“When I started making films and thinking about who was influential to me as a filmmaker I would cite the obvious people that came out of that tradition of Coppola, Scorsese — and there was the great French filmmakers,” Lisa Cholodenko says in Amy Scott’s revealing new documentary Hal. “But I knew somewhere there’s some seminal films that were really humanistic… Who made them? Why am I missing something? I’m missing some piece of this.” The missing piece she’s referring to is Hal Ashby, who directed a string of masterpieces in the 1970s but for years was rarely mentioned in the same breath as his contemporaries.
There are a variety of explanations for this. Altman, Coppola, Scorsese, and others who thrived in the 1970s all had difficulty coping with the changes in Hollywood that came in the 1980s, but Ashby essentially hit a wall. His movies barely got released and were sometimes taken out of his hands; he lost the chance to direct Tootsie; he clashed with the powers that be; and he struggled with substance abuse. Then, as he attempted to mount a comeback at the end of the ’80s, he died shortly after being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 59.
But Cholodenko isn’t alone in looking for the missing piece, and Ashby’s reputation has only grown over the years. Hal, playing in theaters now, is filled with admirers like Cholodenko, Alexander Payne, and Judd Apatow — who regards Being There as “the bar” he always tries to reach. Ashby’s is a remarkable body of work that begins with his time working for Norman Jewison, which earned him a reputation as one of the most intuitively inventive editors in the business, a skill very much in evidence in the films he’d direct. And though his filmography reaches a tattered end, there’s much to be learned even by studying even Ashby’s failures.
Ranking those films isn’t easy. Ashby made seven masterpieces between 1970 and 1979, each of them strikingly different. They’re united more by a rebellious attitude and a deep sense of empathy for their characters than easily defined obsessions, which might also help explain why he doesn’t fit as neatly in the canon as his peers. Perhaps more than with most directors, asking which of his movies is best is a matter of personal taste, and the caveat to this ranking is that you can’t go wrong with any of the top seven and really should see them all. Then there’s the rest of his films. But if the standard line on Ashby is that he fell off a cliff after 1979, the films themselves tell a slightly different story, and at least one of his ’80s movies is due a reappraisal. To the end, Ashby refused to fit into an easy narrative.
Ashby was famous for encouraging his actors to improvise, and for that alone he had no business getting within a mile of a screenplay by Neil Simon, a playwright known for his precisely worded dialogue and witty exchanges. With The Slugger’s Wife, Ashby wasn’t exactly working with the next Barefoot in the Park here, either. The story of a slumping Atlanta Braves outfielder (Michael O’Keefe) who goes on a tear after meeting a singer (Rebecca DeMornay), and then becomes threatened when she exerts her independence, is nobody’s finest hour. Nobody involved seems to have much passion for baseball, the central relationship never makes much sense, and DeMornay sings a lot of cringey, vaguely New Wave covers of Prince, Neil Young, and others. Some nice cinematography by Caleb Deschanel — Ashby always chose his directors of photography well — doesn’t make this any less of a slog.
Ashby’s final feature was taken out of his hands and recut by the studio, an indignity deepened by his reputation as a craftsman who would lock himself in a pot-smoke-filled editing room for days before emerging with an inventive cut that no one else could have created. That said, what survived plays more like a warmed-over episode of Miami Vice transplanted to Los Angeles than a lost masterpiece. The seedy thriller features strong performances from Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette and there’s an intriguing look at substance abuse buried beneath in there somewhere, but digging never seems worth the effort.
The Rolling Stones followed the successful release of the 1981 album Tattoo You with a massive American tour, but this concert film taken from two appearances —one in Arizona and one in New Jersey — feels curiously distant from the excitement. The filmmaking of Let’s Spend the Night Together is never all that inventive, mostly notable for some of the aerobics-inspired costumes favored by Mick Jagger.
Ashby’s follow-up to Being There stars Robert Blake and Barbara Harris as a pair of hard-living Texans who get married in a drunken haze and decide to stick together and head to California. It’s too leisurely paced and suffers from a broad, bug-eyed performance from Blake, but it also features some keen observations about how America was starting to find less space for misfits and losers trying to find their own path. The film suffered a similar fate. It’s far from Ashby’s best work, but it’s easy to see a ramshackle effort like this still finding a foothold in the early ’70s. But by the end of the decade, the world had no place for it. It sat on the shelf, received an extremely limited release, then mostly disappeared.
