What makes a great film? The easiest way out of that question is just to say the criteria are different for each instance, and that’s fine, that’s pretty well true. But if there’s one thing that every truly great film has in common, it’s that in one way or another it managed to redefine what or who films could be about. Films like Midnight Cowboy, Marty, The Bicycle Thieves, Fitzcarraldo, Come and See, even Raiders of the Lost Ark in its own way. Hal Ashby is a filmmaker who perhaps is a better example of this than any other.
In the 70’s, Ashby was one of the names in the industry. By the time he and Peter Sellers teamed up for Being There, he’d already given us the proto-Wes Anderson film Harold & Maude, the Robert Towne penned films Shampoo and The Last Detail, and Coming Home, one of the most devastating depictions of the cost of war. While his success was fleeting, disappearing once the studios caught up with him and all control over his films was ripped away, there are few examples of anyone being quite as against the grain in Hollywood as Ashby.
Somehow for a good decade he managed to get away with it. There’s no greater example of this than when a bearded, long-haired, t-shirt and sandal wearing Hal Ashby walked into a studio executive’s office, with a vagrant-looking musician named Cat Stevens, asking for 1.2 million dollars to make a film about Harold, a teenage boy with a death fixation who falls in love with a 79-year-old woman named Maude.
Before his career as a director, Hal Ashby was doing more than okay as an editor, working with Norman Jewison on In The Heat of the Night, The Cincinatti Kid and The Thomas Crowne Affair among others. Even then he was known to be almost painfully laid back, going so far as to take up residence on the couch in Norman Jewison’s editing suite whilst working on a film, sleeping there for weeks. His talent and intelligence was so clearly obvious to anyone and everyone who worked with him that, scraggly hippy beard aside, Hal Ashby was no question born to be a director.
For a period, Hal Ashby came out with great film after great film, each one touching topics no one else dared to through a lens that could belong to no one other than him. When it comes to redefining who cinema could be about, most filmmakers would be lucky to say they’ve done it once but most never come close to even that. Hal Ashby didn’t do it just once, he did it over, and over, and over. Whether it’s a story about a teenager in love with a near-octogenarian, a paraplegic war veteran, or a simple minded gardener with pudding between his ears instead of brains, Hal Ashby found the humanity in each of them, and about those everyone else deemed freaks he made films more affecting and more enduring than near any other.
But while he gained the reputation as the quintessential hippy, in the way he told his stories he was more classicist than anyone else working at the time. This was the era of Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman, people who with film after film repeatedly exploded the ideas of narrative, and yet here was Ashby, a man whose personality and philosophy was as far from a studio executive’s as possible, telling stories the way Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Frank Capra used to way back in the 40’s and 50’s. He was a master of endings, with each film capping itself off with a succinct and powerful final punch. You never leave an Ashby film wondering what it was you were meant to get out of it. Like Marty or It’s A Wonderful Life, Hal Ashby’s Being There, Coming Home and Harold & Maude all had something to say, and those messages, as sentimental as they may be, were exactly what the cynical pessimistic 70’s needed. You’d be hard pressed to find a filmmaker with as much warmth, humanity, generosity, empathy and optimism as Hal Ashby, and oh man does he make me cry.