Another installment in the series on film directors.
Hal Ashby and Michael Ritchie were contemporaries and each directed some iconic 1970s films. Ashby was a film editor before turning to directing, and died relatively young. Ritchie had a longer directing career but his star lost luster and he was stuck in mediocre films for most of the second half of his career. During the 1970s, these two were responsible for a number of amazing films.
Hal Ashby died at age 59 of pancreatic cancer. He spent the first part of his career editing films, in fact he was twice nominated for Academy Awards, winning for In the Heat of the Night. Among his edited films: The Loved Ones and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.
Ashby directed his first film in 1970, The Landlord. After that he directed Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979). Few directors have a decade as successful as this.
The 1980s would be a very different story. He went from Oscar-nominated to unemployable. When he could get work, most of the projects were beneath his talent. Second-Hand Hearts (1981), Lookin’ to Get Out (1982), Let’s Spend the Night Together (1983), Solo Trans (1984), The Slugger’s Wife (1985), 8 Million Ways to Die (1986), Beverly Hills Buntz (TV) (1987), Jake’s Journey (TV) (1988).
If you look at his 70s films you see films that reflected the decade perfectly. His films pushed at the seems of society, often in very funny ways, sometimes tragic ways. His films, like the man, had a gentle laid-back quality but could erupt with drama like lightning bolts from a boiling storm.
Music was prominent in Ashby’s films. Bound for Glory was the soundtrack of Dust Bowl America, the fictionalized story of Woody Guthrie. Shampoo and Coming Home are set in the late 1960s and feature soundtracks from the period. Ashby would go on to direct a Rolling Stones tour documentary and a short film for Neil Young.
Michael Ritchie’s directorial debut was Downhill Racer, one of Robert Redford’s best and earliest starring roles. Redford’s character is selfish and egotistical, and he’s the leading character in the film! Ritchie’s style resembles a documentary film; his camerawork seems loose and stark. His next film, also with Redford, was The Candidate, about an idealistic lawyer who is recruited to run against an incumbent senator. Again, the style is like a documentary filmmaker following the campaign, witnessing mistakes and false starts, showing the candidate in both his best and worst moments. Both films have a directness and rejection of traditional Hollywood polish and glitz.
His next film, Prime Cut, starred Gene Hackman and Lee Marvin is a film that under-performed and lacked much inspiration. It might have read better on the page than what appeared on the screen. This was followed by Smile, a film about a beauty pageant, with many subplots and characters that intersect. The film reminds me of Robert Altman in style. The film was praised and is remembered as one of Ritchie’s best, although I doubt that too many people can recall seeing it.
In the next two years, Ritchie directed The Bad News Bears and Semi-Tough, two very different sports films but with a similar satirical sensibility. The Bad News Bears took advantage of Walter Matthau’s popularity for playing rumpled but charming losers. The film had a lot of charm and continued Ritchie taking projects that exampled America’s obsession with politics, sports and beauty contests. The film spawned two sequels and a remake and the risque humor holds up forty years later. Semi-Tough targets not only football but the self-discovery craze of the 70s. The humor is very time-stamped. Semi-Tough was a popular book adapted for the screen starring Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson and Jill Clayburgh.
His next several films, An Almost Perfect Affair, The Island, Divine Madness and Student Bodies offered nothing of Ritchie’s talent, they were gun for hire projects. The Island, based on the Peter Benchley bestseller is a dud. The less said, the better.
Ritchie resurfaced with the Robin Williams-Walter Matthau film The Survivors, a goofy survivalist story. While not one of his best films, it features Robin Williams in one of his best early efforts. His next two films, Fletch and Wildcats, are a career upturn and were successful, although had mixed review. Fletch was a very popular film and resulted in a sequel, which Ritchie also directed, but is a weaker version of the first film. Wildcats, was also successful and gave Gold Hawn a strong starring role.
With two successes, Ritchie was rewarded with an Eddie Murphy project, The Golden Child, who was white hot at the time. The film was a huge disappointment, while it made money, it helped no one’s career. Again, it probably sounded great at story conferences but the finished product cost a lot of money and produced little excitement.
In Hollywood you are only as important as your last film’s box office. Ritchie’s success in the 70s kept him on the radar but the films he directed were very uneven. The Couch Trip, was a Dan Aykroyd-Walter Matthau comedy, or an alleged comedy. Fletch Lives and Diggstown were both decent films but hardly moved the needle on career moments. Fletch Lives earned a sizable profit but was a pale version of the first film, while Diggstown earned back only a fraction of the film’s cost.
The remainder of Ritchie’s films were unremarkable and mostly failed at the box office. The last decade of his career he was tied to bad projects that failed to utilize his talent for satirical material. For whatever reasons, he was not directing projects with edgy concepts; his films were watered-down, overwritten or packaged products without originality or inspiration.
Hal Ashby and Michael Ritchie climbed the mountain to great success early in their directing careers. Personal issues, a box office dud or bad choices derailed successful careers. Neither were able to capture the earlier magic or have the confidence of studio decision-makers for the better scripts. The candle burned bright but short for these two filmmakers.