What Happened to Hal Ashby

There’s no question mark at the end of the title of this post because: asked and answered. It’s no news bulletin that America’s dream factory is also its cesspool. For every triumph of art and humanism Hollywood pats itself on the back for, there are 99 cynical knock-offs and simulated snuff films. Navigating its snares has to be a job of work. Those who are able to keep their souls intact seem as rare as two-headed chickens. Thus it was that director Hal Ashby (1929-1988) enjoyed about as golden a decade as one could wish for, coinciding almost exactly with the 1970s, before slamming into the shoals of the 1980s, ruined by a combination of the allure of cocaine culture and the shabby ethics and shallow aesthetics that seemed to go with it.

The son of Utah Mormons, Ashby grew up partly on his father’s farm, and partly in Oregon, where his mother ran a restaurant (unusually for Mormons, the couple had divorced when he was seven. His father committed suicide when he was 12). Ashby dropped out of high school and drifted for awhile, finally winding up in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. He got his toe-hold in the movie business as an assistant editor, learning on the job in informal apprenticeships he’d talked his way into. Early pictures he worked on in this capacity included Friendly Persuasion (1956), The Big Country (1958), The Diary of Ann Frank (1959), The Children’s Hour (1961), The Best Man (1964), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1966).

After a diligent decade of being an assistant Ashby was promoted to editor, a function he performed for an amazingly brief time and with dazzling success. Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965) was the first of these films, a picture that foreshadowed the iconoclastic nature of his own future work in the director’s chair. With the aid of director Norman Jewison he got there surprisingly rapidly. Jewison essentially took him under his wing and mentored Ashby while he cut his pictures The Cincinnati Kid (1965); The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966); In the Heat of the Night (1967), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and the more obscure Gaily, Gaily (1969) based on the memoirs of Ben Hecht. By this time, Ashby had been nominated for two Oscars in the editing category, taking home the trophy for In the Heat of the Night, which won in four other categories as well.

While it’s a little unusual, it wasn’t unprecedented for an editor to make the move to directing. David Lean, Robert Wise, and Mark Robson are some of the more celebrated examples. In a few short years, Jewison had perceived latent talent in Ashby, and associated him with his own great successes of the late ’60s, for prior to that, his movies had all been fairly silly light comedies. A true collaboration had happened. It must be pointed out here that Ashby was no kid at this stage. He was 40 at the beginning of 1970. But as a pot smoking beatnik of 20 years standing, he was very much in tune with the youth culture that had only just made waves in Hollywood with Easy Rider. Among the so-called New Hollywood directors, Ashby probably had the most in common with Robert Altman, who was four years older.

So Jewison produced Ashby’s first film, The Landlord (1970), scripted by the great (and too much unsung) Bill Gunn. The Landlord would make an interesting pairing with In the Heat of the Night. Jewison’s earlier film was a pretty conventional (though, granted, laudable) liberal Hollywood take on race relations, not too far away from the Stanley Kramer sensibility. The Landlord was much more questioning, open ended, ambiguous. It starred Beau Bridges (who’d also starred in Gaily, Gaily) as a pampered, aimless rich boy who buys a tenement in Park Slope, Brooklyn with intention to raze it and build condos, but changes his mind when he becomes increasingly involved with his black tenants. The movie manages to mix satire and drama. Bridges and his mother (a hilarious Lee Grant) are the targets of humor. The black characters gradually slap them into seriousness, especially after Bridges’ impregnates a girl, played by Diana Sands (who’d been in A Raisin in the Sun and the original production of Blues for Mister Charlie.) Also playing neighborhood residents: Pearl Bailey, Louis Gossett Jr, Mel Stewart, Marki Bey (later of Sugar Hill) and Charlie Murphy (Eddie Murphy’s older brother) who plays a kid stealing a hubcap. Oh, and Robert Klein plays one of the clueless white people.

