked Ashby’s moment to become a director, which he swiftly exploited with a stunning run of canny films that tested social mores. His first, “The Landlord” (1970), examined gentrification and interracial relationships, while “Harold and Maude” unapologetically imagined a romance between a suicidal young man and an elderly Holocaust survivor. A few generations removed from your typical hippie firebrand, Ashby wasn’t prone to stridency, preferring instead to make his criticism of the Vietnam War known by humanising soldiers in films such as “The Last Detail” (1973) and “Coming Home” (1978). Ashby's sympathetic portraits of emotionally complicated servicemen recall Thomas Pynchon’s approach in “Gravity’s Rainbow”.
Though rooted in the counter-culture, Ashby was just as critical of it. In “Shampoo” (1975), Warren Beatty’s George Roundy is a Laurel Canyon Casanova who rides around on his motorcycle with perfectly coiffed hair and an unending supply of women, yet he is too incompetent to even get a bank loan. Set on the eve of Nixon’s first election, George’s selfishness and helplessness (the sexual revolution incarnate) lead him to squander love. As a result, he is left like the rest of his generation: heartbroken and rudderless. Ashby would continue to critique the changing American landscape a few years later with his satirical tour de force, “Being There”, but it would sadly prove to be his last real statement.
Things changed in the 1980s. The success of films such as “Jaws” and “Star Wars” encouraged studios to concentrate on blockbusters. This was a problem for socially relevant, quality directors like Ashby, who worked best on a small scale. But for Ashby the decade was particularly tough owing to his poisonous reputation as a troublemaker, as well as his deteriorating health from drugs and chain smoking. These years were marked by missed opportunities, poor films, angry producers and an early death at 59 in 1988, his name besmirched and his legacy unacknowledged.
Thankfully, Ashby’s films are enjoying a resurrection. Many of the kids who grew up on his work, such as Wes Anderson and Judd Apatow, have risen through the ranks as independent filmmakers and are citing him as an important influence. There may even be glimmers of more widespread recognition. At long last, a biography was published in March, Nick Dawson’s "Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel", which should help to unearth this distinctly American treasure. Ashby should be remembered for the way he chronicled disordered lives with honesty, compassion and an eye for the absurd, at a time when films mattered.