By John H. Foote
Bruce Dern was worried about looking like a nut job. Dern was a great actor who took his role as the damaged Marine Bob Hyde in Coming Home (1978) very seriously and was concerned he was going to be portrayed in the film as a madman. He was, after all, the man who shot John Wayne in The Cowboys (1972) and later, in an Oscar caliber performance, was going to blow up 80,000 people cheering the Super Bowl in Black Sunday (1977). He was aware of the perception audiences had of him. Dern also had been in enough films to know the finished product came in the editing room.
While visiting Hal Ashby at his home, where he was busy working on the cut of Coming Home, Dern explained his concerns to his director. Nodding, Ashby motioned the actor over to the screen of the editing machine and asked him to watch. Dern sat and watched scenes juxtaposed against each other, beginning with his wife, portrayed by Jane Fonda, asking if he wanted to BBQ steaks, saying to him it must be a long time since he ran a BBQ. The slight smile on Dern’s face suggests he has burned other things while in Vietnam. We cut to Luke Martin (Jon Voight), left paralyzed from the waist down in the war, as he begins speaking to a group of high school students, who might not be ready for what he has to say. Bob (Dern) walks out onto the beach and begins undressing, shoes first, socks, then his uniform, working his way down. On the tracks begins softly the Tim Buckley song “Once I Was” as we move back and forth between Luke’s speech and Bob’s undressing. “Once I was a soldier … and I fought on foreign sands for you” sings Buckley in his mournful voice as Bob, finally naked, his uniform placed in order on the sand runs into the ocean, swimming strongly out into the sea, as Luke tells the kids “I did a lot of shit over there, I find fucking hard to live with” and Bob keeps swimming out farther, to his death.
Stunned by what he had just seen, Bruce Dern grabbed his director in a tight embrace and kissed his cheek, thanking him. Tears flowed freely down Dern’s cheeks as his esteem for his filmmaker soared through the room of the home they were standing in. Once again, Ashby had proven himself as a great film editor, a gifted director and an artist who truly loved actors.
Oddly, when the great directors and their films in the seventies are discussed, only in recent years has Hal Ashby become part of that conversation. For 30 years it was as though he had been erased, when in fact his work in the seventies was sublime, seven great achievements with at least three being towering films. Nominated for Best Director for Coming Home, he deserved nominations for at least three others, but sadly it did not happen. He was an Oscar winner, but for his film editing of the Oscar winning Best Picture In the Heat of the Night (1967). Ashby himself would direct two Best Picture nominees, and once be nominated for Best Director, guiding 10 actors to Oscar nominations with four of them winning that coveted little golden man.
Ashby had befriended Norman Jewison while working on the lot, and Jewison sought him out to edit The Cincinnati Kid (1965), enthralled that Ashby had cut films for William Wyler, and a lifelong friendship was forged. Hired to cut In the Heat of the Night, Jewison was impressed with his work ethic and the fact he listened to everyone with an opinion, no matter if they were involved heavily in the film or not. If he did not care for what they said, he simply left it in disregard, disliking confrontation.
Dressed in hippie garb (his everyday apparel), love beads, torn jeans, a T-shirt, long straggly hair, an equally long beard, his face a near constant smile and the aroma of marijuana surrounding him, Hal Ashby did not look like a film director. No, he resembled one of the crew, an over 30 hippy enjoying the newfound freedoms of the time. Ashby loved making movies, creating, and would often stop shooting to remind his cast and crew how truly blessed they were to be doing what they were doing. While shooting Coming Home he and Jon Voight were in the middle of discussing a scene and Ashby broke from the conversation and said to Voight, “Isn’t this great? This is a great day, man, here we are on a movie set, making art, making something special. Is it not a great thing Jon?” Voight has never forgotten those words. The Oscar winning actor talks often of how Ashby knew when he had realism on screen. Voight talks about the opening of Coming Home, where a group of real-life Vietnam vets were permitted to just talk about their experiences at war, while Voight was on a stretcher in the background listening, waiting to break in to speak. He never does, the camera instead closes in on him as he listens and reacts to the listening and what he is hearing. Both he and Ashby knew they had it without Voight saying a word. They embraced one another and moved on.