The Landlord didn’t do so well at the time; it’s the film from Ashby’s classic period most of us discover last. In addition to its own merits as a movie, it is especially fascinating to watch for folks familiar with the present-day Park Slope, which is completely gentrified. I lived there for many years (I’m one of the clueless white people) and found it instructive to see how the neighborhood had looked four decades earlier, when the character of the area was more like that of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights. The changes that have taken place in Brooklyn in years since have added new poignance and meaning to this film.

Harold and Maude (1971) is the earliest of Ashby’s well-known (actually, notorious) films, although it took many years to build up its cult following. I first saw it as a teenager a decade after its release when it was screened at the local college auditorium. It’s a black comedy not worlds away from The Loved One. Penned by Colin Higgins for a college project, it stars Bud Cort, then fresh off of Robert Altman’s MASH and Brewster McCloud (both 1970) as a troubled young man with an attention-seeking habit of faking suicides, who falls in love with a wise, philosophical and free spirited old woman played by the irresistible Ruth Gordon, then in the midst of a miraculous late-life comeback. Naturally real death will soon come for the octogenarian, and Harold will have to figure some things out. It’s by turns weird and sick and lively and touching, all goosed along by a haunting Cat Stevens soundtrack (and now I won’t be able to get those songs out of my head all day). As in The Landlord, the privileged young hero has a supercilious mother (Vivian Pickles) who is the butt of much humor. Tom Skeritt, fresh off of MASH, has a cameo as a traffic cop. At any rate, as you can imagine, this is a movie best encountered initially as a teenager, and only if you’re a certain kind of teenager. But if you’ve never lost that part of yourself (I never have), it’ll speak to you. I could never trust anyone who didn’t love this movie.

Ashby’s next picture The Last Detail (1973) tends to fall through the cracks in people’s memories, although it was his first movie to do respectable business at the box office. It just so happened to fall right in the groove with popular tastes at the time, which favored naturalistic, character driven road movies about odd balls, movies that eschewed obvious plots, where momentous changes arise out of small events. (1973’s Scarecrow with Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, is one of my favorite movies of this type). I’ve always thought the military subject of The Last Detail would make it a wonderful double feature with Cinderella Liberty starring James Caan, which was also released the same year. The Last Detail stars Jack Nicholson, who’d done several of this kind of movie with Bob Rafelson (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens). In this one, he and a fellow navy seaman (played by black actor Otis Young) are tasked with bringing a young prisoner from a base in Norfolk to a brig in Maine. Their charge is a young hick played by Randy Quaid, whose only previous experience had been in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) and What’s Up Doc? (1972). His character has received a sentence of eight years for stealing $40 — The Brig, indeed. This was Nicholson’s last film before Chinatown (1974) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) pushed him up to a new level of stardom. In his development, it makes an interesting middle point between his military roles in Ensign Pulver (1964) and A Few Good Men (1992). Scripted by Robert Towne, it’s a very cool snapshot of a certain kind of character at the tail end of the Vietnam War, before a “kindler, gentler” culture began to envelope the military. This was back when only navy men had tattoos, and they projected something, not just that you had traveled the world, but that you had busted in many a head in alleys behind barrooms. But in its unique way, though the characters are very different from those in Harold and Maude, The Last Detail has a similar shape of people coming together and bonding, denying for the moment the knowledge that their friendship, like life, is doomed to be temporary. As an added bonus we get to see early career bit turns by Gilda Radner, Carol Kane, and Michael Moriarity, all of whom would enjoy both fame and acclaim before decade’s end.

