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In the world of Being There, as in all of Hal Ashby's films, external appearances constantly undercut and belie the reality of the situation. Chance is a dim-witted gardener, but because he falls in with important and powerful people, he is taken to be important and powerful himself. The medium of television seems to act for Chance as a mirror of reality, as he often mimics what happens on the screen, and he acts with child-like wonder when he sees his own image in the video camera in a TV store window. Significantly, he is so preoccupied with his image that he stumbles out into the street, and this is when the accident occurs that leads him to the Rand home. Television, then, is a reflective medium but also a catalyst, an agent that starts random events in motion that move the narrative forward. It is Chance's appearance on the talk show that allows him to be recognized by people who knew him as a simple gardener, but ironically, the revelation of who he really is does not undo Chance's charade; instead, the TV appearance brings him the fame and notoriety that confirms his new status as a powerful man. So while TV is a mirror, in the black comic world of Hal Ashby, the mirror can also distort.
Being There ends with Benjamin Rand's funeral, the death of Chance's new, adopted father figure that also promises to be a beginning for him as a he takes over for Rand as Eve's lover and, potentially, head of Rand's empire. As the President delivers the eulogy, we see Chance -- his short attention span taxed to its limit -- wander away from the crowd and onto a small pond, where he seemingly walks across the water. At one point, Chance looks down at what he is doing and appears as bewildered as the viewer probably is at this point. We then hear the President's final words: "Life is a state of mind." While this ending is fantastic, it is not atypical for Ashby's films. Most of them end ambiguously, with one or more of the characters wandering off into an uncertain future, and the endings often have associations with water and suicide. In Harold and Maude, Harold drives his car off an ocean-side cliff, only to be seen wandering off strumming a banjo. In Coming Home, Bob Hyde commits suicide by wandering out into the ocean surf and disappearing. And in the endings of all the other films he made in the '70s, Ashby's characters simply wander off at the end, many times disillusioned by their experiences and, presumably, contemplating the same fate as the doomed Bob Hyde. The ending of Being There, however, while similar to the earlier films, is more on the level of fantasy and fairy tale: is Chance the second coming of Christ? Or, as the film seems to suggest, just extremely fortunate? Ashby leaves us these questions to ponder.
Throughout the 1970s, Hal Ashby's career was one of repeated and increasing sucesses, but after Being There, Ashby's career began an inexplicable downward turn from which it never recovered. Second Hand Hearts starred Robert Blake and Barbara Harris but made hardly a ripple on its release in 1981. Lookin' to Get out, released in the late summer of 1982, reunited Ashby with the actor with whom he had had his greatest commercial success, Jon Voight. Voight and Burt Young played two New York gamblers on the run who meet up with Ann-Margaret in Las Vegas. The film's convoluted story and off-beat humor confused audiences, and the film disappeared after an extremely brief theatrical run. Also late in 1982, Let's Spend the Night Together, a rockumentary of the Rolling Stones 1981 tour, was released. The film confirmed Ashby's love of the Rolling Stones music (several Stones songs appeared prominently on the soundtrack of Coming Home) but the film paled in comparison with earlier Stones' films such as Gimme Shelter. Let's Spend the Night Together did nothing to revive Ashby's critical and commercial fortunes.
In 1985 Hal Ashby appeared poised for a comeback. His new film, The Slugger's Wife, was based on a story by the ever reliable Neil Simon and featured Rebecca DeMourney, one of the hottest new actresses to appear on the scene, in the title role. The film is the almost old-fashioned story of Darryl Palmer (Michael O'Keefe), rightfielder for the Atlanta Braves, and his wife, Debby (DeMourney), who is trying to launch her career as a singer. When Debby is present at the ballpark or in Darryl's life, he can do no wrong, and he begins to approach the record for most home runs in a season. But Debby is offered a chance for a record contract if she will go out on tour, so she leaves Darryl, whom she feels is suffocating her. Finally, Debby returns for the last game in which Darryl breaks the home run record. But the ending of the film is ambiguous, for the Braves lose the pennant and Debby must return to the road. She and Darryl decide to "keep the door open" with regard to their possible future together.
Despite a big promotional buildup, the film failed to ignite at the box office. It's possible to suggest that the naive Darryl and the independent, free-spirited Debby Palmer are prototypical Ashby characters, and that the film is an attempt to evoke the light-hearted comedies of an earlier era. When Darryl is attempting to woe Debby, for instance, he stages a mock scene from Singing in the Rain, including rain showers provided via water hoses. But Darryl can never accept Debby's career or undergo any signifigant character transformation during the course of the film; he mostly acts petulant and selfish, as in the scene in which he punches out her guitar player and destroys a coffee shop when she will not return with him. One has the sense that Ashby had no feeling for these characters and their mostly shallow, self-centered lives, and the film seems to reflect his disinterest.