Ashby loved his actors. Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Warren Beatty, Jack Warden, Goldie Hawn, Julie Christie, David Carradine, Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern, Penelope Milford, Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas spoke highly of Ashby’s gifts with his actors. Championing their collaboration with him, he encouraged them to talk to him, bring him their ideas, all of their ideas, even the crazy ones, because it might be golden. No one ever had a bad idea on an Ashby set, he encouraged everyone to speak up. Ashby once said, “I don’t visualize myself as ‘the boss’. What I try to do is get as much creativity as possible from everyone I’m working with.” It has been suggested because Ashby was an editor, and one of the best, he is cutting the film while shooting, knowing that the film is completed, often created in the editing room.
When the great directors of the seventies are discussed, it is usually Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, De Palma and, towering over them, Coppola. While they did indeed dominate the decade with their extraordinary work, there are many other filmmakers who, in hindsight, made an equal number of great films. Alan J. Pakula with Klute (1971) and All the President’s Men (1976); Sidney Lumet with Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Network (1976); Sydney Pollack with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Jeremiah Johnson (1972), The Way We Were (1973) and The Electric Horseman (1979), William Friedkin with The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), and Ashby with an exceptional filmography.
Seven films in the seventies, four among the very best of the decade – The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Coming Home (1978) (which remains his masterpiece I think) and Being There (1979), the mesmerizing whimsical film about a simple-minded man rising to a position of great power in the United States. How prophetic. How perfect. His three other films were well reviewed, interesting pictures, Harold and Maude (1971) the best of them, followed by Bound for Glory (1976), which was an Oscar nominated Best Picture, and The Landlord (1970), his first film that already displayed a gift for neo-realism.
Let’s explore each in the order they were made.
THE LANDLORD (1970)
After speaking with his good friend Norman Jewison about his desire to direct, Jewison saw to it Ashby would get his chance with The Landlord, a gritty low budget film that allowed Ashby to explore his style. Deeply concerned with humanity, that was what the director chose to explore not only in his first film, but in everything he directed in the seventies. The first film dealt with a young man born into privilege and wealth who is given an apartment building to operate. Once there he realizes it is a slum, and most of his renters are far below the poverty line, and black. Against his better judgement he becomes friends with his tenants, and though he could sell and move on, he decides to remain and fix the place up ensuring they have a decent and safe place to live. Beau Bridges gave a fine performance as Elgar, the young man born into wealth, and Lee Grant was Oscar nominated for her performance as Joyce, his mother.
The narrative explored the connections, or lack of it, between the black community and their white landlord, as the blacks do not expect what they get with Elgar and his evolution. He enters into a strained relationship with a light skinned young black woman, Lanie (Marki Bey), awkward because he has fathered a child with Fanny (Diana Sands) during their brief affair. She gives up the child, but Elgar gains custody, finding a way to repair his relationship with Lanie, providing the child and Elgar with a family. Ashby’s gifts with actors were apparent in the film, as he drew outstanding performances from Beau Bridges, who would very soon be eclipsed by his brother Jeff, Louis Gossett Jr. as a black activist named Copee, and the aforementioned Lee Grant. The Landlord drew solid reviews from the critics in North America, who took note of Ashby’s neo-realistic style, and the film was placed on many ten best lists in 1970. No question, his career as an editor was over, and he had become a filmmaker.
HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971)
An exquisite, off beat romance that is also a daring black comedy with a standout performances from Ruth Gordon, a recent Oscar winner for Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) would become one of the most popular cult films of the decade and a regular at repertory cinemas. Though many aspects of the film are truly dark, it rings of truth, and is just as funny, and beautiful, as it is dark. Age means nothing, we discover when one falls in love. Harold (Bud Cort), a deeply confused young man, is constantly staging fake suicides to gauge the reactions from his family, who are now by used to the antics of their very odd family member. Encountering Maude (Gordon) at a funeral, he finds she is a survivor of the Holocaust and, at 79 years old, more than 50 years older than Harold, and they quickly become fast friends. Maude is a life force, fearless, wanting to do everything she can before she dies. Her time in a Nazi prison camp has taught her how important living a full life truly is and she wishes to impart this to Harold. Knowing she has little time to do so, suffice to say Ruth gets moving.