Ashby collaborated with Towne again on what I think stakes out a credible claim to being his best film, Shampoo (1975) starring Warren Beatty. Set in Beverly Hills in 1968, the film is a kind of satirical comedy of manners that reminds me a lot of Tom Jones (in fact, the structure’s loosely based on Wycherley’s The Country Wife). It’s one of those seemingly plotless movies that seems to accrue meaning the more and more you watch it. The word “self-parody” is normally used disparagingly, but here Beatty (playing a hairdresser, who is so close to our perceptions of Beatty that he seems to be playing himself) does really excellent work of both acting and self-examination, as he hops from bed to bed, coupling with women of all ages, played by Lee Grant (who’d played a similar role in The Landlord), Julie Christie (a real life lover who’d co-starred with him in Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller), Goldie Hawn (whom he was also boffing), and even a young Carrie Fisher (whom he propositioned). He’s not in the Casanova mold, however. He’s not a wolf making conquests. It’s more a question of lacking character. The best looking and most charismatic guy in any room, he simply can’t resist advances. And this is where satire begins to creep in. For the movie is set against the backdrop of the 1968 Presidential election, the one in which, to everyone’s confoundment, was won by Richard Nixon (topical because Nixon had resigned in disgrace only months prior to the film’s release). The culture’s shallowness, love of luxury and apathy also presage the even greater upsets of Reagan in ’80 and the Nameless One in 2016. Americans are too busy fucking around to notice or care, let alone stop, the ruthless people who keep power concentrated in just a few hands. But there are even darker overtones. Beatty’s character was loosely based on Jay Sebring, one of the victims of the Manson Family. In Beatty’s last scene with Christie, high atop one of the hills that give the area its name, there is the sound of a dark barking in the distance that always gives me a chilling reminder of something Vincent Bugliosi wrote in Helter Skelter, about how sound carries through those canyons, how you can hear a dog barking from miles away. I would be very impressed if this touch was intentional, but whatever the case it’s a good argument for Roland Barthes’ conviction that there are no authors, only readers. The film also has some meta touches: producers Tony Bill and William Castle are in the cast! Along with such notables as Jack Warden, Jay Robinson, George Furth, Howard Hesseman, Brad Dexter and many others. Shampoo was a huge hit, earning over ten times its budget at the box office, ranking third for the year behind only Jaws and Cuckoo’s Nest.

Ashby chose to follow up this hit with a more earnest statement, a screen adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s autobiographical book Bound for Glory (1976). The film starred David Carradine, who at the time was at his peak fame as the star of the TV show Kung Fu. The casting has a nice resonance, given that Carradine’s father, John Carradine played the nutty preacher in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), another tale of Depression era Oklahoma. And naturally, as Guthrie had been Bob Dylan’s hero, and was the father of contemporary singer Arlo Guthrie, the subject matter spoke to the counterculture in the same way Ashby’s earlier films had. Ronny Cox of Deliverance, who was also a folksinger, musician and storyteller, was also in the cast as were Randy Quaid, Melinda Dillon (just prior to Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Wendy Schaal (Richard Schaal’s daughter), Bernie Kopell and Mary Kay Place. Bound for Glory was the first of four Ashby movies to be shot by legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, also a veteran of many Norman Jewison films, and the director of the amazing movie set against the backdrop of the 1968 Chicago riots, Medium Cool. Wexler won an Oscar for his work on Bound for Glory.

Then followed perhaps Ashby’s most acclaimed film (upon initial release), the post-Vietnam drama Coming Home (1978), starring Jane Fonda (who originated the project) and Jon Voight, both of whom won Oscars for their performances in the film. Voight’s earlier peak had been in the films Midnight Cowboy (1969), Catch-22 (1970) and Deliverance (1972); Coming Home was both a comeback for him and the high point of his career, as he played a wheelchair bound returning soldier based on Ron Kovic (who also wrote the book Born On the Fourth of July which Oliver Stone brought to the screen a decade later). Fonda of course had been vilified as “Hanoi Jane” after an ill-advised visit to North Vietnam during the war. Coming out in early 1978, Coming Home benefitted mightily from being the first Hollywood movie to really deal with the Vietnam War, followed quickly by The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and a whole spate that followed during the 1980s. It generated a HUGE amount of positive press and was Ashby’s second most successful film at the box office. Bruce Dern was the third lead in the film as Fonda’s husband, as well as David’s brother Robert Carradine, and would you believe Willie Tyler (sans Lester)?

