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Hal Ashby’s American Pictures: The Realistic Magic of the 1970s’ Finest Director

With a new documentary about the often overlooked filmmaker about to hit theaters, we revisit the life and work of a true original whose vision hasn’t aged a day

An illustration of Hal Ashby wearing sunglasses Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

Hal Ashby lived by night. While working as an editor on Hollywood movies, he’d hunker down in a dingy bungalow suite on the lot of MGM, whittling away at The Cincinnati Kid or The Thomas Crown Affair or In the Heat of the Night, endlessly toggling between takes. He’d press a button and watch, then press it again. And watch again. And again. And once more.

Ashby lived the movies, literally. For seven months at a time, he’d spend all day watching film, then sleep four hours a night, and then smoke a little pot, run a reel, ruminate over sequencing, and begin cutting and dissolving frames of some of the most memorable movies of the 1960s. He was a movie zombie, eating time and film behind shaded window panes. His life could be in shambles, but he was a dedicated editor, with an eye like a jeweler and a clock that never ticked. Not until the edit was locked. Ashby looked the part of a shut-in, his hair growing out into fraying tendrils, bearded and bespectacled hiding sloe-colored eyes; he looked like an AP bio teacher on a bender. A vegetarian with crooked teeth, he couldn’t be bothered with vagaries or politesse. He quested for the perfect cut, and yearned for pacing. And he never left that bungalow.

“Don’t ever stop searching it,” Ashby once said. “Make your film so goddamned good that you see something in it all the time. Every sonofabitching time you sit down and thread up a goddamn reel and you punch a button and you start to look at it, you get a different idea. And whether you pursue it or not doesn’t matter. The film will tell you what to do.”

It spoke to him over and over again. Ashby, of course, eventually moved on from editing to become one of just a few legendary filmmakers—among them David Lean, Robert Wise, and Don Siegel—to transition from that below-the-line position to the top of the poster. But it is the editing that matters, the trade that brought him to movies, the craft that taught him precision and concision, the work that won him an Oscar (in 1967, for Heat), and the gigs that bred a philosophy: The only thing that matters is the movie. Editing is for the obsessed. In the best of them, it creates a perfectionist with a vision.

Now is a fitting time to look back at Ashby, a movie biz yeoman turned shaman, and his stunning body of work. Later this year will mark 30 since Ashby’s death, and this week sees the release of Hal, a long overdue and wonderfully told encomium of the director’s career from the documentarian Amy Scott. But more so because Ashby had a way of making his movies about weighty ideals and real-seeming people, neither of which have aged much in the past 40 or so years. They explored friendship, romance, war, peace, sex, race, gender, celebrity, and parenthood. They scaled politics and international conflict and television. Ashby made message movies with a simple code of empathy and decency. They reflected the man, who carried one of the most unwavering reputations among colleagues in his profession. Of Ashby, Jack Nicholson once said that when friends referred to him, it’s “like we’re writing a recommendation for a college scholarship.” When Ashby won the Oscar for Best Editing, he delivered one of the shortest and most precise speeches in the ceremony’s history: “To repeat the words of a very dear friend of mine last year when he picked up his Oscar, I only hope that we can use all of our talents and creativity toward peace and love. Thank you.” He walked off the stage without another word.

“You wouldn’t typecast Hal as a film director,’’ the cinematographer Haskell Wexler said of Ashby in 1976. ‘’Most directors are dictatorial, active managerial, executive types. Hal’s gentle.’’

His admirers run wide and deep, from directors like Alexander Payne, Judd Apatow, David O. Russell, and Adam McKay, to the actors he guided to Academy Awards, among them Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, to the generation of iconic artisans and musicians he grew up alongside and collaborated with, including Wexler, Robert C. Jones, Gordon Willis, Al Kooper, Robert Towne, Michael Chapman, and Cat Stevens. Nearly all of them sat for Scott’s film to testify in the court of Ashby. “To me, they are some of the best movies ever made,” Wes Anderson once said of the historic run of seven films that Ashby made between 1970 and 1979. Among them are classics like Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Being There, and Shampoo. Few filmmakers embody the essence of a time the way Ashby does.

