Hal Ashby (1929- 1988)
”I don’t like to tell lies.’‘
Harold And Maude (1971) is a deeply meaningful film for so many baby boomers. But when it first opened in theatres, it received mixed reviews, with some critics even being offended by the film’s dark humor. Commercially unsuccessful, the film developed a cult following and in 1983 it finally began making a profit. The great film critic Roger Ebert gave Harold And Maude one-and-a-half out of four stars.
Harold And Maude revolves around the exploits of a young man. Harold (Bud Cort), is fascinated with death. Harold drifts away from the life with his wealthy detached mother, a brilliant Vivian Pickles and slowly develops a deep friendship, and eventually a romantic relationship, with a 79-year-old woman named Maude, played by my muse, Ruth Gordon. Maude teaches Harold about living life to its fullest.
The film has a a screenplay by gay writer Colin Higgins.
Critically and commercially unsuccessful when originally released, the film developed a cult following and in 1983 it finally began making a profit.
A sought-after editor, Ashby’s first film as a director was the sweet and sour The Landlord (1970) with Beau Bridges as a privileged and ignorant white man who selfishly becomes landlord of an inner-city apartment building. What a cast: Lee Grant, Pearl Bailey, and Louis Gossett Jr..
Ashby inherited Harold And Maude when Paramount honchos decided that Higgins was too inexperienced to direct it. The thematic similarities between The Landlord and Higgins’ screenplay made Ashby a logical, if somewhat risky, choice for Paramount. Harold And Maude takes delight in everyday transgressions: uprooting trees from manicured suburban streets and returning them to the forest; parading a yellow umbrella past the dark faces of a funeral line; flipping a bird to mothers, priests, psychiatrists, soldiers and the police. The film works because of Ashby’s deft direction, creating a filmed world that, like Wes Anderson, Ashby’s most gifted acolyte, allows for the possibility of childhood wonder in a fallen, cynical, adult world.
The 1970s were Hollywood’s most significant transformation since the conversion to sound film. Films like Harold And Maude, Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Nashville (1975) changed how American audiences understood and reacted to film.
It began with the collapse of the studio system and the cultural shift in the 1960s, with social rebellion, sexual and spiritual experimentation, political turmoil, and cultural upheaval. Young people were disillusioned and wanting to carve their own creative path. It took until the 1970s for studio executives to truly embrace a new approach to filmmaking that reflected these cultural changes. This led to the era now known as ”New Hollywood” and ”American New Wave”
Beginning in the 1910s, films were made using the studio system. This meant that a small number of major studios controlled most of the filmmaking. Films were cranked out fast with most of the power with the producers. They were shot on studio lots with actors and crews under long-term contracts. So many classic films were made from the studio system, and these great films created the template for how to have a hit.
Screenplays mostly were presented logically in a space and time which mirrors reality. The narrative is delivered so effortlessly and efficiently to the audience that it appears to have no source. It comes magically off the screen. There were rules for specific genres and the movies rarely deviated from these conventions.
In the 1948, Paramount Pictures lost a landmark case against the U.S. government. The studios controlled almost all movie theatres, either by owning them or through contracts with independent owners. The court decision made this relationship between studios and theatres illegal, which effectively ended the Hollywood studio system. Studio creative teams dissolved, and film production slowed down immensely.
The end of the studio system along with television’s growing popularity meant that fewer and fewer people went to the movies. Hollywood reacted by trying to give audiences an experience that television could not. Films became all about spectacle. More money was spent on fewer films to make them extraordinary and alluring to audiences. Techniques like Cinerama, Cinemascope, and 3-D were introduced. Genres such as Biblical Epics and Musicals were especially popular during the 1950s and 1960s, with films like Ben-Hur (1959), Singin’ In The Rain (1952) and The Ten Commandments (1956). Yet, box-office sales continued to drop and the extravagance of films grew. Cleopatra (1963) became the highest-grossing film to run at a loss because of its outrageous production costs.
Studio executives were having trouble connecting with their audiences. Film fans were more educated, affluent, and filled with a new sense of nonconformity and disillusionment, thanks to the Vietnam War. In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America created a new film rating system that replaced the outdated Production Code, and taboo topics like drugs or sex could be explored in film.
Bonnie And Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) took on themes like violence and drugs in graphic way. They also blurred genre lines; they were more existential and morally ambiguous, and non-traditional in structure. Those two films were disliked by film executives but turned out to be big financial and critical success. Executives then realized they needed to give more creative control over to young directors like Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Brian De Palma and actors like Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and Robert De Niro.
With the movement away from studio system, films were shot on location, adding a level of authenticity. Movies had looser narrative structure which revolves around the protagonist, often an anti-hero, who deals with conflicts caused by modern society.
Ashby’s life started out rough. Born in Utah to a poor family, Ashby dropped out of high school and became a Californian bohemian in the late 1940s. He found work as an editor in Hollywood which started his partnership with Norman Jewison. Ashby served as editor for many of Jewison films, notably The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), which earned Ashby an Academy Award nomination for Best Editing, but his greatest success in that partnership was receiving an Oscar for his work on In The Heat Of The Night (1967). In 1970, he finally directed his own film and his career created cinematic classics that define the ”New Hollywood” era.
His films explore social outsiders, empathetically combining humor and tragedy, to celebrate the bittersweet truths of life and what it means to be human. His filmography includes projects, that although define the 1970s, but still make impact today: The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound For Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and my favorite Ashby flick, Being There (1979).
Partly due to bad luck and partly due to bad decision making, his career trickled down in the 1980s. After Being There, Ashby became a recluse in his home in Malibu, becoming dependent on cocaine. He slowly became unemployable. After two years of preproduction on Tootsie, including wig and makeup tests, the studio executives and blocked him from working on the film and forfeiting his $1.5 million fee.
The Slugger’s Wife (1985), with a screenplay by Neil Simon, was a critical and commercial failure. A coked-up Ashby was fired after delivering a 20-minute rough cut that included almost no dialogue. When the Oliver Stone-scripted 8 Million Ways To Die (1986) bombed, Ashby was considered to be such a liability that he was fired by the production company on the final day of principal photography.
Attempting to turn around his dying career, Ashby stopped using drugs, trimmed his hair and beard, and attended Hollywood parties. Despite the effort, he could only find work as a second-tier television director.
Warren Beatty insisted Ashby seek medical help. Ashby was diagnosed with phlebitis and pancreatic cancer that rapidly spread to his lungs, colon, and liver. Ashby died at the end of 1988.
Ashby had been given more creative freedom than most directors. He changed the way Hollywood viewed filmmaking, connecting with audiences in a way that had never quite been done before. His only Best Director Oscar was for the lovely Coming Home, but his effortless comfort with actors guided Lee Grant to two Oscar nominations and her win for Shampoo. Excellent character actor Jack Warden also earned himself an Oscar nomination for that film. Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid were nominated for their work in The Last Detail. Peter Sellers received his third Oscar nomination for Being There and Melvyn Douglas won an Oscar for that film.
Ashby was not appreciated by the Hollywood establishment during his day and didn’t receive real love from film fans for his work until after he was gone. His films received a total of 24 Oscar nominations and seven wins. How about one of those posthumous honorary Oscars for Ashby?
Take a look at the documentary Hal (2018) with interviews and footage with Jewison and Jane Fonda, plus insight from current directors Wes Anderson, Judd Apatow, Noah Baumbach, Alexander Payne, and David O. Russell.