What she does not see coming is that Harold falls in love with her, not as a friend, but head over heels, romantic, sexual love.
Ruth is carefree and thinks nothing about breaking the law, stealing what she wants, living in a broken-down railroad car, a true hippy at the age of 79. Her sunny view of life, of living, stuns Harold, and begins to rub off. He announces at a party given at his family’s home he will marry Maude, much to the disgust of them all. But while dancing, Maude announces her surprise to Harold and gift to herself. She has ingested sleeping pills and suspects she will be dead by midnight, because 80 is a long enough life. Stunned, Harold rushes her to the hospital but to no avail, his beloved Maude passes. But oh what she left him! A legacy of life, to have had the time with a life force such as Maude cannot help but rub off on Harold, and he emerges from their relationship altered somehow. Ready to live as she did, with no apologies or reservations about who he is or what he wants.
Was the studio afraid of Harold and Maude? Indeed they were because it was different and they did not know how to market the film, nor did they know what audiences would think. In a sense they buried the film, but were shocked that those who saw it loved it.
In hindsight, there is no question Ruth Gordon deserved an Academy Award nomination as Maude, giving the finest performance of her impressive career. She was luminous, beautiful in a way we have rarely seen in a film, radiant on the inside, and shining on the out. Their offbeat love story was as surprising as any film in the decade and acted with such purity and beauty you cannot look away from the screen. Bud Cort is wonderful as Harold, the gloomy young man who wants to get a reaction out of his mother, a real honest reaction, but has worn her down with his antics. Maude arrives in his life just in time and helps him see that life is indeed worth living and there is beauty in the smallest wonders all around you. The true wonder of the film is Maude. Superb performances dominate Harold and Maude, furthering Ashby’s standing in the industry as an actor’s director, but the best was yet to come.
THE LAST DETAIL (1973)
As Billy “Badass” Buddusky, Jack Nicholson gave one of his greatest early performances. After exploding into the forefront of American actors with his fine work in Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970), Nicholson was the actor of the moment, that rare type who connected with both men and women, and able to walk that fine line between being a movie star and genuine actor. He and Ashby journeyed to Toronto in Canada to make The Last Detail, shooting in and around Regent Park, a housing project that became a ghetto in the eighties and beyond, but looked enough like navy barracks to pass for one on screen. The premise of the film was deceptive and rather simple. Two marines will escort a younger marine to the brig (jail) for stealing a donation box. Thinking this is an easy bit of fun while they await their orders, they can drop the kid off and party the rest of the time, Billy and fellow Navy lifer Mulhall (Otis Young) think the punishment for a petty crime seems rather harsh. Sentenced to eight long years for stealing just forty dollars, the real crime was that Meadows stole it out of a favorite charity of his commanding officer.
Given a week to deliver the boy to jail, they realize they have a few days before they have to be at their destination, so seeing how shy and terribly naïve Meadows is, they decide to show him a good time before his jail term begins. Despite their initial resentment of the detail to which they have been assigned, they find themselves liking Meadows, and despite their discovering he is a natural thief, they decide to show him a good time before jail.
Their adventure begins with a visit to a diner for hamburgers where Billy teaches Meadows to stick up for himself by sending back his meal when it arrives contrary to his order. The older marine cannot believe that Meadows just takes what life throws him! Entering a bar, they are told that the barkeep has to serve Otis because the law says so (he is black) but without ID he will not serve Meadows. Having been in the bar before and remembering the large stick the man keeps under his bar, Billy explodes in rage when threatened with the shore patrol. “Shore patrol! I am the motherfucking shore patrol” he roars slamming his weapon on the bar. Needless to say, they get their beers, with Billy wearing a large smile. A visit to see Meadows mother ends poorly so the men stay up all night in a hotel drinking and tell stories, Billy again provoking a fight trying to get the boy to defend himself.
Strangely there begins to be a method to Billy’s madness and treatment of Meadows. He knows what kind of treatment the boy will get in jail, he is aware this gentle, shy boy will be a target of meaner, much tougher sailors than he. It is his hope he can toughen Meadows up in the few days they have with him.
