Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Being Hal Ashby

The concluding chapter of Nick Dawson's 2011 biography of film director Hal Ashby, Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel was especially poignant for me as its details of its subject in the last stages of pancreatic cancer were all too vivid.  As you may have read,  my step father in law was taken from us last April by this terrible disease.  The final week of his life was a collage of Hospice nurses and valiant attempts at ambulation.  Much wheezing. David had passed five weeks after being diagnosed.  I recall one afternoon alone with him in the house as he napped.  Terrible sounds.  When he awoke he had to be propped to stand.  This was not the man I knew for fifteen years, so sprightly and quick witted.  Always sharp, but gentle.

By many accounts, Hal Ashby was like that.  Dawson interviewed many friends and colleagues who described him as a calm, peaceful spirit who made his actors and crew feel at ease and brought out their best work.  Many Hollywood directors have very different reputations, reported to use intimidation and ferocity in their repertoire.  But when the studio people interfered with his art, Ashby showed his fangs.  This was particularly true in the 1980s, when the director clashed with big egos like Ray Stark.  When production company Lorimar, new to theatrical films, threatened (and succeeded) to take his films away and recut them.  This would be unthinkable for a man who was an Oscar-winning editor before he ever lifted a bullhorn.

But it happened.  Ill advised contracts and attempts to create his own production company were not the  fruitful enterprise intended. Ashby envisioned a house to foster productions of young visionaries.  Those who would create idiosyncratic films much like he had over the previous decade.  Ashby's golden period, the 1970s.  Each from that era are given fairly developed back- and on-set stories by Dawson, culled from interviews with the casts and crews. All considered collaborators by their leader.

Ashby's debut, THE LANDLORD was originally to be directed by his mentor, Norman Jewison, for whom Ashby edited THE CINCINNATI KID, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, et al.  It would prove to be a worthy maiden voyage, a highly insightful social drama.  HAROLD AND MAUDE was somewhat ignored by audiences during its initial release but would become a cult favorite. THE LAST DETAIL may have (understandably) been denounced by the U.S. Military but has great performances by Jack Nicholson and company. SHAMPOO was a prestige pic, a box office draw with big stars but apparently writer/producer/star Warren Beatty was the one really calling the shots.  BOUND FOR GLORY would prove to be a tough shoot but worth it for its meticulous authenticity.  COMING HOME was another success - one of many new films to examine the emotional casualties of Vietnam.  BEING THERE was a quietly lacerating study of America, political and otherwise, with Peter Sellers' last great (greatest?) role.  

But by the '80s, Ashby's films would suffer greatly in quality. SECOND HAND HEARTS (actually shot prior to BEING THERE).  LOOKIN' TO GET OUT.  LET'S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER (the Stones concert film and easily the best of this lot).  THE SLUGGER'S WIFE.  EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE.  Whether or not the behind camera tsuris was to blame for each film's artistic and box office failures may be up to the reader (Dawson makes the case), but it's hard to ignore all that was working against the ever stubborn maverick as he fought studio execs and creative types alike.  Other headstrong figures like Robert Blake, Oliver Stone, Neil Simon, and a parade of Hollywood suits.  Sadly, even some of Ashby's former colleagues became adversaries.

Being Hal Ashby also offers a detailed account of the man's early years, a troublesome childhood in Ogden, Utah. A time irrevocably shaped by the death of his father.  This and Ashby's long string of failed relationships (many girlfriends and wives) would figure deeply into his films.  Dawson makes some parallels, though frustratingly not enough of them (deeper analyses of the films themselves would've also been appreciated but that's for another volume, I suppose).  Ashby's true love was for his work; everything (and -one) would suffer for it in various degrees.  Most poignantly, a daughter from a very early marriage he never met.  In an early chapter, someone remarks that Ashby, for all of his talent, gentleness, and generosity was adept at also "editing people out of his life".

Dawson's book is compulsively readable.  Not brilliantly written by any stretch - the style is often choppy - but the writer's affection for his subject is there, and he's not afraid to show Ashby's darker side (including drug and alcohol abuse).  Anyone even marginally interested in the Hollywood scene of the 50s through 80s will enjoy this bio. By the end, you will feel a true light had been snuffed out of the world.  Why do so many with so much to offer exit so early?
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