This century, it seemed like Ashby was in danger of becoming more footnote than first-ballot hall of famer. But more than Scorsese, Spielberg, or Altman, Ashby is a skeleton key to ’70s American cinema, and in turn, America. He is ever present in the generous spirit of his movies but increasingly removed from their mythology. “He has such a light touch,” Nicholson said, “that some people who have worked with him aren’t even sure he’s directed the picture.” There is an amble to his work, unhurried but unambiguous. His films could be explosive, but mostly work patiently to portray different stripes of human experience. Fruit pickers in the California valleys during the Depression. Naval officers out from under the thumb of their XOs. An impish gardner with lights flashing in his eyes. A rich kid with a misbegotten view of real estate strategy. They were often vulnerable men searching for something unattainable. And like his protagonists, he wasn’t so much hiding in plain sight as visibly blank. Ashby’s work was a monument covered in scaffolding. And because he’s been dead for longer than any of his contemporaries, it feels as if Ashby has been the subject of hagiography. But he hasn’t, not really.

“When I read [biographer] Nick Dawson’s book [Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel], I thought that the film was already made,” Scott tells me about her documentary. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this before.’ It was a really good book, and when I realized that there wasn’t … I was like, ‘There’s a De Palma film and there’s not a Hal Ashby film? You’ve gotta be kidding me! He’s done all of these amazing films!’”

“And his sort of fall from grace was really sad,” she says. “But I feel like it commented on the times. As much as it was sad there was a larger takeaway. I realized through more research that the mythology about Hal Ashby being this burnout hippie wastoid that couldn’t do anything was just not accurate. It was not at all the case. I didn’t set out to right any wrongs, but I felt that there was a case to be made for a larger dialogue about what happened to him and his life.”

The director Norman Jewison adopted Hal Ashby as a kind of mentee and became a father figure to the hardworking but nomadic Southwestern refugee. The Ashby we talk about now was a late-blooming creative talent who spent the first 34 years of his life slowly nosing his way into the upper echelon of the movies. His roots belie the gravity and worldliness of his life’s work. He was born in 1929, the last of four children to a poor Mormon family of dairy farmers in Ogden, Utah. His mother, 44 years old when she gave birth to him, was the product of a polygamous marriage. His father, James, died by suicide shortly after the dairy farm went out of business when he refused to pasteurize its milk. Hal was 12.

“My father used to make me laugh a lot,” Ashby told The New York Times in 1976. “He would give me a dollar for taking the soda pop bottles to the basement of the store. But we didn’t know each other. And only now, in retrospect, can I see how much pain he must have been in.”

Though studio biographies indicated that Ashby had graduated from Utah State University to make him seem as intellectually accomplished as contemporaries like Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola, in truth he was a dropout. Married and divorced by 17, he was a father at 19, and soon itching to get out of Ogden. Alone.

After wandering west to Los Angeles in 1950, Ashby found himself in the California State Department of Unemployment and declared he’d like to work in pictures. The clerk did the best she could: a listing for a multilith operator running a kind of mimeograph machine at Universal Studios. Within days, he was, essentially, a copy boy using machinery to deliver visual aids to executives and filmmakers around the lot.

It took Ashby—a notoriously committed and perceptive worker—five years to elbow his way into assistant editor positions at Disney and Republic Pictures. Within another five, he was in the tightly knit circle of editors working on William Wyler’s films, a faction of hard-charging edit rats led by Robert Swink, hoarding the millions of feet of film shot by “Once-More” Wyler. He did uncredited work on Wyler’s sweeping The Big Country, George Stevens’s Oscar-winning The Diary of Anne Frank, and the massive spectacle The Greatest Story Ever Told before he got his first shot at an official lead editor role on the 1965 curio The Loved One. The movie’s credits sequence now reads like a who’s who of Swinging Sixties literati, among them screenwriters Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood (adapting an Evelyn Waugh novel), respected British director Tony Richardson, the cinematographer Wexler, and producer John Calley, just a few short years away from running Warner Bros. But at the time, The Loved One was an oddity, curiously paced and constructed. It wasn’t a hit, but it made a connection.

It was in one of those dingy editing rooms on the MGM lot while working on the madcap edit of The Loved One that Norman Jewison spotted the man who would become his protégé and lifelong friend. Jewison was already an established filmmaker, with four romantic comedies for Universal and nearly a decade of TV work to his name. But he had not yet found his voice as a filmmaker, had not found an outlet for the pressing ideas in his mind. Ashby helped unlock them.