Coming Home was followed by the release of Ashby’s third biggest box office success, a 1979 screen adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s absurdist novel Being There. This is the movie that vies with Shampoo for being Ashby’s biggest critical triumph (many are quite firm that this is his best film). It’s a sort of existential fable about a Holy Fool played by Peter Sellers, in what many have called his best performance. Sellers plays a character named Chance, a simple gardener who is the ward of a wealthy old man who dies, leaving him to wander out in the world, where he subsequently becomes an important adviser to the President (Jack Warden) through dumb luck and the willingness of powerful people around him to interpret his simple pronouncements as wisdom. Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas play the wealthy couple who introduce him to the highest levels of government, whereas a doctor (Richard Dysart) and a black maid who knew him when (Ruth Attaway) try to warn people that the Emperor Has No Clothes, but to no avail. I was 14 when I read the book and saw the film on its initial release, not long after seeing one of my first plays in a theatre, which just happened to be Richard Jenkins’ production of Waiting for Godot at Trinity Rep. I was taught to appreciate such heady stuff quite young. I love Being There’s stately, slow moving, deadpan pace, reflective of the central character. It seems to me Sellers’ most rewarding relationship with a director since Kubrick (come, come, don’t throw Blake Edwards up to me, puh-lease! No contest.) Sellers and Ashby were developing another movie together, but the former’s death interceded. In light of Harold and Maude and Ashby’s willingness to take risks, I’m sorry Ashby didn’t make a movie starring Sellers’ corpse. As it happens, I have a screenplay just like that in my desk drawer (and no, not Weekend at Bernie’s).

After this string of hits, you might assume that Ashby could write his own ticket, and that was ALMOST the case, or rather, was the case for about a minute, which is all they give you in Hollywood before they flush you down the toilet. He did form his own production company, and he outfitted his mansion with editing suites and so forth so that he could work from home. But the lore is that he got whacked out on coke, and that drug proved not nearly as conducive to Ashby’s brand of creativity as cannabis had been. And thus pretty abruptly we get the string of turkeys that represented Ashby’s work in the ’80s.

The first, Second Hand Hearts (1981), is too much reviled, I think. Ashby had actually shot it prior to Being There, but in what would be an ever expanding problem, he couldn’t seem to stop editing it, this despite the fact that how he DID edit is no tour de force. I think of this one as a flawed but interesting movie, still adhering in many ways to the aesthetics of the ’70s. Shot beautifully by Wexler, it’s another “losers road movie”, this time co-starring Barbara Harris and Robert Blake as a couple who get married during a drunken bender, with Harris now forcing him to help her take care of her kids. It’s played for comedy, though it’s a trashy and tawdry tale. She’s a country singer and barmaid (shades of Nashville) and he’s an out-of-work car wash employee. Blake wasn’t in Harris’s class as a thespian but he had done good work in In Cold Blood (1967) and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969). They both probably could have used some reigning in, in the film, but frankly I’ve seen much worse. Also the cast features Bert Remsen from the Altman-verse, and Shirley Stoler, whose The Honeymoon Killers would make a nice double feature with In Cold Blood AND Helter Skelter. (Sorry there’s just no escaping that theme today).

Harris was fresh off a string of ’70s classics, and Blake had just wrapped Baretta at the time the film was shot (1979), so they might have been reasonably good box office if the film had been promptly finished and released, but it didn’t make it to theatres until 1981, and scarcely then. It was only released to a handful of cinemas and shelved for decades. It (like most of Ashby’s subsequent films) is currently available on Youtube, which is where I watched them.

Lookin’ to Get Out (1982) reunited Ashby with Jon Voight, who starred in and cowrote this as a seeming vanity project. It much resembles Altman’s California Split and Karel Reisz’s The Gambler (penned by James Toback), both released in 1974. Voight plays a problem gambler on the lam for debts, accompanied by his friend, portrayed by Burt Young from the Rocky movies. Later, through a case of mistaken identity they get the red carpet treatment in Vegas which only proves an opportunity to get into bigger trouble. Ann-Margret is in the film, with a seven year old Angelina Jolie in her screen debut as her daughter. And Siegfried and Roy appear as themselves. Thus it has all the ingredients for success, and one wants to like it, but Voight’s character is so obnoxious and unlikable, both as written and as performed, that it’s a dealbreaker. This one (as opposed to Second Hand Hearts) is one I would definitely label unwatchable. The film performed extremely poorly.

