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Forget Harold and Maude

Watch Hal Ashby’s exceptional message movies instead.

This should have been a big year for Hal Ashby. In February, a 30th-anniversary edition of his masterpiece, Being There, was released. The following month brought the first full-length biography. In June, a long-lost director’s cut of one of his maligned movies from the 1980s appeared on DVD (albeit to still- tepid reviews). Tributes and retrospectives have been held around the country: Ashby, who died in 1988, would have turned 80 earlier this month.

Yet Ashby’s legacy remains a little fuzzy. If any adjective has affixed itself to the director, it is probably “quirky,” an epithet he owes partly to Being There—the tale of a seemingly autistic gardener who becomes a high-profile economic pundit and prospective presidential candidate—but mostly to Harold and Maude, from 1971, which stars Bud Cort as a suicidal young man smitten by a fun-loving, 79-year-old Holocaust survivor (Ruth Gordon). Maude teaches Harold to thumb his nose at authority and do as he feels. The movie flopped in its initial release but was quickly revived on college campuses and has charmed an unending wave of undergraduates ever since.

Harold and Maude is a key predecessor for “indie-quirk” cinema; its influence is all over Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, for instance. But watching the five movies Ashby made afterward—released over six years, they accumulated 22 Oscar nominations—the word quirky starts to seem inadequate. Or worse, trivializing. In his best movies from this period, Ashby charts, as seriously and as well as any of his peers, the political educations of his characters. Ashby’s mentors included William Wyler and, especially, Norman Jewison, masters of the so-called “message movie,” and throughout the 1970s Ashby created variations on that form. In contrast to the usual Hollywood fare, Ashby’s best movies are not about finding yourself (Harold and Maude being the conspicuous exception). Rather, they’re about finding other people and realizing your responsibilities to them.

Ashby laid out this artistic credo in his once celebrated and now neglected Woody Guthrie biopic, Bound for Glory, from 1976. Ashby, like Guthrie, grew up far from big cities (in Ogden, Utah); also like Guthrie, he left for California around age 19, hitchhiking there from Wyoming. Bound for Glory opens with Guthrie, persuasively played by David Carradine, working as a sign-painter in Texas during the Depression and feeling frustrated by his small-town surroundings. He heads to California, where, in a labor camp, he meets Ozark Buell, who has come to lead a hoedown and spread the gospel of organizing. Buell also has a gig on the radio, and after Guthrie makes an impression on him at the hoedown, he gives him his first break: a radio audition. (There are shades here of Norman Jewison’s relationship with Ashby; Jewison gave Ashby his start as a director by handing off the reins on the funny, daring, and politically charged film The Landlord, sadly unavailable on DVD.)

Buell separates his professional life from his activism, playing safe, unthreatening songs on the radio while spreading political messages in fields full of migrant workers. Guthrie, though, comes to reject this division:

While Ashby states his aims most explicitly in Bound for Glory, he realizes them best in The Last Detail, which stars Jack Nicholson as Navy man Billy “Badass” Buddusky. Buddusky, along with “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young), must escort seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) from Norfolk, Va., to a naval prison in New Hampshire. Meadows has been sentenced to eight years for trying to boost $40 from the collection box at a charity event hosted by the commandant’s wife. Meadows is meekness personified; his penchant for petty theft is merely a compulsion. Buddusky, on the other hand, considers himself his own boss and cusses out anyone who thinks otherwise. (The film’s profanity caused several delays, as the studio balked at releasing it without cuts.) Buddusky takes it upon himself to teach the young, prison-bound sailor something about personal freedom.

To this end, Buddusky gets Meadows drunk on several occasions, takes him to a whorehouse, and at one point starts a fight with Marines in a bus station bathroom—displaying for Meadows several varieties of rebellion. In the end, though, he still has to leave Meadows at prison, at which point we notice that the movie, seemingly focused on the education of Meadows, is concerned most of all with Buddusky and his slow realization that personal freedom doesn’t amount to much when you’re still, ultimately, following orders.

Vietnam is mentioned only once in The Last Detail—by some boho New Yorkers who express predictable attitudes about it—but the war looms behind the entire film, helping to explain its dark mood and the feeling of powerlessness palpable in its characters. It had been eight years since the war escalated, and Hollywood had yet to make a single movie devoted to the subject. Finally, in 1978, Ashby made one of the first: Coming Home, with Jon Voight as Luke Martin, a paraplegic veteran loosely based on Ron Kovic, who wrote Born on the Fourth of July. The film also stars, somewhat notoriously, Jane Fonda as Sally, the wife of a Marine captain named Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern). Fonda’s own relationship to Vietnam has perhaps complicated the film’s legacy, but Hollywood loved it at the time: The movie was nominated for eight Oscars and won three.

Coming Home handles the political educations of its characters with less subtlety than The Last Detail: Sally falls for Luke and turns against the war; Bob loses the pride he felt for what he’d done and comes to feel he has no place in the world; Luke overcomes his shame and self-doubt and begins to speak out against the war. Still, Ashby gets great performances, as usual, out of his leads, and the movie ends with a long, affecting speech that probably won Jon Voight his Oscar:

Having presented Luke’s political education, Ashby here reaches out directly to the audience: Luke’s message is clearly his as well. He builds up to the moment, giving the scene time to unfold, and he’s careful to put that message in the voice of a character we have come to know over the previous two hours: He reportedly let Voight improvise at great length through various takes, then pieced together a few minutes of the best material. (Having begun as an editor, Ashby often worked this way.)

In the follow-up to Coming Home, however, Ashby seems to wonder whether such carefully crafted political messages are on the verge of dying out altogether. Being There stars Peter Sellers as Chance, an unlikely figure who has spent several isolated decades within the walls of a large private house, tending a garden and watching television. When the owner of the house dies, he is evicted by the estate’s executors. Wandering through Washington, D.C. (Ashby moved the story, based on a short novel by Jerzy Kosinski, there from New York City), he is hit by a limousine carrying Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), who insists that Chance see the personal doctor of her husband, a very old and enormously influential businessman. On the way to their mansion, Chance turns on a little TV set in the car:

Unlike Network—made four years earlier and based on the fear that one man could amass enormous influence on the airwaves—Being There suggests that television’s real threat is the way it scatters our attention among random stimuli. As Eve says in the clip above, we now have too much information, and it’s all become “a muddle.” Which is precisely why Chance—mistaken by Eve’s husband for an economist named Chauncey Gardener—can rise to prominence by obliviously spouting platitudes like “as long as the roots are not severed, all will be well” and “growth has it seasons.” Soon the president of the United States is echoing his remarks, and Chance himself is invited to share his wisdom on the talk show circuit—a trajectory that, at this point, feels sadly familiar.

After the dark vision of Being There, Ashby stopped making politically engaged movies. His last four feature films focus on a quirky working-class couple, a pair of gamblers, a major league ballplayer, and an alcoholic, respectively. He also made two poorly regarded concert films, one for the Rolling Stones and another for Neil Young, and directed a couple of TV pilots. This may not have been a conscious departure from his 1970s work; in the succeeding decade, power shifted back to the studios, and some have suggested that by then none of Ashby’s decisions were particularly conscious—drugs and alcohol were supposedly taking a toll (though this is disputed). Whatever the case, Ashby had one great decade, at least, and the films he made then continue to educate, politically and otherwise, those who make movies and those who simply enjoy them.