From here they land in New York City, where they take the boy ice skating (he is terrible), they again go hopping from one bar to the next, and being boisterous, kick ass sailors start a fight in a washroom at Grand Central Station with a group of marines, more or less to blow off steam, and find themselves among a group of zealot Buddhists. Thinking he has a shot of bedding one of the women, they flee when Billy sees her suddenly drop to the floor and speak in tongues, realizing he has no chance of sex with her. Offered a chance to be slipped into Canada by the cult, Meadows denies, not wanting to get his new friends in trouble.
Discovering Meadows is a virgin, of course a brothel is on the agenda and when in Boston, that is exactly where they go, despite a terrible first encounter when Meadows ejaculates at the first touch, he does rise to the occasion the second time, while Billy and Otis talk about their pasts in the hallway.
Meadows has one last request, a picnic, but during the picnic he attempts to escape, shocking both Billy and Otis. They catch him, easily, and so angry is Billy he beats Meadows ferociously.
Arriving at the jail, the boy is taken away with even so much as a goodbye, leaving Billy and Otis to leave, hoping their orders have come in.
Met with excellent reviews, The Last Detail was an immediate hit despite studio concerns about the language of the film. Ashby knew, having visited navy bases for his research, that the language of the sailors was profane and very salty. Writer Robert Towne had captured their life and language to perfection.
And Nicholson? Such a towering performance as Billy, digging into the role deep, living it, becoming this badass navy lifer so intensely that one look at him told us everything we needed to know. The actor would win the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival, where the picture was widely praised, as well as Best Actor Awards from the National Society of Film Critics. The Last Detail was nominated for three Academy Awards – Nicholson as Best Actor, Randy Quaid for Best Supporting Actor and Robert Towne for his superb screenplay.
Ashby’s direction of the film captured the journey of the sailors with authentic documentary realism, very few artistic flourishes, the artistry being the simplicity of his director. And in working with one of the cinema’s greatest actors he had made a loyal friend.
Busted in Canada for carrying marijuana, the studio considered firing Ashby, but it was Nicholson who made clear that Ashby stayed, or he walked. For the rest of the seventies they tried to find another project to do together, but it never came to pass. The Last Detail remains one of his greatest films as again Ashby saw and explored the humanity within the work.
This is a strange film for Ashby because he was brought in by star Warren Beatty to helm the film, and questions have since arose as to just how much directing Ashby actually did. After producing Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to great acclaim and substantial rewards at the box office, Beatty had his eye on directing a film. Paul Newman had directed Rachel, Rachel (1968) and won the New York Film Critics Award as Best Director, but was left out of the Oscar nominations. Beatty felt if Newman could do it, certainly he could. It might have behooved the actor to truly turn the film over to Ashby and just watch and learn. Beatty of course would go on to be an excellent film director, winning the Academy Awards and Directors Guild Award for Reds (1981), his masterpiece about the Russian Revolution that earned high praise from Ashby after seeing the epic.
Rumors state Ashby was often sitting on the sidelines during Shampoo while Beatty discussed scenes with the writer, Towne again, and many of the actors. There was no secret that this was Warren Beatty’s show. Ashby was there to more or less block out the scenes for the camera, and even then Beatty often overruled him. History has stated Beatty treated Ashby very shabbily on the film and felt terrible about it for years to come. They became best friends after the shoot, but never again worked together.
Set in 1968, on the very day Richard Nixon was elected President of The United States, the year Robert Kennedy was assassinated before he would have won the Presidency, the film explores the political unrest in the country. Yet first and foremost it is a dazzling character study of George (Beatty) the stud hairdresser who is brilliant with hair, and even better at bedding the multitude of women after styling their hair. Older, middle aged, young, married, single, widowed, it does not matter to George because he loves giving pleasure, be it their hair, or between the sheets. No movie Beatty ever made so perfectly played to his image offscreen or the image he had carefully cultivated for himself.
The film was an intelligent look at politics in California and that state’s importance in determining the presidency, but politics was always in the background, behind the Beatty story, which was often very funny and sometimes even moving. What emerges very smartly is a study of sexual politics. When George learns his sexual antics are causing ruin to lives, he wakes up deciding to try and be a better man.
