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The Films Of Hal Ashby: A Retrospective

by Oliver Lyttelton
May 6, 2011 6:55 AM
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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]

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  • Cory | May 16, 2011 5:46 AMReply

    Forrest Gump may have been sans satire, but it wasn't without legitimate themes. And that's what I suspect attracted Ashby to"Being There," even more so than the satire of it. Yes, the revisionist historical aspects of the film and mental limitations of the character do seem a little like an afterthought by the filmmakers to make it entertaining, but there is a solid story there about destiny, determinism, fatalism, freewill, etc.

  • Bill | May 10, 2011 11:49 AMReply

    I think it's unfair to compare Ashby with the Spielbergs and Lucases of the seventies. They used razzle dazzle, special effects and large canvases to paint their masterpieces while Hal used great human stories.

    I think his films define the seventies more so than any other director.

  • Greg | March 12, 2014 11:32 PM

    Right you are.

  • Fairportfan | May 10, 2011 9:29 AMReply

    That "bittersweet ending" of "The Last Detail" is, in fact, only about three-quarters of the way through the full original story.

    The only reason that i can see for ending it there is to give the film an upbeat (so much as is possible) ending.

    Though it looks at first glance as if the story of Badass and Mule escorting the kid to the prison is the story, it isn't.

    The story is the Badass (and, to a lesser extent, Mule), old-time sailor-men who are becoming more and more disillusoned with the Navy and their lives in it. And it comes to the inevitable (tragi-) comic ending.

    (I was in the Transient Barracks in Norfolk where the story begins when i read it, and i was willing to swear that i could see the distinctive crack the opening paragraphs describe in the ceiling of the compartment where i was sitting.)

  • simplysimon2 | May 10, 2011 4:32 AMReply

    I agree with the ratings for the films that I have seen but "Harold & Maude" is in another league, an A+. Perhaps it's the Cat Steven's' music that cements its place as an "essential". As a film editor myself, I appreciate his deft handling of comic timing. I was never a fan of Ruth Gordon but she is believable as "Maude" and Bud Cort never again came close to the perfect fit of "Harold". It's sad yet inspiring as "Harold" moves on to adulthood, sadder and wiser.

    On the other hand, "The Last Detail" is sharp and cynical and ends hopelessly. Not a big fan of Sellers but "Being There" is as priceless as "Strangelove" and I LMAO over Palin as Chance in comments.

    Ashby not only had a gift for the technical side of filmmaking but also his casting and handling of actors is superb along with his selection and use of music. He was as good as it gets.

  • David Ferguson | May 10, 2011 4:13 AMReply

    I have often made the same observation about Julie Christie and Grace Kelly ... you worded it beautifully! Terrific article about a director who never seemed to receive the accolades he deserved. Mr. Ashby was one-of-a-kind and created some films that will last forever.

  • Mr. Arkadin | May 7, 2011 10:57 AMReply

    Ashby never did a movie after 1980, it was someone else (an imposter named Smithee). That's how I see it.

    “Bound for Glory” would probably still score an A in my book, but other than that I concur. Criterion should put out a blu-ray collection like the BBS set with Ashby's 5-7 first films.


  • sp | May 7, 2011 8:17 AMReply

    It breaks my heart that most of Hal Ashby fans do not talk about their affection for ' The Landlord" ( what a wonderful film ) like the way they talk about “Harold and Maude” . I agree that film is completely undervalued on every level.

  • zxcvb | May 7, 2011 1:18 AMReply

    Forrest Gump isn't the remake of Being There. Sarah Palin is.

  • jon | May 6, 2011 9:00 AMReply

    Ashby deserves all the posthumous credit he can get for that incredible body of work. Thanks for publishing such a thorough, thoughtful guide.

  • rotch | May 6, 2011 8:08 AMReply

    Yep, really rich and lovely guide. First time I agree in each one of the grades.

    Great work!

  • Stephen | May 6, 2011 7:09 AMReply

    Of everything you do here, these guides might very well be the best and most useful. I can't tell you how many times I've used them as guides for what to see and what to skip in runs through the works of the auteurs you've done them for. This Ashby entry looks to be one of the same. Wholehearted thanks.

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