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The Films Of Hal Ashby: A Retrospective

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com May 6, 2011 at 6:55AM

Laid-back, doobie-inclined, scruffy and shooting from the hip mavericks: while many of his peers went on to much greater success in the 1970s -- Steven Spielberg, Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, etc. -- perhaps no one director typfies the groovy, uber-chill Easy Riders and Raging Bulls generation of filmmakers more than Hal Ashby.
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“Bound for Glory” (1976)
Ashby wasn't the first choice to direct the biopic of Woody Guthrie, the beloved American folk singer, poet and Bob Dylan mentor, but it wasn't till he replaced cinematographer Haskell Wexler at the helm that the dustbowl-era project really came together. The director was never one to put out a hagiography, and “Bound for Glory” portrays Guthrie in a typically unromantic fashion detailing his frequent abandonment of his wife and children during the harsh Depression Era to go on the road and give voice to disenfranchised workers. After offering the role of Guthrie to everyone from Bob Dylan to Al Pacino, relative unknown actor David Carradine was cast much to the chagrin of the studio. Carradine plays the understated Guthrie powerfully and pitch perfect as a gifted working man torn between his lofty ideals and his responsibilities. Wexler also came back on board the film as DOP, and beautifully photographed the dirty-dusty fields and factories Guthrie frequented with a golden, milky-sepia sheen that is almost unpredecdented in cinema (Wexler rightfully won the Oscar that year). The understated earth tones of the picture work in synergy with the fantastic score which is woven in and out of the film. “Bound for Glory” is by no means Ashby's best work and it falters a little under its own sense of importance and its length coming in at 147 minutes, but much like anything Ashby touched in the ‘70s, it is well worth traveling. [B]

“Coming Home” (1978)
Another movie with a message, “Coming Home” was one of the first films to really put America under the microscope after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, and another case of Ashby replacing another director who bowed out of the project. The helmer's gift for evoking a period in time on celluloid is uncanny, and used to great effect in “Coming Home.” The pop soundtrack of the time -- Beatles, Rolling Stones, Tim Buckley, etc -- guides the action rather than simply underscoring it, reflecting a time when pop music truly meant something. Haskell Wexler's cinematography is also en-pointe, with the muted tones creating a sense of documentary style realism: it’s perhaps the director’s most unvarnished-looking film. “Coming Home”'s undoing is its descent from observational-style post-Vietnam America movie, to a love-triangle-story with two Vietnam vets and Jane Fonda in the middle of it all. While this unfortunate sentimental vein goes on to run through what now feels like every love-story cliche -- i.e. nurse falling for a patient in a hospital -- the picture was strikingly poignant at the time, and the actors, especially Jon Voight, deliver searing powerhouse performances, overcoming the somewhat hokey plot (the picture would earn 8 Academy Award nominations and win 3 including Best Actor and Actress for the aforementioned leads; it would be Ashby’s one and only Oscar nomination for Best Director). The closeness of “Coming Home” to the events it portrays is clear, as the movie is something of a mish-mash of issues and ideas, but still a powerful one, and the film’s ending is reflective of the state of America post-Vietnam; unsettled and disturbed by the lack of resolution. [B+]

“Being There” (1979)
If you’re going to exit the stage after an incredible career spanning multiple genres, eras, filmmaking styles and auteurs, you could do worse than Peter Sellers’ swan song. The final film released before his death, Sellers is wonderfully funny as Chance, a gardener for a major Washington figure who accidentally gets recruited into politics despite being a complete simpleton. It’s a lesson on the power of the idle-minded to rouse a particular base of disenfranchised citizens, particularly as the accidentally-rebranded Chauncey gives advice on gardening that is mistaken for political knowledge. “Being There,” in its own way, is a horror film, a testament to how easily the public can be fooled by a little window dressing and a few idiots with even the most basic understanding of life. It’s a testament to how far ahead in the game were Hal Ashby and writer Jerzy Kosinski (disappointingly, with his only screenplay credit) that the plot of “Being There” eventually got turned into a massive global hit, re-appropriated, SANS SATIRE, as “Forrest Gump.” How little we’ve learned. [A]

This article is related to: Feature, Hal Ashby, Features


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