Though one might think Shampoo is a deep satire of the times, I am not so sure. I think, more than anything else, it was a satire on the love life of Warren Beatty, who then was well known as a lover to countless women in Hollywood and around the globe. Despite a strong screenplay, when you experience it the right way, the strong performances in the picture never elevate to anything other than what it is, a study of Beatty and his sexual prowess.
Beatty is terrific as more or less himself, and man does he look like the epitome of cool on a motorcycle, while Julie Christie, Lee Grant, Goldie Hawn and a very young Carrie Fisher are excellent as the many women George sleeps with. Jack Warden is also excellent as Grant’s husband.
Funny, sure, but lacking the humanity Ashby infused his films with. He was sadly under used.
BOUND FOR GLORY (1976)
One of five Academy Award nominees for Best Picture in 1976, Bound for Glory was among a quartet of films that tragically were bested by Rocky (1976), the Cinderella story about a boxer finding redemption and love in the ring and out. Sylvester Stallone’s film caught the imagination of the American public and became a monster hit, and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards. Going into Oscar night did anyone think the film had a chance? I did not. Nominated for Best Picture were All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network, Taxi Driver and Rocky, three of them among the greatest films of the decade, All the President’s Men by far the year’s best film. As we all know Rocky did indeed win, a terrible choice by the Academy, but by 1976 we were used to it.
Ashby’s Bound for Glory was a very fine film, beautifully created and crafted, capturing the details of the Great Depression to perfection, the scenes often resembling the photographs of the time. Though the film was hailed as a biography of the great folk singer who fought social repression with song, not much in the film actually happened, though Ashby did capture the spirit and soul of Woody Guthrie in his film. The greatest obstacle he had to overcome was casting. Who could play the folk singer? Who possessed the quiet power and dignity to step into the role? Jack Nicholson was too busy but did like the script and wanted to work with Ashby again, but two other films had him distracted, one of them with Marlon Brando, The Missouri Breaks (1976). Richard Dreyfuss was thought of for the part, and a young Martin Sheen before Ashby became convinced the distant, often distracted David Carradine caught his eye. What Ashby liked about Carradine was that it did not really matter to him that this was a big studio production that could further his career, he did not care about the ramifications of a huge hit. His life was just fine as it was. Ashby loved his attitude and, against howls of protest from the studio, he cast Carradine as Woody Guthrie. While the role did not make a star of the actor, he is best remembered as Caine in the TV series Kung Fu and more recently as Bill in Tarantino’s Kill Bill films (2003/04).
As Guthrie he does a good job capturing the essence of a man who sings about his deep love for America and sings darkly and tragically about the working man and how they were being oppressed during the Great Depression. We watch Guthrie touring America, riding the rails, walking and talking with the people he sings about and for, seeing material for his songs everywhere he goes. Where the film struggles is exploring what Guthrie really wanted with his art, his music, what were the deep reasons he wrote? The primary goal of the actor is to ask what it is their character wants? What drives them? I could see Carradine reacting to the injustices being poured on the common man, but what did he want to do about it? I think it was something much deeper than just writing his music, there was a hope his music and songs might unite the nation, which is not really explored within the film or Carradine’s performance. For me, it raised serious questions about the limitations of the actor himself, David Carradine. A greater actor might have elevated Bound for Glory to being a great film, a film for the ages.
Bound for Glory was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning two – for Best Cinematography and Best Song Score, an award no longer given. Despite the Best Picture nomination, Ashby was ignored as Best Director, though he did receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director.
The Cinematography on the film received the highest praise, earning in addition to the Academy Award, other awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics.
COMING HOME (1978)
This was Ashby’s masterpiece, his finest work, and the film for which he deserved to win his Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture. Instead, we watched Michael Cimino win both awards for The Deer Hunter (1978) a film predicated on the lies of a director who would prove himself to be a self-destructive egotist.
Coming Home was the brainchild of Jane Fonda who, upon returning to the film business, made it known she wanted to make a film about the veterans returning from the wear and the hell they experienced. The film was unlike any major film about the war experience, except for the Academy Award winning The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which beautifully and poetically dealt with the aftermath of WWII. Fonda wanted to make a film that explored the intense trauma of the Americans who came home to be forgotten by their government and often, families.
