Two ideal Hollywood bios: Actor Warren Oates (The Wild Bunch) and director Hal Ashby (Being There)

If you can’t picture Warren Oates immediately, perhaps that’s a shame. But perhaps it’s a tribute to his acting. He would do everything but exchange protoplasm with his character to get into a role. Coming up through series television, starting in the late 1950s, he was part of Hollywood’s outlaw gang in the 1960s. Jack Nicholson rose to stardom from that group. Oates and Bruce Dern and Harry Dean Stanton and a few others stayed bubbling underneath the Hot 100.


No matter. They continued to make brilliant movies. Nichsolon hit it big when he stepped into a role written for Rip Torn in Easy Rider. End of obscurity for Jack and good on yuh for that, mate.


Oates never made it to that level, but imagine The Wild Bunch without him. With Peter Fonda, he fulfilled every vacationer’s paranoid fantasy in Race With the Devil. For me, he’ll always be GTO, simultaneously swaggering and pathetic, in Two-Lane Blacktop.


And the resume goes on. Compo’s book is an ideal actor’s biography, with much attention to the craft in his performances. His life was messy and he died too young. He might never have achieved stardom on a Nicholson level, but he could easily have become one of our weathered and weird icons, such as Stanton and Dern.


Unfortunately, the most readily accessible Oates performance was as Sergeant Hulka in Stripes, with Bill Murray. Sure, he was great in comic relief, but he was so much more.


Ashby also was an outsider. When we think of the great directors who came to prominence in the 1970s, we think of Coppola, DePalma, Scorsese and Spielberg. Ashby’s name doesn’t roll off the tongue, but will you please check out his credits?


Harold and Maude.



The Last Detail.



Shampoo.



Bound for Glory.



Coming Home.



Being There.


Those are some of the defining films of their era. Nick Dawson, like Compo, should be teaching a course in how to write a Hollywood biography. Being Hal Ashby is note perfect, with the appropriate attention paid to the art and to the artist’s messy life.


Ashby learned his craft as an editor (he did The Loved One, In the Heat of the Night, and the original Thomas Crown Affair ), but the fact that he came up on that side of the lens didn’t mean he was a technician, not a storyteller. His images – often crafted with genius cinematographer Haskell Wexler – were brilliant. Bound for Glory, for example, took the iconography of the Great Depression and hand tinted them for the Technicolor screen.


But he was as facile with a script as he was with a Moviola. In Being There, Ashby coaxed from Shirley MacLaine a brave and daring performance and offered Peter Sellers a showcase for his monumental talent. Throughout his career, Sellers was known for improvising so much that castmates couldn’t keep from laughing, therefore ruining many takes. In Being There, he played a man empty of intelligence and emotion. Though severely restrained, it was his finest performance.


Unfortunately, Ashby put too many things up his nose than his finger. His drug use was not extraordinary in the filmmaking world of the 1960s and the 1970s. By the 1980s, his lifestyle – and his style – no longer meshed with the studio powers that be. After several cinematic misfires, he died in 1988, overlooked, but certainly not forgotten.


So read these books. Go back and see the films. In Shampoo, you may find one of the most subtle and heartbreaking movies about the 1960s. The Hired Hand, with Oates and Fonda, can teach modern filmmakers a few things about making the “elegiac western” they all want to produce. And nobody does profanity better than Jack Nicholson as Billy Bad-ass Buddusky in The Last Detail.


And be thankful that Oates and Ashby left us these little, tiny pieces of time.


William McKeen is chairman of the University of Florida’s Department of Journalism and author of several books, including the acclaimed Hunter S. Thompson biography Outlaw Journalist, now available in paperback.

James Stewart once said that the reason we love the movies is that “they give us little, tiny pieces of time that we never forget.”

Too true, Mr. Stewart.

I see Sam Shepard, burned and damaged, walking out of the desert at the end of The Right Stuff. I remember The Quiet Man, with John Wayne telling Maureen O'Hara how a man can’t forget the sight of “a girl coming through the fields with the sun on her hair.” And there’s even Mr. Stewart himself, as a certain Mr. Smith, vowing to his dying breath to fight for the lost causes before collapsing on the floor of the Senate.

Hell, yeah, I love the movies. As tiresome as many of the summer blockbusters have become with their noise and explosions and marketing ploys, we can still be mesmerized by great storytelling and brilliant acting. Explosions? We don’t need no stinking explosions.

It’s only afterward when we discover we were living in a golden age. Looking back at the 1970s now and seeing myself in a darkened theater, I know that I witnessed Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese achieving their cinematic adulthood. I remember first seeing Robert DeNiro in Bang the Drum Slowly, and thinking, “Where in the hell did they find this dumb cracker to play the doomed ballplayer?” And then I learned that DeNiro wasn’t from the Georgia woods, but was instead a great actor.

When I think back on those movies I loved in the 1970s, a lot of them featured actor Warren Oates and were directed by Hal Ashby. Neither name rolls off legions of lips today. Maybe both of them were too self-destructive to achieve mass fame. Both died young.

Two excellent new books bring the artists back and recreate that era of film. Check out Warren Oates: A Wild Life (University Press of Kentucky, $34.95) by Susan Compo and Being Hal Ashby (University Press of Kentucky, $37.50) by Nick Dawson. In another age, these excellent biographies would be brought to you by a major American publisher, but in the roulette wheel of this economy, we have an excellent university press filling our need (and it is a need, if you love the movies) for books such as these. Both are part of Kentucky’s “screen classics” series.

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