Peace and Love: The Wonderful Films of Hal Ashby

Amy Scott’s recent documentary celebrating the life and work of the late director Hal Ashby, simply called Hal, may have slipped by without you noticing. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 and received a limited release late last year. Scott must be commended for making a tender and celebratory ode to an American legend. Ashby was someone who never really received the kudos during his lifetime that he deserved. His mistreatment by Hollywood, particularly in his later career (but also with his earlier films too), is put under the microscope here, and there is a sense that many people involved in the documentary want to put that right. And so they should. Ashby was an extraordinary mind in filmmaking. He made films with intelligence, care and a wonderful wit. The brash, gung-ho approach of many Hollywood alumni in the 1960s and 1970s was lost on him. His trademark blend of whimsical entertainment and the mindful tackling of broad sociological issues, sometimes too hard to take for Hollywood studios, was so important and can now be seen as having a huge influence for the path taken by many American filmmakers from the 1980s onwards. I generally find that the usual line-up of Oscar hopefuls every year carry quite a debt to Ashby’s approach.

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Ashby grew up in a dysfunctional Mormon family and after finishing school, he eloped with his progressive ideas to LA where he began work as a film editor. His big break came when he struck up a lifelong (and loving) friendship with the upcoming director Norman Jewison, and would go on to edit his iconic, multi-award winning film In the Heat of the Night in 1967. What a fantastic film that was, and as Jewison mentions in Scott’s documentary, it would have a large influence on his later work. As you may know, Ashby would go on to direct some of the most unforgettable American films of the 1970s: The Landlord (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979). The breathtaking consistency of quality in this list of seven films, and to be made over a period of nine years, would point to an unparalleled genius in the history of film. I have watched all of these delightful films, and I find each and every one to be instantly re-watchable. Ashby did direct a number of other movies in the 1980s, which don’t really reach the same heights as these earlier films, but as the documentary points out, Ashby struggled to get anything past the now Studio-controlled movie industry without it being massively edited down or re-shot by someone else. This interference understandably drove Ashby out of his mind and his career rapidly declined as a result. Hollywood had shamelessly and completely sullied his legacy prior to his untimely death in 1988. He sadly died of pancreatic cancer aged only 59.

As an honour to Ashby’s brilliance, I want to share with you my four favourite moments from his eminent period of filmmaking:

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Harold and Maude (1971, Paramount Pictures)
Directed by Hal Ashby. Written by Colin Higgins. Music by Cat Stevens Featuring Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon, Vivian Pickles, Cyril Cusack and Charles Tyner.

As Cameron Diaz proclaimed in There’s Something About Mary, Harold and Maude ‘is the greatest love story of our time’. One may opine that the Farrelly Brothers wrote that line with their tongues firmly in their cheeks. But for some people, it may very well be true. Ashby’s Harold and Maude was so ahead of its time in attempting to break down social barriers. But it wasn’t done with a sledgehammer. Ashby managed it with subtlety and care. Harold and Maude is a darkly comic drama about a young man with an obsession about death who finds love with a dear old woman who teaches him about living life to the fullest. Indeed it is an oddball movie first and foremost, and no doubt shocked conservative America upon its release, but what lies at its core is a very relatable and lovely story about mortality and affection. The moment when they both meet at a funeral (for someone neither of them know) is perfectly adjudged and hilarious: Maude hops in a car and offers Harold a lift, but looking a bit mesmerised, he declines and says he has his own car. Then Maude turns the car around with all the grace of a runaway driver and speeds off almost crashing into oncoming traffic. The kicker comes when the priest runs out from the church shouting: ‘hey, that’s my car!’

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The Last Detail (1973, Columbia Pictures)
Directed by Hal Ashby. Written by Robert Towne and Darryl Ponicsan. Edited by Robert C. Jones. Featuring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, Randy Quaid, Clifton James, Michael Moriarty and Nancy Allen.