Ashby had better luck with Neil Young than the Rolling Stones when he filmed this Dayton, Ohio, appearance from Young’s 1983 tour. Worth noting: Despite the title, this is not a solo appearance (Young performs with his rockabilly-inspired band the Shocking Pinks in the second half and appears with backing singers in the first), and it features no songs from the album Trans. It also features an only occasionally amusing framing device in which a square news broadcaster reports on the show’s progress from backstage. But Ashby achieves a disarming intimacy with Young during the performances, particularly during some breathtaking renditions of classic songs in the first half.
If there’s a great, lost Hal Ashby film it’s this one, in which Jon Voight (who co-wrote the screenplay) stars as Al Kovac, a gambler whose debt to some shady characters sends him to Las Vegas looking for a big score with his best friend Jerry (Burt Young) in tow. Voight gives one of his best performances as a man who’s lived his life one hour at a time and comes to recognize this approach might finally be catching up with him. He’s having fun while standing on the edge of an abyss, and the film borrows that spirit. Lookin’ to Get Out never quite gels as miraculously as Ashby’s earlier work, but it’s still a showcase for his craft and passion. (Look for a young Angelina Jolie in a key scene late in the film.)
Ashby’s friend and mentor Norman Jewison originally intended to direct this adaptation of God Bless the Child, writer Kristin Hunter’s 1966 novel about a young, privileged white guy named Elgar (Beau Bridges) who buys a building in a black Brooklyn neighborhood with the intention of throwing everyone else out and living in luxury. Instead, Elgar finds himself drawn into the community, making their concerns his own, and falling in love. Working from a screenplay by Bill Gunn, Ashby fills the film with cutting dark humor, but he’s just as invested in the characters, the relationships, and the neighborhood itself. If The Landlord sounds like a pat white-guy-gets-woke story, the complexities of the film defy that definition. It’s a remarkable debut that, through a combination of clueless marketing and critics that didn’t know quite what to make of it, didn’t make much of an impact at the time. But everything that made Ashby a great filmmaker can be found here, and its reputation has rightly grown over the years.
Ashby made four films with the remarkable director of photography Haskell Wexler, a friend who shared his liberal political sympathies. But the collaboration almost ended before it began with this first team-up when Ashby fired him mid-picture. Fortunately, he had second thoughts. The result: this visually stunning biopic of Woody Guthrie (played with heartland charisma by David Carradine), filled with sweeping vistas of Dust Bowl America. Working from Guthrie’s autobiography, Bound for Glory follows the singer from Texas to California to New York as he turns the struggles of those he meets into song, then pushes back against the music industry that would try to sanitize and repackage the truths he tries to convey. Ashby doubtlessly saw a bit of himself in Guthrie, but for all the remarkable images and righteous indignation, the film is no hagiography, and some of the most striking moments — like a scene of hobos fighting in a boxcar as they ride the rails — work to demythologize the world of Guthrie’s songs even as it celebrates the art itself.
In the late ’70s, American movies started reflecting on the meaning of the war in Vietnam: The Boys in Company C, The Deer Hunter, and Ashby’s Coming Home, which looks at the war through from the perspective of the home front. Co-written by Waldo Salt and Ashby’s frequent editor Robert Jones, the film depicts the experiences of paraplegic veteran Luke Martin (Jon Voight), Marine captain Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern), and Bob’s wife, Sally Hyde (Jane Fonda). When Sally volunteers at a VA hospital, she’s shocked to find inadequate facilities and surprised to reunite with Luke, a high-school acquaintance with whom she begins a romantic relationship while her husband serves on the front lines. The film opens in 1968 — Bob prepares to ship overseas in the days after the turning point of the Tet Offensive — and it’s filled with classic songs from the Beatles, the Rolling Stone, Aretha Franklin, and others that had yet to become cliched ’60s signifiers. Instead, they feel like tools being used to excavate the emotions of the then-recent past. Ashby doesn’t try to hide his opinions of the war, but Coming Home never feels didactic. It’s powered by a deep empathy for its characters and the hard choices they make in the midst of impossible times.
