*Note: contains plot spoilers*

In the endless sea of film criticism, little ink has been spilled on editor turned director,
Hal Ashby.  When he is mentioned, journalists often attribute his success to his iconic
collaborators (several of the actors in his films were nominated for Academy Awards)
and most of the slanted coverage given surrounds his downfall to drug induced paranoia.

Originally from Ogden, Utah, Hal Ashby was the youngest child born in 1929 to a Mormon
family.  His parents divorced when he was just six years old-- forever-tainting young Hal’
s view of marital relationships.  After his father lost the family dairy farm in 1941, he
committed suicide and Ashby found the body himself when he was just twelve years old.  
This unfathomable event colored his filmmaking greatly as suicide and tragedy abound
throughout his works, most notably in
Harold and Maude, which when viewed with this
in mind seems like Ashby’s cathartic and most personal work although the screenplay
was written by Colin Higgins.  

According to the Internet Movie Database, before embarking on his Hollywood career,
Ashby proved to be far worldlier than others his age, having been married and divorced
twice before he turned twenty-one.  He hitchhiked to L.A. at seventeen and worked at
least fifty to sixty jobs before he walked into the California Board of Unemployment and
asked for a position in a film studio in 1950.  He mimeographed scripts at Universal and
eventually became a widely respected film editor, winning a richly deserved Oscar for his
work with friend/mentor/collaborator Norman Jewison for
In The Heat of the Night.  
Ashby has often stated that film editing provided him with the best film school
background outside of traditional university study and he carried the techniques
learned as an editor with him when he began directing.

At the age of forty, Ashby was given a job by Jewison directing his debut comedy
after overworked Jewison handed him the assignment.  Harold and Maude, his
second film, starred Bud Cort as a depressive young man who acts out elaborate faux
suicides in order to annoy and gain the attention of his self-obsessed socialite mother.  
Things change when he meets a vivacious seventy-nine-year-old rebellious hippie and
Holocaust survivor named Maude and the two embark on an unlikely friendship that
rather naturally (although shockingly to most viewers) develops into a romance.
Although a box office disaster when released-- proving there is quite a double standard
when it comes to May-December romances in which a woman is the elder--
Harold and
has since become a cult favorite and inspirational to a new generation of
filmmakers ranging in talent from Wes Anderson to the Farrelly brothers.  The irony-
drenched black comedy has also inspired the recent film
Garden State and its creative
plot ideas show up in many films such as
Arthur and Fight Club.  It’s a curiously
gorgeous little film—perfect in every frame and my very favorite film of Ashby’s that
honestly deserves a lengthier essay dedicated solely to study of its many brilliant layers.

According to an
Images Journal article written by James Davidson, the recurring themes
of an innocent man-child who overcomes a domineering parental or authority figure via
free-spirited individuals that began with his two first films and developed further in the
rest of his 1970’s oeuvre.  “Again and again.” Davidson writes, “throughout Ashby’s films,
his characters are confronted by authority figures and pressured to conform to societal
norms, but they only gain a measure of humanity when they assert themselves and
endeavor to experience life and to live it on their own terms.”  Ashby’s films also
frequently use comical props as devices.  These devices in addition to the often ironic
musical soundtracks that provided a commentary on the action, helped create his
signature sense of humor although Ashby is often criticized for having no apparent style
because its subtlety make it nearly invisible to detect.  His films do feature frequent
motifs of water and cliffs as well as endings in which a character simply wanders off.  If
you watch enough of them back to back you start seeing his autobiographical
fingerprints of Ashby as a wandering young man who left what was probably a strict
Mormon family filled with the hypocrisy of divorces and suicide, to become his own free,
wandering individual in L.A.  However, often times there’s a melancholy or even suicidal
implication in Ashby’s endings that was most apparent in
Coming Home, in which Bruce
Dern’s character wanders off presumably to drown himself in the ocean.  This ending was
a complete flip-side to Bud Cort’s Harold in
Harold and Maude wherein he stages one
last elaborate fake suicide driving his car off a cliff by the ocean and then wandering off
with a banjo, taking Maude’s advice to live and love some more with the wonderful Cat
Stevens music playing.

Most film historians critical of the bearded hippie Ashby credit the success of his most
financially successful film
Shampoo to writer/producer/star Warren Beatty and co-
writer Robert Towne who had also written Ashby’s
The Last Detail and was one of the
1970’s most famous screenwriters. Much of the credit the film receives is for its famous
screenplay, which used fairy-tale like names and situations in interesting light such as
naming two women Jackie and Jill and Beatty’s character is given the last name of
“Roundy” to, as James Davidson points out, illustrate that “he is going around and
around in a dream world but never getting anywhere,” via the many sexual conquests he
hopes will enable him to “live forever.”   In fact,
Senses of Cinema writer Darren Hughes
says that, “of all the films he made in the ‘70’s,
Shampoo feels the least like a Hal Ashby
picture,” noting that it was too restrained and closely bound to the script as well as the
“uncharacteristic staginess to the blocking of actors,” which makes some of the
movements seem unnatural.  However, Hughes later explains that despite these
differences, “it continues his investigation of the theme that most dominates his work—
that is, the cost, both literal and metaphoric, of individual freedom and integrity in a
world dominated increasingly by oppressive, dehumanizing economic interests.”

