In a March 2008 Vanity Fair article by Peter Biskind about The Dear Hunter and Coming Home, the Vietnam War films that dueled for Academy Awards in 1979, Biskind discusses the selection of Coming Home's director Hal Ashby by producer Jerome Hellman (Midnight Cowboy).
"Ashby was a former editor who looked and dressed like a hippie, with a beard, sandals and long blond - now white - hair falling down either side of his face," Biskind writes. "Hellman had heard all the Ashby stories. He knew he was a dedicated pothead - an avocation that had devolved into a nasty coke habit. Ashby was paranoid and an avoider, would disappear when faced with unpleasantness. 'I don't think Hal liked people very much,' says [Jane] Fonda. 'That's why he was stoned all the time.' But Hellman also knew that Ashby had directed a handful of the finest films of the 1970s: not only The Last Detail, but Harold and Maude, Shampoo, and Bound for Glory as well. That was enough for the producer."
Ashby's Vietnam movie is about a crippled soldier (Jon Voight) who joins the anti-war movement when he returns to the States, while Michael Cimino's film focuses on the lives of soldiers both at home and in the Asian jungle.
"The Deer Hunter... has few scruples about killing Vietnamese; the sadistic, cackling monkeys with dollar bills clutched in their paws deserve what they get," Biskind explains. "What the film doesn’t like is Vietnamese killing white American males and exposing them to emotional and physical trauma like Russian roulette. Coming Home is considerably more upbeat than The Deer Hunter. It was shot in sunny Southern California, and it reflects that. The peace movement, to which [Voight's] Luke Martin and Fonda’s Sally Hyde are reluctant converts, energizes them, gives them purpose and direction, especially Luke, who chains himself to the gates of a Marine recruiting center. The characters of The Deer Hunter, on the other hand, shadowed by the sunless, slate-gray skies of Pennsylvania coal country, are just shattered."
Protesters picketed The Deer Hunter at the 1979 Academy Award ceremony, and according to Variety, a "brief but bloody battle" with police left 13 arrested. Fonda and Voight won Best Actor Oscars, but The Deer Hunter's director Michael Cimino beat Ashby, and an ailing John Wayne handed The Deer Hunter the Best Picture Oscar.
Born in Ogden, Utah, Ashby grew up in a Mormon household (his divorced father committed suicide). His big break occurred in 1967 when he won the Academy Award for Film Editing for In the Heat of the Night. According to Biskind's book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Ashby was busted for possession of marijuana while scouting locations in Canada for The Last Detail. After losing the 1979 Oscar race and making a few more films, notably Being There, Ashby died in 1988 of pancreatic cancer.
In Harold and Maude, it is only after Maude turns Harold onto pot that he is able to share with someone the source of his strange behavior, and learn to love life. For that moment and all the other wonderful ones he has given us, Ashby will be long remembered.
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