Fonda would obviously portray the lead female role, leaving two plum make roles to cast. Ashby was by this time involved and directing the film. His first choice for Luke Martin, the paralyzed veteran, was Jack Nicholson, who turned them down. Others turning the role down were Sylvester Stallone and Martin Sheen, though Jon Voight knew what the film could mean, and grabbed the part. Bruce Dern had also been interested in Luke, but instead happily accepted the part of Bob Hyde, husband to Fonda’s Sally.
Bob was a hawk, a military lifer who could not wait to get Vietnam and start killing gooks. He and Sally have been married a few years, he is clearly the alpha in the relationship, but sex between them is terrible, with Sally never satisfied. When she takes a job at the veterans Hospital she encounters Luke, a young man she knew in high school, now paralyzed from the waist down. They tease, she sees him often humiliated and though she tries to get more funding to get more for the men, she is rebuked. She and Luke continue their gentle flirting and seem to end up at the same places. When one of Luke’s friends, a young man damaged by the war, kills himself Luke chains himself to the gates of the military and is arrested. Sally bails him out and asks him to spend the night with her, beginning their affair and begins her sexual awakening, as she experiences her first orgasm.
When Sally visits Bob in Hong Kong, she sees a very different man than the one who left her in California. Darker, haunted, the war is beginning to break Bob into pieces. He walks in circles in their hotel room talking about his men gleefully chopping off the heads of the Viet Cong “because that was what they were into”. Bob is very close to a breaking point.
Returning home, Sally and Luke set up house together on the beach, with the specter of Bob hanging over them, unseen but always present.
When he returns home is a shell of the man who left. Angry, distant, explosive, Bob is a human time bomb about to go off. Informed by the army of his wife’s affair, he comes at Sally with a weapon, but Luke intervenes reminding him that his wife loves him, that what happened between Sally and himself, but she was with him, not Luke. Despite the fury with which Bob came into the scene, murder on the mind, relents and gently puts the gun down.
The film ends with that scene Ashby proudly showed Dern when the actor was worried about being the crazy villain of the film. With the horrors of Vietnam too much to bear, one man swims into the sea to escape the pain, another advises young men to avoid the war at all costs, “there is a choice to be made.”
Coming Home opened in the spring of 1978 and, despite very strong reviews, did little business. However sensing Oscar nominations, the studio re-released the film in December of the same year just as The Deer Hunter was being pre-screened for the press. The critics’ awards began piling up for Jon Voight as Best Actor from the LA Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics, the Golden Globes honored both Voight and Fonda for lead actor and actress, and when the Oscar nominations were announced, the film was nominated eight times, including Best Picture and finally Best Director, long overdue for Ashby.
The lies about The Deer Hunter’s origin were not yet known when voting for the awards took place, if they had been, I think the Oscars might have had a very different result. The Deer Hunter won five in all, Best Picture and Best Director among them, while Coming Home took three, Best Actor, Actress and Original Screenplay. In hindsight I think Ashby should have won Best Director, the film Best Picture, and Bruce Dern for Supporting Actor. As brilliant as Voight is, and it is a performance for the ages, the heart of the film is Dern, a man truly broken by the war, which Ashby understood the moment he read the screenplay.
And that extraordinary song score, using the original songs of the time, plunged audiences back to the time all of the happenings were going on. One of the most astounding uses of songs ever in a film, perfection.
The legacy of Coming Home has become stronger as the years have slipped by. Though Apocalypse Now (1979) towers over all films made about the war in Vietnam, maybe all films about war, Coming Home has surpassed the rest, and without a single combat scene. We see the terrible scars on the minds of Bob Hyde, Luke Martin and that sad guitar playing teenager, who kills himself with a needle full of air.
“The man went out” says a character. Right, just as Bob Hyde went out for a swim. A stunning masterpiece with Ashby directing as he never had before.