In the next four years, Ashby and Jewison worked on four films together, gaining more trust and creative chemistry as they went along. Those four films—The Cincinnati Kid; The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!; In the Heat of the Night; and The Thomas Crown Affair—are vastly different types of movies. But no matter the genre—lace-curtain thriller or Cold War satire, social-issues drama or sleek caper—Jewison and Ashby pushed the style and structure of movies, toying with jump cuts, pans, close-ups, insert shots, and particularly multiframe formats that would subtly reinvent the visual language of Hollywood movies. (ESPN producer Erik Rydholm recently cited the multi-angle frame look of Thomas Crown as an inspiration for his recent show High Noon.) Ashby, working with graphic designer Pablo Ferro, was responsible for many of the innovations found in Jewison’s movies. The plots of these movies have begun to wear with age, but their flair persists.

In 1970, Jewison decided against directing an adaptation of Kristin Hunter’s novel The Landlord, opting instead to make The Fiddler on the Roof (and move to Europe to flee America’s horrifying political atmosphere). The Landlord is a gentrification drama set in Park Slope, Brooklyn, about a young wealthy white man who buys a brownstone occupied by black families in an effort to launch himself as a self-made real estate mogul. With Jewison out, Ashby jumped at the chance to make his first film. After more than 15 years massaging, manipulating, and mapping movies, Ashby was ready.

“If you were going to tell a story, Hal was your man,” actor Beau Bridges, who starred in The Landlord, told Ashby’s biographer, Dawson. “He was a great audience, and absorber, and that made him a storyteller. He was in the great tradition of storytellers. He knew what people wanted to hear, and it was effortless.”

The Landlord was a financial failure for United Artists, but it was the first sign of Ashby’s incredible ability to corral a stable of creative unknowns to forge something special. The film stars Bridges, Louis Gossett Jr., the incomparable Diana Sands, Lee Grant, and Marki Bey. But behind the camera, he gave Gordon Willis—the “Prince of Darkness” cinematographer who would go on to film The Godfather and Annie Hall, among dozens of classics—his first job as top shooter. The script was written by African American playwright and director Bill Gunn just a few years before he’d embark on his cult horror favorite Ganja and Hess. Al Kooper, who played organ on “Like a Rolling Stone” and helped Bob Dylan go electric, wrote the score and film’s songs.

The Landlord is a movie about a white guy attempting to eject black people from their homes, or make them live by his rules. It is also one of the first honest portrayals of interracial dating in movie history, explicitly citing and lampooning Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?. The movie feels as steeped in 2018 as any I’ve seen this year, despite filming 49 years ago. It’s trite to say it hasn’t aged a day, but sometimes life is trite. “I’d go over to his house, and he’d always have a bulletin board,” Bridges said. “He’d have newspaper articles, pictures, poems—a collage of what was going on in the world. It was a vital, ongoing outspeak of what was going on in his head. It was his desire to reach out to friends, coworkers, and ultimately his audiences.”

It went this way for Ashby for several consecutive movies. Harold and Maude, which tells the story of a suicidal teen misanthrope and the effervescent 79-year-old he falls for, was a critically derided flop that took years to catch on as a cult favorite before becoming a cultural touchstone for self-identifying weirdos. Now it is a kind of hall pass for filmmakers of a certain generation. “Those are the films that taught me what an adult, commercial film was,” Alexander Payne has said. “And I am still trying to make ’70s movies.” I’m not a Harold and Maude person, but Ashby’s particular sensibility is unmistakable, the patient pace and wry sense of humor built around characters you can’t quite understand despite identifying with their point of view.

In The Last Detail, Ashby made Navy men seem like flailing, existential, distraught brothers looking for a dad. It’s unvarnished. The film featured 65 uses of the word “fuck,” then a record. And while it’s about the military smack dab in the middle of 1973, the word “Vietnam” is never uttered. The star, Jack Nicholson, said it was a pivotal film for him, two years before his twin masterpieces, Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He called The Last Detail his best performance. I agree. The image of Randy Quaid, as a young sailor on his way to serve a harsh military prison sentence, being serviced by a prostitute while staring blankly at a flickering light fixture, is the visual metaphor to end them all. It haunts me, a picture of the dead-eyed, sex-enslaved ’70s generation writ large. About this time, Ashby mused, ‘’I’d gotten better and better at my work, meanwhile wrecking three marriages. Suddenly I was almost 40, and I no longer had the energy to pursue it.’’

