A LONG-TIME EDITOR, first for William Wyler and then for Norman Jewison, Hal Ashby was nearly forty when Jewison produced his directorial debut, The Landlord (1970), and while the visual tact of Wyler and the social consciousness of Jewison never left him, Ashby brought to his own productions a distinctive flavor that was his alone. He was such a dedicated pot smoker that his friends sometimes called him “Hashby,” and he would direct his films with a kind of advanced on-set stoner passivity, his touch so light that it often seemed like benign neglect. But it was Hashby’s ability to recede into the background that enabled some very talented performers to unleash their wildest instincts, and it was Hashby’s ever-ready and undemanding affection–the fuzzy-soft, bleary-eyed bemusement with which he regarded people–that gave his films their distinctive vibe, that imbued his characters with something like a state of grace.
THE PEOPLE IN Hal Ashby’s movies are nearly always hemmed in visually. They’re stuck in rooms that feel airless, suffocating, and when they do manage to slip outside, the flickering light on the horizon invariably looks tired-out and unwelcoming. As a director, Ashby shied away from wide widescreen (almost all of his films are shot in 1:85:1), and though he worked with a lot of different and distinguished cameramen, he remained constant in his near-obsession with interiors lit by sickly electric lights. The low-wattage lamps in his frames wage a limp battle with daylight struggling dimly through the window panes, and in his best movie, the miraculous Being There (1979), natural light is shut out entirely by ghostly curtains. There is no other comedy I know of that has such a relentlessly funereal look, as if it were a corpse laid out to rest at a memorial service where attendees are encouraged to giggle softly.
The Landlord strikes a visual balance between the vanilla ice cream-white world of a wealthy WASP family and the rich, dark shadows that pooled in the rundown tenements of Park Slope, 1970. (This was the beginning of the era of Gordon Willis, cinematographer on The Landlord and countless other landmarks, a period in which comedies were allowed to look like Rembrandts). In general, Ashby likes to view his characters from a slight distance. He saves his close-ups for privileged moments when he needs to establish greater intimacy, such as the slow emotional striptease done by The Landlord‘s Francine (Diana Sands) where she confesses to rich boy Elgar (Beau Bridges) that she was once crowned “Miss Sepia 1957.” Her mother made a lamp out of her trophy, she says, and then sighs, “I liked it better when it was a cup.” Ashby photographs the burgeoning relationship between Bridges and Sands with a red light that submerges their faces and surroundings in its warmly saturated depths. It’s the one time that the depressed electric light in an Ashby film actually does anyone some good. It’s also the most romantic scene Ashby ever filmed.
Beau Bridges and Diana Sands in The Landlord (1970)
A close runner-up is the scene in Being There where trophy wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine) masturbates after being told by the inscrutable Chance (Peter Sellers) that he “likes to watch,” though what the savant-like Chance likes to watch is TV, the source of all his sound-bite philosophy and his only real connection to life. And so Eve, clad in a black negligee, proceeds to roll around Chance’s bedroom floor and play with herself, trying to get his attention, while he keeps his eye on a TV set, climbs up on the bed and tries to do a headstand. Ashby wanted to get as many editing options as possible for this delicate juxtaposition, which manages to be lightly sinister, absurd and finally rather sweet, and he said nearly nothing to either MacLaine or Sellers over the course of seventeen takes as she moaned and he fumbled through the gymnastics.
“It’s almost like he was never there, really,” MacLaine later said of Ashby. “He’d walk on the set wearing basically a janitor’s outfit, and everyone thought that he was a janitor or that he came to pull the cables.” Some directors don’t give detailed instructions to their players but nonetheless influence them by the atmosphere their mere presence creates on a set. The easy-going, janitorial Ashby just quietly enjoyed the spacey disconnected connection between Chance and Eve, over and over again, until MacLaine told him she was spent. “Mmm, mmm!” he laughed, at last. “That is coffee, good to the last drop!” In this mash-up of ad slogans for Folger’s Coffee and Campbell’s Soup, we can feel how close Ashby felt to Chance.
Ashby always took gentle pleasure in people, and he viewed them with discretion. No matter how many times I see Harold and Maude (1971), I’m always unprepared for the shot that reveals that Maude (Ruth Gordon) has a concentration camp number tattooed on her arm. When we see the number, Ashby does a semi-speedy zoom in then abruptly cuts away, as if to dismiss it, which of course is Maude’s own brusque attitude toward life. Melvyn Douglas, who played MacLaine’s rich husband in Being There, praised Ashby’s “inarticulate empathy,” and it was this watchful, wordless communion with his players that resulted in outstanding work from most of his actors. Even in Ashby’s last movie, the surprisingly baroque 8 Million Ways to Die (1986), which was taken away from him and confusingly edited by its producers, the screen is alive with the spontaneous, unpredictable behavior of Jeff Bridges, Andy Garcia and Rosanna Arquette, not just in the notorious “I’ll cut her loose!” finale but in all the scenes where these actors stare at each other steadily and might laugh or cry at any moment.
Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort in Harold and Maude (1971)
AN INTUITIVE FILMMAKER, Ashby didn’t always exhibit this magic touch, and on several later projects he seemed to be cursed. After having enormous commercial and critical success with three movies, The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975) and Coming Home (1978), Ashby foundered with Second-Hand Hearts (1981), a film that he actually shot before Being There and tried to save in the editing room for three years before it was barely released to the public. Every auteur has skeletons in their closet, but not many have a film on their resume as radioactively awful as Hearts (a film originally and just as hopelessly titled The Hamster of Happiness). It can be seen online, if you look around, and it’s worth watching at least the first fifteen minutes or so in which Robert Blake and Barbara Harris play out an introductory scene so loud, confusing and inept that it inspires a sense of awe: I don’t think I’ve ever seen two actors so totally disconnected from each other yet so intent on their own bad ideas about the cartoon characters they’re trying to play. There are times when Ashby’s camera tries to escape from Blake and Harris as the film goes on, but he’s stuck with them, and there’s nothing he can do about it. In Ashby’s follow-up movie, Lookin’ to Get Out (1982), which was also years in the editing room, Jon Voight and Burt Young keep cracking themselves up until it begins to seem like a film about the creepiness of aimless pothead laughter.
Yet some of the best moments in Ashby’s movies occur in scenes where his characters are chemically altered, like the wondrously cross-purposes connection made in The Landlord where oracular black tenant Marge (Pearl Bailey) offers dippy white matron Joyce (Lee Grant) some “lead for your pencil” and the two women get drunk all afternoon until Joyce forgets which Ivy League man she married in her youth. Race is a prominent concern in both The Landlord and Being There, where Chance’s former keeper Louise (Ruth Attaway) is outraged by his success on television. “It is for sure a white man’s world in America!” she cries, angry but alive with the same sort of wounded dignity and crafty weirdness that courses through Bailey’s Marge. This same anger was present in Ashby himself, for though he was a shaggy hippie teddy bear of a man and intrinsically good-natured, he did have a temper. This temper began to show itself when he supplemented his pot with cocaine during production of Bound for Glory (1976), a biopic of Woody Guthrie that seems to consist mainly of scenes that could have been cut, sluiced together by the kind of slow dissolves that marked the late career of George Stevens, who Ashby worked with as one of nine editors on the dissolve-heavy The Diary of Anne Frank (1959).
Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine in Being There (1979)
IN NICK DAWSON’s biography of Ashby, he relates a story about the time Ashby threw an impromptu cast party two weeks into shooting Harold and Maude. Ashby soon vanished to smoke a joint, and when he was found all alone, he said, “I want to have a party, but I don’t know if I want to be there.” That urge to create and then disappear meant that he was sometimes taken advantage of, or ignored. On Shampoo, Ashby was treated as “an office boy” by its star and producer Warren Beatty, and so that lubricious, tough sex comedy belongs to Beatty and writer Robert Towne, who was also responsible for The Last Detail, a measured bummer of a picture about the impossibility of escape which Ashby accepted passively and executed immaculately, without any of the rough, hopeful edges that marked The Landlord and Harold and Maude as more personal work. Ashby died in 1988, pretty much forgotten after his stellar run of seven films in the 1970s, and it’s a shame that he couldn’t have lived to make a few more small pictures in the independent movie scene of the 1990s.
But if Ashby had only managed to make Being There, he would deserve a place in film history for a hushed comedy that is as sharp and precise a political satire as has ever been made in America. Ashby revered Preston Sturges, and Being There is a movie that Sturges might have admired, featuring a central performance by Sellers so slippery and bewilderingly addle-brained that the feeling grows as the film goes on that Chance might be some kind of holy fool. Ashby recognized this, and he himself decided to end the film with Chance walking on water and also made the larkish decision to run outtakes under the credits of a cut scene where Sellers couldn’t keep from laughing. Both of these decisions are huge risks, and both feel exactly right for a film that has the effect of a magic trick so convincing that not even seeing the way it was done can ruin the serene mystery of it. It’s good to the last drop.
Dan Callahan’s first book, a critical study of the films of Barbara Stanwyck, will be published in February 2012. “Movies by Hal Ashby,” an almost complete retrospective of the director’s works, is playing at BAMcinématek May 6-May 24.