Despite the studio feel and frequent noting that Beatty was the one holding the reins on
Shampoo, the film is an ingenious document of a time and place—filmed in the 1970’s
and commenting on the recent late 60’s, analyzing the free love era with a cynical eye,
pointing out that the love was never really free.  Beatty plays George Roundy, a woman’s
hairdresser with dreams of opening his own shop who has a long list of impressive
clients, most of whom he is sleeping with, in addition to a live-in girlfriend.  Beatty’s
character speaks in hippie slang, telling a former flame (Julie Christie) that he doesn’t
sleep with people for money but rather for fun, indicting her for being involved with a
wealthy married businessman however, as viewers like Hughes notes that George is
deluded since, he “is the biggest whore of the lot,” in a film he likens to “a melancholy
answer to
The Graduate,” ending the film with “disillusionment, pathetic posturing and
moral apathy,” instead of the “youthful naivete and reckless adventure” of Mike Nichols’
film.  It’s interesting to watch the two in the same week and note that Shampoo has the
benefit of hindsight in analyzing the way things were really changing, however there is
one obvious 1960’s homage that Davidson points out as the characters, “end up at a wild
party in the Hollywood hills that is clearly a symbol for everything that was decadent and
outrageous in America during the late 1960’s.”

In 1978, Hal Ashby directed another film that looked at events of the 1960’s.  
, which took place in the tumultuous year 1968 and told the story of a military wife
torn between her heroic hyper-masculine husband (Bruce Dern) and a paraplegic
Vietnam veteran she’d known in high school played by Jon Voight.  Actress Jane Fonda,
who had helped conceive the idea for the script years earlier based on her anti-war work
with GI’s had seen the project through many stages and individuals.  At one time it was
attached to director John Schlesinger, hand-picked by Fonda after she’d seen
but he’d bowed out saying that his being both British and homosexual would add
more battles for the already controversial actress to fight once the film was released.  
However, unlike Schlesinger’s passion for urban life, Fonda wrote in her autobiography
My Life So Far that she “wanted to make films that were stylistically mainstream, films
Middle America could relate to: about ordinary people going through personal
transformation,” (Fonda 359).  She was also paramount in making the focus of the film
concentrate on gender at its heart “as a way to help redefine masculinity” (360).

Ashby, who had directed several films Fonda admired, stepped in and although the two
had disagreements over the authenticity of the love scene and medical implications and
Dern’s character’s suicide, she revered the director.   In her autobiography, Fonda notes
that Asbhy’s skills as an editor made the film so successful, saying that not only would he
shoot thirty to forty takes of each scene with little direction to the actors to heighten
their performance requiring them to be natural, but he would also print all of them.  
“Then,” Fonda writes, “in the solitude of the editing room, his brilliance would shine like
that of a sculptor with clay,” taking subtle nuances from various scenes, vocal inflections
and body gestures and putting them together, “in a way we hadn’t expected—or in some
cases hadn’t intended,” (Fonda 374).  She also credits the cinematography of Haskell
Wexler, who, following Ashby’s passion for the long lenses and natural light that had
populated his other films, “gave the scenes a sense of beauty and voyeurism, as though
the audience were looking through a keyhole at something intensely private and real,”
(374).  This, coupled with Ashby’s trademark of wallpapering the movie with music from
the era that would comment (sometimes ironically) on the action, helped make it a film
classic and add to its authenticity so much so that as Fonda noted, in a 1980 poll of
Vietnam veterans, they chose
Coming Home as one of the highest rated films that
portrayed them the most favorably (375).

Although Fonda’s intention was to focus on masculinity and gender, Ashby plugged right
Coming Home’s sentiment of a free-spirited individual up against "the man" and
Jon Voight’s character is an archetypal Ashby role.  The free spirit at the heart of his next
Being There is given another Ashby ending involving wandering and water but this
time, our hero actually walks on water—a role that Davidson states comprises, “Ashby’s
most fully-realized ‘innocent’ protagonist.”  It’s left for viewers to decide if Asbhy’s free-
spirit, played by Peter Sellers in his last film role, may have in fact been a higher being,
brought in by the Gods to comment not on the 1960’s like in
Shampoo or Coming Home
but on events as they are happening in the late 70’s.  The film takes place as conservative
sentiment begins to creep into the pre-Reagan era foreshadowing the 1980’s, that would
find bearded, wandering Ashby not only “out” but ultimately dead, a literal testament
that the idealistic era of the 60’s and 70’s was over.  

