When the great filmmakers of the seventies are mentioned, the same names crop up: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and so on. But one of the best is rarely mentioned in the same breath as these masters. Perhaps because the films he made before his death from cancer in 1988 were so underwhelming (The Slugger’s Wife, Second-Hand Hearts), the late Hal Ashby rarely receives the celebration he so richly deserves. With a string of seventies classics to his name (Harold And Maude, Shampoo, Coming Home, Being There), Ashby is surely one of the most underrated directors of the modern era. He’s also one of the most idiosyncratic and eccentric American filmmakers to find major success in The Dream Factory, which is beautifully captured in the documentary, Hal, which will screen at The Revelation Perth International Film Festival. “He had such a special sense of humour, an irony and a buoyancy to him,” actor, Jon Voight – who starred in two Ashby films, Coming Home and Lookin’ To Get Out – once said of the director, “and he was totally unique. Not of this earth, in some ways. He was the definition of a true individual.”
THE LAST DETAIL (1973) Many would argue, but Hal Ashby’s boldest, richest and best – though not necessarily his most discussed – film is 1973’s The Last Detail. Ashby famously had a wild anti-authoritarian streak, and this rough-and-ready comedy-drama scripted by Robert Towne (from the novel by Darryl Ponicsan) makes the most of it. Jack Nicholson is at his salty, wildfire best as Billy “Bad Ass” Buddusky, a loudmouthed, tough-as-nails Navy lifer assigned – along with his buddy “Mule” Mulhall (the wonderful Otis Young) – to escort an innocent young sailor on trumped up charges (a never better Randy Quaid) to the brig. Though uproariously funny, this hard-charging masterpiece is also a beautifully crafted bittersweet elegy to the very meaning of honour and justice. With nothing less than volcanic force, it rages against the institutions that allegedly make America great, and stands as a questioning, uncompromising and wholly rebellious work of art.
BEING THERE (1979) The best films tend to reverberate through the ages, achieving currency in different eras, and appearing to comment on things that have happened long, long after they left the cinema. With the world of American politics so, well, weird, at the moment, Hall Ashby’s 1979 comedy drama, Being There (adapted from Jerzy Kosinski’s novel), is now strangely prescient. Viciously satirical but never nasty, the film stars the perfectly cast Peter Sellers (who campaigned for the role) as Chance, a simple gardener who, through a circuitous set of circumstances, finds himself at the very centre of America’s power structures, wining and dining with millionaires and eventually advising The President Of The USA. Spouting homespun, gardening-inflected pearls of wisdom that are not really that perceptive or wise, Chance is incorrectly taken for a great thinker of the modern age. Taking broad swipes at the media’s love of short, easily digestible soundbites over true analysis, and the seeming ease with which those unqualified can assume positions of power, Being There is – to use a cliched and short and easily digestible soundbite – even more meaningful today than when it was first released. It is also, however, deeply moving, and despite its innate cleverness, it’s much, much more than just an intellectual exercise.
COMING HOME (1978) With so much talk currently swirling around about women in Hollywood, Hal Ashby’s Coming Home is ripe for major rediscovery. Though certainly celebrated and awarded upon its release, this film boasts a truly great central female character, and a wonderful performance by the brilliant Jane Fonda. Justifiably scoring an Oscar for her work, Fonda delivers an acting masterclass as Sally Hyde, the politically conservative wife of a US Marine (Bruce Dern) whose life hits a spin when her husband ships off for Vietnam. Lonely and looking for fulfillment, Sally works as a volunteer at a local hospital, where she meets Luke (Jon Voight also won a much deserved Oscar), an angry, defiant Vietnam veteran who now rages against the war that put him in a wheelchair. Despite their differences, Sally and Luke eventually become lovers, with the moral mess further muddied when Sally’s husband returns home after being wounded in battle. Bold in its depiction of sex for those with physical disability, and touching and perceptive in its fore fronting of a strong friendship between a man and woman, Coming Home is a characteristically anti-authoritarian and humanist work from Hal Ashby, whose skill with actors here is nothing short of extraordinary.
HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971) A quintessential American cult movie, 1971’s Harold And Maude sees Hal Ashby waving his freak flag with absolute abandon, fully indulging in one of cinema’s weirdest relationships. In an in-your-face case of opposites attract, the titular couple could not be more disparate: Harold (seventies fixture, Bud Cort, who pulled a truly great one-two by starring in this indelible oddball classic straight after taking the lead in Robert Altman’s equally weird Brewster McCloud) is a young man obsessed with death and his own suicide (which he “practices” for with a number of bloody, gruesomely not-so-dry runs), while Maude (the amazing Ruth Gordon, who had just delivered her own great one-two with Rosemary’s Baby and Where’s Poppa?) is a much, much, much, much older woman with an unstoppable and occasionally law-challenging lust for life. Again dealing with a relationship for which the term unconventional is hardly sufficient, Hal Ashby (working from a script by Colin Higgins) is sensitive and empathetic, never playing the age difference for laughs, but finding humour in far darker places. Funny, brave, and freewheeling, Harold And Maude is Hal Ashby at his wild and perfectly judged best.
SHAMPOO (1974) Tapping wholeheartedly into actor Warren Beatty’s allegedly legendary and prolific ways with the ladies (“That would not be, as Joan Didion once said to me, ‘feasible’,” Beatty amusingly responded to biographer Peter Biskind’s claim that he has slept with 12,775 women. “It would not be feasible. It could not happen.”), Hal Ashby’s Shampoo is a deceptive comedic beast. Scripted by the great Robert Towne (Chinatown) and Beatty himself, the film is surface funny and light, but it has a lot to say about the era in which it unfurls, and the sleepy malaise that gripped America at the time. Beatty is beyond perfect as George, a nice guy Hollywood hairdresser who spends as much time bedding his female clients as he does trimming their tresses, but not just to boastfully apply more notches to his already well-scratched belt. Maximum chuckles are derived from George’s sexual athleticism and the bedroom farce swing of the plot, but there’s something much more going on here. Though never violently baring its teeth, the highly entertaining Shampoo is a well disguised attack on the vapidity of American culture, and the regular failure of its denizens to really connect with each other.
MORE HAL… Though the five above films are pretty much indisputable as Hal Ashby’s most important and well recognised works, there is much further joy to be had while returning to this wonderful director’s offbeat oeuvre. Yes, there are titles better off avoided altogether (The Slugger’s Wife, Second-Hand Hearts, Lookin’ To Get Out), but some of Ashby’s less celebrated films come close to rivalling his more noted successes. Rich and evocative, Bound For Glory (1975) is a big, sprawling biopic about pioneering folk singer, Woody Guthrie (effectively played by David Carradine), while the concert film, Let’s Spend The Night Together (1982), finds Ashby tapping right into the live power of The Rolling Stones. The director’s debut, The Landlord (1970), is a gutsy treatise on race and class, and a truly audacious first film. Ashby’s final film, 8 Million Ways To Die (1986), was barely finished and nearly broke the director, but remains a rippingly sleazy noir as much about alcoholism as it is its central mystery, and boasts a superlative lead turn from Jeff Bridges. Hal Ashby, we salute you…