Interviewers who ascended to Hal Ashby’s home/editing studio in Laurel Canyon referred to his placid, “guru”-like appearance—barefoot, daishiki’d, and bearded—but few in town had toiled longer and harder for success.
A footloose kid from Ogden, Utah, who hitchhiked into Hollywood, Ashby worked his way up the ladder to editing, notably in collaboration with Norman Jewison. He won an Oscar for cutting Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967), which plays BAM’s Ashby retro alongside 13 other titles. A hippie avant la lettre, nicknamed “Hashby” for obvious reasons, Ashby became the most overtly counterculture New Hollywood figure when, aged 40, he jumped over to directing in 1970 with The Landlord.
The guru’s method was once described by Jack Nicholson: “He has such a light touch that some people who have worked with him aren’t even sure he’s directed the picture.” A vocal proponent of collaborative filmmaking, Ashby benefited from strong, authorial contributors. Screenwriter Bill Gunn, later a director himself, stamped his name onto The Landlord’s confrontational satire, with Beau Bridges’s honky gentrifier busting into a Park Slope row house, while The Last Detail (1973) and Shampoo (1975) are both anchored by their leading men—respectively, Nicholson and taskmaster producer/co-writer/star Warren Beatty. Behind both of those superficially anecdotal films is a tight Robert Towne script, spun by Ashby in the most unaffected manner.
Ashby’s next projects, Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory (1976) and Coming Home (1978), were big, vaporous movies, with the director’s atmosphere-setting talents now used as ends instead of means. Evaluated on the liberal good intentions of their awards-season-baiting subjects, they confirmed Ashby’s clout—long dispersed by the time he died of cancer in 1988, reportedly disserviced by holistic charlatans.
His last hit was another vital partnership, Being There (1979), with Peter Sellers playing a sweet dullard adopted as a wise man by America’s owning class. It’s a fable told at a measured Zen pace that would be completely alien to commercial movies in the decade to come. Ashby had developed a working method of shooting miles of footage, trusting he could carve a movie out of the raw material during months of marathon editing. But after Being There, impatient outsiders began to finish them instead. Unhappy with Ashby’s cut, Lorimar Productions dictated their own edit of Lookin’ to Get Out (1982). Now newly restored and playing at BAM, Ashby’s never-screened version is a film whose slovenliness suits its rumpled subjects. Jon Voight and Burt Young play two big, irresponsible brats from Queens, improvising their way into the best suite in the Vegas MGM Grand. Famously studio-bowdlerized, 8 Million Ways to Die (1986) is as crazy a collection of run-on scenes ever to be laid over an L.A. noir plot—there’s more charm in its confusion than in the brayed, talkin’-down folk wisdom of Ruth Gordon and Cat Stevens in Ashby’s earlier Harold and Maude (1971).
Ashby’s ’80s output remains a puzzle. Peter Biskind’s 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls attributes Ashby’s loss of control over his career to addictions; Nick Dawson’s 2009 biography Being Hal Ashby more generously depicts the director refusing to capitulate to an increasingly corporate industry. Whatever the case, in his up-from-the-stockroom rise, and then in the fine, failed, and flawed films carrying his name, there’s a distinctly American frustration.