Being There, based on the novel by Jerry Kosinski who adapted his own work, Peter
Sellers plays Chance the Gardener, a simple minded
Forrest Gump meets Boo Radley
type of character who spends his days gardening for a rich man and every other moment
in front of the television.  When the master dies at the start of the film, Chance must
leave the sole home he’s ever known with the only life lessons he packs along gleaned
from the “idiot box” as the music from Kubrick’s
2001 plays during his odyssey into the
streets of Washington D.C. His journey eventually leads him to become involved in
business matters, economic policy and politics in what Hughes calls, “a satiric jab at the
co-opting of the nation’s public discourse by television’s empty images and content-free
rhetoric,” as Chance imitates the images that surround him, soaking it all up like a
newborn child. Some mistake his deadpan seriousness and naiveté for a sense of humor
and others (mostly women) find him intense and seductive—disarming them with his
genuine honest nature in a world comprised of double-talking politicians and others who
conceal their real motives. The president, I may add is impotent throughout the film,
just like the other major male character-- an invalid with a sexually unsatisfied wife
played by Shirley McClaine—possibly serving as a symbol for the uselessness of
figureheads and the idea that the true power is hidden.  Although Chance never learned
to read or write, he succeeds in this new gimmicky U.S. where sound bites thrive and
ultimately appears on television (now dubbed Chauncey Gardiner) after his gardening
comments are mistaken as political gems by the president of the U.S.  Chance, who like
newspapers and television news talks to audiences at a third grade level, is suddenly
viewed as sexy not only by McClaine, (ironically named Eve), but also by others including
an attractive homosexual at a party who mistakes Chauncey’s earnest confession “I like
to watch,” as an invitation to view him with another man.  Later, Chauncey is the subject
of an investigation by no less than sixteen other countries until, after endless searching
for a nonexistent past or any records indicating just who he may be, his character is
mentioned by several characters near the end of the film as a likely candidate for the
next presidential election. Finally, as the film ends and Chauncey walks on water, the
following quote from a deceased character shares, “life is a state of mind,” leaving
viewers scratching their heads over whether or not Chance was merely a simpleton or a
mystic/Christ-like figure sent to ease others approaching death and the film is book
ended by death, making one wonder if he is an angel.

The idea that life is a state of mind is fascinating when viewing the work of Ashby—a man
with allegedly no style, as critics frequently state.  Upon closer inspection, one notices
not only a signature style and recurring themes brought forth in his films, but also a
greater understanding of the man behind the movies whose state of mind is echoed in the
hearts and dialogues of the free-spirited wanderers who populate his films.  Some, like
George Roundy in
Shampoo delude themselves; others like Harold in Harold and Maude
finally find a way of accepting mortality in a cathartic celebration of life, until in
one actually walks on water.  Chance the Gardener was a man whose luck brought
him wandering into all the right places at the right times, like Ashby whose life had taken
numerous directions before he’d even turned twenty-one.  Although, sadly, some
consider him to be a casualty of the times as his dependency on drugs led to wildly
erratic behavior that led to the studios seizing film away from him in the 80’s as
blockbuster finance fantasies entered studios minds, one cannot let this diminish the
importance of his career.  He was a man of the times—possibly, like Chance, a mystic
wanderer and as Hughes points out, “
Being There is a strangely fitting conclusion to
Ashby’s enviable run during the 1970’s,” as his “politically motivated irreverence and his
simple faith in humanity’s potential for radical change were suddenly an anachronism.”  
The tragedy may have indeed been with Ashby who began on a downhill spiral that ended
with his excruciating last few years and death from liver cancer, but when viewed in
retrospect with all honesty, the great tragedy was—to reference Bob Dylan-- that “the
times were a-changin’.”  Suddenly, a man whose characters made up their own life
mottos as their lives were a state of mind went out of fashion and Reagan’s new-economy
was in.  Sadly, Ashby was the 70’s and the 70’s ended, for better or worse, and the new
decade began. He perished before the dawn of the independent film boom and before a
young man named Sean Penn stole an Ashby sign (violating Penn’s parole) to bring to
Ashby’s memorial at the Director’s Guild of America, and even dedicated his first
directorial work to two men that defined the 60’s and 70’s respectively: auteur and indie
godfather John Cassavetes and Hal Ashby.  Luckily, Ashby, through those of us that he’d
inspired, continues to live on and therefore so do the sentiments of the 1970’s of choosing
an existential view of life, in helping out a new friend but most of all, following one’s own
path as a free-spirited wanderer wherever that may take you to the tranquility of an
Ashby seaside.

    Sources Cited

    Davidson, James. “Hal Ashby.”  

    Fonda, Jane.  My Life So Far.  Random House, New York.  2005.

    Hughes, Darren.  “Hal Ashby.”

    IMDb.  www.imdb.com “Hal Ashby” 27 March 2006.
Commenting On Our Times:
Hal Ashby and the 1970’s
By Jen Johans
(c) Jen Johans.   filmintuition.com
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