Next came the only Ashby ’80s film I was aware of at the time, the Rolling Stones concert film, Let’s Spend the Night Together (1983). It’s not so odd that Ashby made this film, when we remember that Scorsese had worked on Woodstock (1970) as a camera man and editor, and directed The Band’s concert film The Last Waltz (1976). He seems to have acquitted himself adequately on the execution of the film, although there were rumors of hard partying during production.

By now of course all of Hollywood was in dreck mode, turning out lots of formulaic rubbish, and Ashby had already lost all of the leverage he once had in terms of getting some creative control. His own sensibilities were wildly out of step with the times, and his last two Hollywood films are unworthy of the man who made them. In fact, he surely would never had made them at all if he’d had another alternative. Both of them have a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Slugger’s Wife (1985) was a “magical” rom-com scripted by Neil Simon about a pro baseball player (Michael O’Keefe) who falls in love with a singer (Rebecca de Mornay). The movie inexplicably shifts from light comedy to one of those dreary break-up movies Simon was so fond of writing at the time. Randy Quaid returns for the third time, and as perhaps the movie’s only positive element, a supporting part played by Loudon Wainwright III. It’s not like Ashby didn’t know how to do comedy. But in this new environment, he had to stick to a script that wasn’t his style of humor, and work with stars who weren’t his type either. This film earned less than $2 million on a $19 million budget.

His next and last film performed similarly at the box office and deservedly so. 8 Million Ways to Die (1986) is handily Ashby’s worst film, and again because it was his least characteristic. Oliver Stone adapted the screenplay from a Lawrence Block mystery, and it’s designed to be one of those slick, all-surface, bright and sunny ’80s pictures — the Miami Vice aesthetic. Jeff Bridges plays alcoholic hero Matthew Scudder, suspended from the sheriff’s department for drinking, who gets drawn into a sordid tale of drugs and murder. The central irony of that decade: all these coked up writers, directors and actors making all these movies with plots about busting bad guys — who are coke dealers! I’d speculate that it probably made their own dealers pretty upset, but their dealers probably backed the movies. THAT’s how bankrupt Hollywood is. Some of the scenes in this movie seem shot with too much realism; there is so much mess and disorder in these L.A. apartments, it looks like all concerned just filmed it at their houses. It’s horribly shot and incoherently edited. The only saving grace for this correspondent was the presence of Rosanna Arquette (then at the peak of her hot-cha-cha) as a prostitute. I was about to suggest doing a version where one cut out everything in the movie but Arquette, but then I realized that would just be a porn film. Why hire Ashby for this? This is all they got for this Oscar maker? All I can think was that he had edited the original Thomas Crown Affair, which had indeed pioneered modern style over substance. But 8 Million Ways to Die is no such triumph.

After this, Ashby directed the pilot of the 1987 Hill Street Blues spin-off Beverly Hills Buntz, starring Dennis Franz. (Again, how the mighty have fallen from Shampoo, shot in the same nabe). Ashby’s last credit, sadly was a pilot for a 1988 show called Jake’s Journey featuring Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, which was not picked up, and Chapman died just a few months later.

But not before Ashby also made the journey so longed for by his precocious young hero Harold. The cause was — amazingly not drugs, for which he seemed to have an unending tolerance — but cancer, which had ravaged his entire body by the time it was discovered.

If you’re curious to learn more you might check out Amy Scott’s very good 2018 documentary Hal (not the best title, as I know a certain 1968 malfunctioning onboard supercomputer who also went by that name). It’s got lots of memories by co-workers, who paint a vivid portrait of the man, who sure sounds like the gonzo guy who made these movies.