Hal Ashby was a great film director, whose string of credits include Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979).
Unfortunately, Hal had difficulty dealing with success. In the 1980’s, e became “difficult” and eventually lost his reputation. He passed away in 1988 before he reached 60.
The sad thing about Hal’s demise — at least for me — is that Hal had a unique voice that was lost too quickly. Films back then were not as fantasy oriented as they are now. They attempted instead, to put their stamp on reality. I think Hal’s work belongs in that tradition.
So, films from the 50’s often dealt with the happy home. Love and reasonable behavior usually triumph. I am thinking of two films in particular – Billy Wilder’s 1955 film, The Seven Year Itch, and Blake Edwards’ 1959 film Operation Petticoat.
In the late sixties, films started to incorporate newly relevant themes from the real world, from racial awareness (Stanely Kramer’s 1967 film Guess Who is Coming to Dinner) to counter culture (Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film Easy Rider). Mike Nichols’ 1966 film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf stands in stark contrast to the romantic comedies of the 1950’s. In 1967, Mike Nichols directed “The Graduate”, which offered an alternative view of youthful romance.
In the 1070’s culture and counterculture continued to compete in the media and society. Robert Altman’s MASH came out in 1970 as a counterculture blockbuster. And Hal Ashby’s films also came out. They too ran counter to the predominant social narrative.
You might say that these films attempted to reconcile the clash between authority and rebellion. They did so in quirky stories depicting our real world. And these films offered a certain charm in their expressions of vulnerability. These stand in stark contrast to the more recent trend in film making to indulge in total fantasy (The Lord of the Rings) or comic book versions of reality (superhero films).
I miss that charm. And I miss Hal Ashby, as he was back in the 1970’s … before success got the better of him.
BTW, Jacob Oller from Vanity Fair tells us that a script that Hal was working on — but that was never filmed — has been uncovered. it is called “Vital Parts”.