There are many brilliant scenes in this often-overlooked gem of the golden era of independent American filmmaking. Jack Nicholson and Otis Young play two naval officers (Buddusky and Mulhall) assigned to escort a court-martialed young seaman (played by Randy Quaid) to a military prison. The young man has been dishonourably discharged for stealing a small sum of money from a charity, while the two naval officers have been told they will lose all of their benefits if they do not carry out the orders. The film follows the often humorous shenanigans and interactions between the three men as they travel by public transport from Virginia to Maine during the cold North American winter. My favourite scene occurs when the trio enter a bar for a midday drink but are faced with a complacent owner who refuses to serve the young man without ID. The owner makes a racist remark towards Mulhall, who barks back with the zinger: ‘You can take your beers and shove ’em up your ass sideways. Can you dig it?’ Then the animated Buddusky rants with expletive-abandon and pulls his gun out slamming it on the bar and shouting: ‘I am the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker! I am the motherfucking shore patrol! Give this man a beer.’ It is truly one of Jack Nicholson’s greatest lines.

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Coming Home (1978, United Artists)
Directed by Hal Ashby. Written by Waldo Salt, Robert C. Jones and Nancy Dowd. Cinematography by Haskell Wexler. Featuring Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, Penelope Milford, Robert Carradine and Robert Ginty.

A hugely successful film upon its release, both critically and commercially, Coming Home was a surprise hit drama across the world. Pitched as a sort of love triangle romance, it also carefully tackled the impact of the Vietnam War on Americans in their home country. Without the directorial craft of Ashby and the deeply heartfelt acting of Fonda, Voight and Dern, the film may have fallen off the cliff-face of debilitating melodrama. Coming Home fills the heart with hope and exudes with a rational message of peace and love. This is exemplified in the final scene, which includes a tear-inducing speech given by paraplegic Luke Martin (Voight), who suffers from PTSD after returning from the war. He manages to come to terms with his rage and depression with the unexpected help of a soldier’s wife, Sally Hyde (Fonda). His speech is directed at a roomful of young soldiers who are about to enlist for the war. It is raw, really raw, and gut-wrenching, sound-tracked beautifully by Tim Buckley’s ‘Once I Was’. It is unsurprising to discover that Voight ad-libbed much of the speech:

And now, I’m here to tell you that I have killed for my country or whatever. And I don’t feel good about it. Because there’s not enough reason, man, to feel a person die in your hands or to see your best buddy get blown away. I’m here to tell you, it’s a lousy thing, man. I don’t see any reason for it.’

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Being There (1979, United Artists)
Directed by Hal Ashby. Written by Robert C. Jones and Jerzy Kosiński. Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel. Featuring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Warden, Melvyn Douglas, Richard Dysart, Ruth Attaway, David Clennon and Richard Basehart.

Being There is undoubtedly a comedy masterpiece. It is Peter Sellars’ glorious swansong and is one of my favourite films of all time. It follows the hilarious rise to political prominence of a simple-minded gardener called Chance (later mis-interpreted as Chauncey Gardiner). There are so many great moments: the disbelief on Chance’s housekeeping colleague’s face while she watches him interviewed on a TV talk-show; the orgasmic attempts by Shirley MacLaine to seduce Chance on the bed, while he tries to change the channels on the TV; or the famous end credits outtakes, where Chance, sitting on a hospital bed, recounts what some drug dealers said to him while he was walking the streets. But the stand-out is indeed the ending, where the President of the United States (Jack Warden) delivers a speech at the funeral of one of his closest confidants in Washington. As a number of men carry the coffin, they whisper considerations for Chance to be the successor to the President. Meanwhile, Chance wanders off into the snow-covered woods and then, unperturbed, walks across a pond of water without sinking. Indeed, the message may be taken as meaning a lot of things but for me, it is to say that an idiot is to be the New World messiah. Taking into account the current leaders of the US and Britain, is this not remarkably prophetic?

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