BEING THERE (1979)
His last great film of the decade was Being There, which today seems more timely than ever, more urgent to today’s audiences than ever before. Can a simpleton run a country? Our generation has watched George W. Bush try and run the United States and later watched Donald Trump bumble and lie his way through his Presidency, finally committing insurrection on his own people in hopes of overruling the election that saw him defeated (mercifully) after four painful years.
Being There was based on the lovely novel by Jerzy Kosinski, best known for his performance in Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) as Simoneov, a Russian leader under Lenin, and the moment Ashby read it he knew he must direct it. He had been in discussions to direct the adaptation of Ragtime (1981) from the sprawling E.L. Doctorow book but chose to go with Being There. In a stroke of genius, he cast the wraithlike Peter Sellers as Chance, a simple-minded grounds keeper for a wealthy man who has allowed Chance to grow up in his home. An orphan (we think), Chance knows nothing of the outside world other than what he has seen on television.
The death of his elderly employer finds Chance homeless, and force to go into a world he is does not know or understand. When a wealthy woman Eve (Shirley MacLaine) riding in a limo that injures Chance, she takes him home. Her house is a massive mansion because her husband is a very wealthy man, Rand (Melvyn Douglas), much older than she and very close with the President. No one realizes something is off about Chance, who they believe Chance the Gardner means Chauncey Gardner. Treated as a guest, he is given his own room in which to recover, a massive bedroom complete with a television. When asked about important foreign policy by some of the President’s advisors and the President himself (Jack Warden), Chance answers in plant metaphors telling the men if the roots are not harmed all will be well. They instantly take him for a genius politician who at that moment becomes an important friend and advisor to the President himself. Meanwhile Eve has fallen head over heels for Chance and when she throws herself at him, he informs her “I like to watch”. She falls to the floor and begins to masturbate herself to orgasm as he blissfully watches television. His fame grows and he continues to answer in metaphors, they think, while all the while he speaks of the garden, which they believe to be the economy.
Mr. Rand is very ill and asks Chance to take care of Eve when he dies, which of course he eventually does. It is at the old man’s funeral that the idea to put Chance into the Presidential begins.
The final shot of the film, audacious and daring, shows Chance out for a walk on the grounds. He walks across a pond of water and stops to dip his umbrella in to find the bottom and continues walking right across the water to the house.
A miracle indeed.
Being There was among the best films of 1979, hailed largely for the profoundly brilliant performance of Peter Sellers, never better than as Chance. His bemused look masks the fact he understands only the basic questions they ask him, and his answers to them are taken as profound and truthful. Sellers dominates the film with his superb performance, while Melvyn Douglas, Shirley MacLaine and Jack Warden offer him great support. In fact, the elderly Douglas won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor when many called for Robert Duvall to win for his fire breathing colonel in Apocalypse Now (1979)!
The film should have been a Best Picture and Best Director nominee but alas, it did not come to pass. Ashby found the perfect tone, a superb satire, offering a touch of very black comedy in suggesting a simple-minded man could rise to the world’s most powerful position.
Once again Ashby demonstrated his work with actors, gently guiding, working with them all the way to the finished product. He listened where other director would not, he welcomed collaboration because he is was egoless, and a film director, a stage director, anyone creating needs to leave their ego at the door when working, creating and encouraging collaboration of any kind.
One of the great political comedies ever made, this was the last great film made by one of the seventies greatest filmmakers.
To be blunt, the studios chewed Ashby up and spit him out when they no longer needed him. Oh he directed through the eighties, but lightweight material, or films for TV, even a documentary. He was preparing to direct Tootsie (1982) when he was replaced and seemed to know then his time was finished in Hollywood. When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver and lungs, he died a horribly painful death. The many actors he had guided were frequent visitors, Warren Beatty everyday if he could, Jack Nicholson frequently and so many others dropped in to comfort their beloved Hal. When he died, we lost one of the greatest directors in the history of the cinema.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, after screening The Descendants (2011) directed by Alexander Payne and featuring George Clooney, an Oscar nominated director himself, I interviewed both men on their own. Asking Payne who his influences were he answered without hesitation, “Oh without question, Hal Ashby”. Clooney smiled and answer, “There are a few, Lumet, Pakula, of course Hal Ashby. No one captured humanity like Ashby did.”
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.