Ashby’s relationship to women was one of the most fraught aspects of his life, and Scott’s documentary reckons with it, interviewing several former partners and the daughter he left behind in Utah. Living and managing life was not his strong suit. In a 1976 profile in the Times, Ashby was reported to have moved out of his previous home because it had become so full of editing equipment that there was nowhere to sleep. Once an editor, etc. But in the movies he was making, you can see the distant observations he made about his own life in his work, the insecure reflections of a person who could commit only to his job. It’s a cliché for maverick artist types, visionaries who can’t see past themselves. Ashby is a little different. He seems to be addressing—if not coping with—his choices in real time, even if he never acted on them. Though he wasn’t a screenwriter, he gravitated toward protagonists who were, at best, alienated, and at worst disenchanted. The people around him suffered, even if his work never did.

In 1975’s Shampoo, Ashby made a flighty oversexed hairdresser an avatar for America’s frivolous but pleasurable obsessions. In the background of scene after scene, the movie portrays a vamping, self-amused Los Angeles den of ennoble bobbleheads in 1968 petting themselves while Rome burns. Nixon is around the corner, with hell to pay. (The Criterion Collection is finally releasing the film on Bluray and DVD this October, just in time for the midterms.) Amid the sexual and societal tumult, Ashby plays it cool and lets his leading man, Warren Beatty, play it twitchy. Shampoo is the second Ashby film made from a Robert Towne script, after The Last Detail, and you can feel the director locking into the deep, idiosyncratic material. It’s where he worked best. Sexual theater at the height of political anxiety, what a time to be alive.

If Shampoo was self-aggrandizement, his next film, Bound for Glory, was self-indictment. It’s a Woody Guthrie biopic, sort of. All the characters are made up except for Guthrie and his wife, Mary. But it tells the tale of a Dust Bowl washout from a broken town with flighty dreams who leaves his family behind and heads west to the creative safehaven of California. Sound familiar? “Wooee! California! Everything a man needs is in California,” David Carradine’s Guthrie howls in the film. The truth soon reveals itself. Bound for Glory is also a technical marvel; as the first film to use the Steadicam, helmed by the great Wexler (who battled with Ashby on set), it revolutionized how movies moved. But it’s the emotional threading of the movie that resonates. Late in the film, Guthrie thrashes back at Mary, who can’t understand why he keeps fleeing his family to sing and find a new audience. “I can’t seem to sit still,” Guthrie says, “I just feel like I ought to be somewhere’s else, anywhere else!” Ashby’s characters are often a stand-in for or victimizer of the abandoned child.

The last two movies during Ashby’s miracle decade—Coming Home and Being There—represent the two poles of his vision. One grounded and improvised and ripped from experience, as Jane Fonda and Jon Voight and Ashby and screenwriter Robert C. Jones incorporated the real-life stories of Vietnam veterans and their families into this classical love triangle between two vets—one a rising officer and the other a disabled discharge—and the strident woman becoming aware of all the war’s consequence. I have a distinct memory of being shown Coming Home in high school by a rather progressive teacher named Mrs. D’Addario, a woman who knew enough to show 15-year-olds the tolls of war and the stakes of love at a delicate age. Coming Home features one of the great endings in movie history, a crosscutting picture of diverging masculinity, one awoken and one dying, as the two male stars grapple with their fates. (It can’t be a coincidence that Ashby edits a small cameo of himself into this sequence. He’s both men.) If you’re uncynical, Coming Home can be a life-changing movie. I’m thankful for that quiet pair of days in history class, the first I ever saw of Ashby.

The next thing I saw is the next movie he made, 1979’s Being There, a blank-faced but deeply probing assessment of celebrity culture and America’s throbbing galaxy TV brain. Peter Sellers stars as an uneducated gardner who somehow finds himself in the company of world leaders and corporate titans. It’s a movie about a rube vaulted to eminence, how fame can equate to gravity in the wrong hands. It’s funny, but it’s not a comedy. It’s a parable and a warning. We didn’t heed it, obviously.