Despite all the flaws, there are echoes of Ashby's earlier films. Randy Quaid, from The Last Detail, returns as Darryl's teammate Moose Granger. The domineering parent figure exists in the more benign presence of team manager Burley DeVito (played by film director Martin Ritt). Still, DeVito can't help but meddle. When Darryl gets beaned and sent to the hospital, DeVito conspires to have another blonde singer go to Darryl's room, impersonate Debby and tell him she will return when the season is over, which pulls Darryl out of his hitting slump. DeVito also gets the film's best line, when he tells Moose to take Darryl out and get him laid. Moose asks if he can get a girl for himself, to which DeVito explodes: "When was the last time you hit a home run? What do you think I am, a pimp?" And the film's conclusion at least does not resort to the typical Hollywood happy ending, as there is the suggestion that Darryl and Debby may yet reconcile their problems and grow into a mature relationship.
Hal Ashby's final film, 8 Million Ways to Die, was released in 1986 and had its primary life on home video. The film is a venture into a new genre for the director, an action crime drama, and stars Jeff Bridges as Scudder, an L.A. vice squad detective who accidentally kills a suspect during a drug bust. Overwhelmed by guilt, Scudder takes to the bottle and his marriage and career fall apart. Through a small-time pimp, the ironically named Chance (Randy Brooks), he meets Sunny (Alexandra Paul), a prostitute who asks him for protection from the evil drug dealer Angel Maldonado (Andy Garcia), but Sunny is killed by Maldonado before she can leave town. Scudder enlists the aid of Sarah (Rosanne Arquette) in his attempts to bring down Maldonado, whom he eventually kills, and the film's conclusion suggests that a clean and sober Scudder may have a chance to put his life back together.
While 8 Million Ways to Die is by no means a major film, it
does have its admirers. Ashby's earlier films, such as Harold and Maude and Being There, seem to suggest that his characters can only lose when they stay in a shell and fail to experience life; 8 Million Ways to Die suggests that it is possible for a character such as Scudder (and Sunny and Sarah for that matter) to experience too much life, that (as the title suggests) there are too many risks out there and the world is a very dangerous place indeed. Many of Ashby's '70s films seem extremely benign in comparison with this one. This may suggest a shift in Hal Ashby's world view as he aged. Still, the film's ending, with Scudder proclaiming his sobriety at an AA meeting and a walk by the ocean with Sarah (another ending near water) indicates that, if one can survive life's dangers, there is a possibility of starting over. Along with The Slugger's Wife, 8 Million Ways to Die suggests the impossibility -- or at least the impracticality -- of relationships, but it also leaves open the hope that these characters can overcome their self-centered problems and eventually grow up.
On December 27, 1988 Hal Ashby passed away at the age of 59. Why did his career, once so full of promise and success, take such a sudden downward turn? It's hard to say. It has been alleged that increasing drug use affected Ashby's work. It is also possible that the changing political climate in the country from the liberal '70s to the conservative '80s -- when the country was undergoing a military buildup and sense of renewed patriotism -- caused Ashby's irreverent films to suddenly seem out dated. Perhaps he just stopped getting good scripts. Irregardless of the reason or reasons, the fact remains that Hal Ashby was one of the most successful directors in a decade that saw substantial innovation and change in the Hollywood film. The charge that Hal Ashby was little talented and only succeeded based on having "good collaborators" is ridiculous; all successful directors have good collaborators since film is such a collaborative medium. And Ashby continued to work with the best talent into the 1980s, when the quality of his films inexplicably declined. Ashby's films of the '70s succeeded because his vision hit a resonant chord with an audience that was recovering from the tumult and change of the 1960s. At that time, audiences needed a director who could disguise slice-of-life dramas as black comedies, who could highlight the ironies of existence, and who could suggest a silver lining on the other side of life's trying experiences. Hal Ashby did all this with deftness and style.
Ashby is now largely ignored, forgotten, or disparaged in film guides and critical studies, but he should take his place along contemporaries such as Coppolla, Altman, Polansky, and Scorsese as one of the finest directors of films in the 1970s. The fact that his career as a director was not long in terms of years should not detract from the fact that he made a small group of incredibly successful, creative and memorable films. He was also a brilliant editor who was able to integrate popular music into his films and invest them with a special meaning. The characters that he created and the situations of his best films remain in our memory: Harold speeding towards the cliff in his sports car, Maude encouraging Harold to "go out and love some more," George and Jackie caught making love in the refrigerator's light, and Chance telling Eve "I like to watch" and Eve misunderstanding his meaning. So let's take a moment to remember the director that time forgot, Hal Ashby, and the wonderful films he made in that long ago decade of the 1970s.
© 1998 by James A. Davidson. All rights reserved