Another story of ’68 California, Shampoo is set in a Los Angeles that only thinks it’s far removed from the turmoil of the times. Warren Beatty, who co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Towne, stars as George Roundy, playboy hairdresser who’s eager to open his own shop even though he doesn’t know the first thing about running a business. What he does know, or at least thinks he knows, is women, who are eager to sleep with him. It’s what happens afterward that gives him trouble, and the 24 hours leading up to and following Nixon’s election find him alternately struggling to maintain, contain, and reignite affairs with women played by Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, and Lee Grant.
“I didn’t like the people in Shampoo,” Ashby told the New York Times the following year. “But I wouldn’t take any cheap shots at them. I felt sorry for them.” That quote contains a clue as to what makes Shampoo, and many of Ashby’s other films work. He may not think much of George, who fumbles to the edge of understanding the void at the heart of his existence, but he feels for him — and even for characters who would be simplistic villains in a lesser movie, like Lester (Jack Warden), a Republican businessman George first cuckolds then befriends then comes to recognize as a kind of mirror for his own actions. As unsparing as the film is in depicting a ’60s L.A. too distracted by frivolity to notice the dark times they were about to enter, it’s a soulful excoriation of a free-spirited moment that was already receding into the distant past.
Like The Landlord, Harold and Maude was met with indifference when it was first released. But that soon changed. A kind of siren call for sensitive misfits, it became a midnight-movie hit in the ’70s, then a kind of secret handbook for living passed on from one generation to the next. Bud Cort stars as the death-obsessed Harold, who amuses himself by staging increasingly elaborate faked suicide attempts and attending the funerals of strangers. At one of these he meets the elderly Maude (Ruth Gordon), who befriends him and teaches him to appreciate the world around him and find beauty even in the midst of death and cruelty. The film is a masterful high-wire act. An inch in the wrong direction and it could seem too cutesy, or maudlin, or smug. But it’s none of these. Taking its cues from the Cat Stevens songs on its soundtrack, it’s a bittersweet celebration of what makes life meaningful, as short and painful as it can often be.
Another collaboration with Robert Towne, The Last Detail adapts a Darryl Ponicsan novel in which two naval petty officers — Billy “Badass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) — find themselves charged with escorting 18-year-old sailor Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to a prison where he’ll serve an eight-year sentence for stealing $40. Feeling sorry for Larry, they decide to give him a few days of living the high life as they make their way across New England. But there’s a sourness to their hijinks; they can never quite lose sight of their task or a sense that they’re participating in an injustice. Towne’s profane script gives Nicholson one of his best roles, but it also keeps offering checks on his character’s sneering swagger. He’s a self-styled rebel who’s ultimately resigned to toeing the line, whose egotistical outbursts change nothing. One of the key American films of the 1970s, it distills a sense of post-’60s futility, a feeling that all the recent upheaval had come to nothing. But it also finds some glimmers of optimism in the relationships formed by the men, and the moments of humanity they allow themselves in the midst of an inhumane system.
The political ascent of Donald Trump prompted comparisons to Ashby’s 1979 masterpiece Being There, and they’re not entirely off base. An adaptation of a Jerzy Kosinski novel, the film stars Peter Sellers as Chance, a simple, middle-aged man who knows the world only through television and whose plainspoken observations about gardening and other matters are mistaken for profound observations by those who meet him after he’s taken under the wing of presidential adviser Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas). But while Chance’s rise illustrates the dangers of mixing celebrity and politics, the Trump parallels don’t go much further. In one of his final roles, Sellers plays Chance as a gentle spirit whose innate blankness causes others to project on him their thoughts and hopes, an entity whose seeming egolessness stands in stark contrast to those around him. A satire shot through with whimsy and melancholy, it avoids easy jokes in favor of meditative gentleness. It also defies any easy interpretation for reasons beyond its mysterious final image, a question with no answers. Ashby’s films are full of those.