“I think, unfortunately, history just repeats itself,” Amy Scott says, “so you can continue to make timeless films because we’re not clearing up any of these issues.”

If the ’70s were a glory for Ashby, the ’80s were a washout. His life mirrored the stark before-and-after segmentation of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. His career was often a case of what if—for example, what if he had made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Nicholson, as he initially planned, instead of The Last Detail? It’s a parlor game, but a fun one. By the ’80s, the game had turned grim. Ashby was the original director chosen for Tootsie, getting so far as to shoot screen tests with Dustin Hoffman in character and costume. But the film under his guidance fell through, and what followed was a muddled and unsatisfying conclusion to a fascinating career. He made some interesting work that critics would charitably describe as uneven at best. In 1982, Lookin’ to Get Out stands as an outright apology to his daughter, Leigh MacManus, in the guise of characters played by Voight and his real-life daughter, a preteen Angelina Jolie in her first film role. No one saw the movie.

There were other blips of intrigue during this period. No one in the history of movies was better at using music in his films—from Coming Home’s opening-sequence parallel action featuring the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time” or the “Hey Jude” cue as Bruce Dern heads off to Vietnam in Coming Home; to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” crashing the soundtrack in the dark as Beatty commingles with Lee Grant in Shampoo; to the rousing Ruth Gordon rendition of Cat Stevens’s “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” in Harold and Maude; to David Carradine and Ronny Cox wailing “Union Maid” in Bound for Glory. Music lived in Ashby’s movies diegetically and also served as a shadow narrator. It carried meaning and might. In the ’80s, he actualized that relationship when he made an underrated Rolling Stones concert film featuring an outrageously aerobic Mick Jagger called Let’s Spend the Night Together; a year later came a less compelling Neil Young concert film—the third of many for Young—called Solo Trans.

But the music movies created a stir around Ashby’s personal habits, and Lorimar, the studio that backed his production company, began spreading rumors about the director’s addictions and afflictions. Ashby was reportedly “partying way beyond his capabilities with the Stones,” the film’s cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, noted. Some said Ashby directed Let’s Spend the Night Together from a gurney, strung out on cocaine. Others said it was just a case of the flu. Either way, his career slowly unraveled henceforth. A failed Neil Simon adaptation, The Slugger’s Wife, was followed by a mangled crime drama, 8 Million Ways to Die, starring Jeff Bridges (who appears in Scott’s doc and praises Ashby’s work). The studio took that picture away from him and diced it their way. It was his last turn.

Several New Hollywood directors survived the ’80s with guile and luck. Scorsese made After Hours and The Color of Money as he braced for the ’90s revival of Goodfellas. Coppola had Captain EO and Tucker: The Man and His Dream before The Godfather Part III. Bogdanovich made Mask before returning to The Last Picture Show story with Texasville in 1990. Ashby never got his chance at a comeback, relegated to failed television pilots for David Milch and Monty Python’s Graham Chapman. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer before his 60th birthday and died four months later. Jewison, who is two years Ashby’s elder, and lives 30 years later, still appears to be distraught over the loss. “Hal didn’t want to die,” Jewison said. “He wanted to make another movie. Because that’s what he lived for.”

Ashby’s death was a quiet explosion for a generation of filmmakers and performers—not in the way a star flashes across the sky and is extinguished, like James Dean or Janis Joplin. He lived to a respectable age and created a body of work without compare. But he still died young and unfinished. Amy Scott uses grainy footage of the testimonials from his memorial service as the stand-in footage for the famous folks she couldn’t wrangle for her documentary: Warren Beatty, Bruce Dern, and Harold and Maude’s somewhat reclusive star, Bud Cort, appear in footage from early 1989, shortly after Ashby’s death. Cort, in sunglasses and a white turtleneck, opens his remarks plainly: “Hal liked me the best.” Laughs rumble through the room, an audible affirmation that everyone in there was thinking the exact same thing. A lot of his fans feel that way, too. He gets me. Not all filmmakers can forge that connection with an audience. But no other filmmaker is Hal Ashby.

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