Do you know what the very first film my family ever bought on DVD was? It was Being There. My dad and I went to Fred Meyer one day and were browsing the DVD selection. We had just purchased a player and were looking to try out this new technology. I was young, and so my only exposure to Peter Sellers had been the Pink Panther films (and if my memory serves, Dr. Strangelove), but even at that young age, I admired his prowess in physical comedy and was eager to watch him in any other role. We took the film home and watched it together; it was a great father-daughter bonding moment, and that film quickly became one of my all time favorite movies. At the time I could not say why I enjoyed it so much, I am sure that the initial viewing went mostly over my head. Upon revisits however, I was struck by the artistry of the performances and the poignant writing. The satirization of American culture and politics in which a man called Chance who is the gardener can be mistaken for Chauncey Gardener, a member of the elite ruling class tickled my fancy quite a bit. Social commentary aside, Sellers’ portrayal of Chance/Chauncey is so tender and human that as an audience member, one cannot help be touched by his journey through the story.
Since filmmaking is a collaboration, a performance such as this is surely the product of a dialogue between actor and director. On your part as director, you achieved an exceptional happy medium between human-interest drama and comedy in Being There. This strongly humanistic quality is a hallmark of much of your work. I’ve seen many of your films from the 1970s, and believe you exemplify much that was characteristic of that Golden Age of the New Hollywood. You were one of my first introductions to that era and now I associate your films with all that I love about 1970s U.S. cinema.
Recently, I showed my fiancé Harold and Maude. It was the first time he had ever seen it, and probably my 6th viewing. I always forget how wonderful that film is until I revisit it. I hold, what I believe to be an idealized memory of that film, reminiscing about it fondly in between viewings, thinking, ah, but it cannot be as good as that! However, with each viewing, as soon as the first frame rolls, I quickly become enraptured in the story, and I realize that it is not an idealized memory at all: that’s just how good the film is! But what makes it so enrapturing and an effective piece of storytelling?
First and foremost are the detailed character renderings. I’ve watched many films over the years, and am just beginning a career in the entertainment industry. In my experience, both as a viewer and practitioner, it is rarer and rarer that character is established through every aspect of the filmmaking process. This is not to say that it does not occur in modern films, but I think the opportunity is often lost to imbue all aspects of a film with information about a character. Let me provide an example. One of my favorite aspects of Harold and Maude is the production design of Maude’s train car dwelling. The viewer immediately gets the sense of who Maude is. The train car is cluttered with a multitude of textures, and colors. There is visual activity in the foreground, mid-ground, and background. To the uninitiated viewer perhaps the artifacts seem to have been placed somewhat haphazardly, but no– each was an intentional exploration and elaboration on her character so that when taken with all other aspects: Ruth Gordon’s performance, the writing, Maude becomes a complete, three-dimensional inhabitant of a world.
Character driven storytelling is always so enjoyable. Perhaps it is time to return to this paradigm in modern filmmaking. You paved the way in this respect with your work, but so many seem to have forgotten your name. If this letter serves to achieve only one thing, let it be an inducement to readers to explore your films for a glimpse into an epoch of cinema that continues to shine on through the decades. Hal Ashby should not be a name known only to self-professed cinephiles. Films exploring the universality of the human condition such as yours are meant to be enjoyed by all.