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The Films Of Hal Ashby: A Retrospective

by Oliver Lyttelton
May 6, 2011 6:55 AM
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Laid-back, doobie-inclined, scruffy and shooting from the hip mavericks: while many of his peers went on to much greater success in the 1970s -- Steven Spielberg, Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, etc. -- perhaps no one director typfies the groovy, uber-chill Easy Riders and Raging Bulls generation of filmmakers more than Hal Ashby.

More so than cinematographers, actors or screenwriters, editors tend to make some of the best directors; they know story like no one else; the unsung heroes of many films sitting in dark rooms for hours, staring at shots, takes and dailies and hammering out a story, often when there wasn’t one in the first place. Hal Ashby was that editor.

His career divides into three phases. The promising 1960s: Ashby edited five of Norman Jewison’s finest films ("The Cincinnati Kid," "The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!," "The Thomas Crown Affair") and even earned himself a Best Editing Oscar for 1967’s “In The Heat of The Night.” At the behest of Jewison, who was toying with directing the film himself, Ashby kicked off the 1970s by directing his debut feature, “The Landlord,” a hilarious, poignant and insightful look at black and white race relations in Brookyn’s Park Slope area. He then never looked back, directing an unimpeachable string of classics; from 1971 to 1979 he helmed six certifiably excellent films, but Ashby flew under the radar for most of this period, at least from the mainstream. But he was and is adored by venerable filmmakers and actors working with Jack Nicholson, Julie Christie, Jon Voight, Warren Beatty, Peter Sellers, Shirley Maclaine, screenwriter Robert Towne, cinematographers Haskell Wexler, László Kovács and Gordon Willis, plus an incredible list of musicians that included Al Kooper, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon and more.

The 1980s, however, were much more unkind to Ashby. While it’s hard to pin it on one thing -- it seems like a confluence of bad luck, bad decisions, self-destruction due to excess, and a stubborn refusal to get his deteriorating health checked out; a lot of it excellently recounted in the book “Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel” by author Nick Dawson -- perhaps the beginning of it was his first taste of real failure. After recoiling from success with drugs and reclusiveness, 1981’s “Second-Hand Hearts” was likely an odd experience for the filmmaker; silence, both from critics and audiences and this unraveling seemed to permeate his muddled process until 1988 when the director died early at the age of 58 from cancer.

Ashby’s quiet, compassionate and funny humanist dramas, and his gentle approach to directing which endeared him to everyone he worked with, didn’t ever receive its due until years after his death, but in the 1990s and aughts, younger filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Judd Apatow, Noah Baumbach, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell and many more not only absorbed his influence, but vocally championed the director as an important impactor on their work.

We’re pretty much always looking for an excuse to discuss the relatively still-undersung filmmaker and we’ve found another one. Beginning this evening, Brooklyn’s BAMcinématek is putting on the "Movies by Hal Ashby," a retrospective of his work (including some of the films he edited) which runs May 6—24. While unfortunately, some of the hard-to-find obscure films are mostly awol, the retrospective does include Ashby’s little-seen last feature-film effort, 1986’s noir, "8 Million Ways to Die" starring Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette and Alexandra Paul. If you’re unfamiliar with his films we implore you to attend and discover what you’re missing (that is, if you actually live in New York) and if you’re not, we still urge you to revisit these gems many of which will include guests like Robert Downey, Sr., Lee Grant and Jason Simos, the U.S. Representative of the Peter Sellers Appreciation Society (no, really it exists).

“The Landlord” (1970)
A wickedly sharp and incisive (and ahead-of-its-time) look at race, white-guilt, gentrification and miscegenation, Hal Ashby’s debut directorial effort “The Landlord” only recently arrived to DVD in barebones fashion. The decision is a strikingly strange one as the vibrant, hilariously and wisely astute picture is easily one of his best even if it’s generally never spoken about in the same breath as “Being There” or “The Last Detail” (hell, it would fit neatly on the Criterion Collection). Beau Bridges, in what is likely his finest role, stars as Elgar Enders, a privileged 29-year-old white male who “runs away” from home to escape the clutches of his parents’ affluent and out-of-touch cocoon. His first move is buying a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn (much of which you can still recognize today) with the initial intention of evicting his black tenants, but soon Elgar’s perspective begins to change as he becomes empathetic to their collective social and economic problems even if all of them are months behind on their rent. Possibly a send-up of the rather innocuous “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” the picture outdoes that drama, by creating an inter-racial love triangle of sorts when Elgar falls for a light-skin go-go dancer (Marki Bey), and then simultaneously impregnates Fanny (Diane Sands), the wife of an increasingly disenfranchised and unhinged black radical. Co-starring a deliciously funny Lee Grant as Bridges’ domineering and prejudiced mother (which earned her an Academy nomination), an equally droll Pearl Bailey as one of the wise tenants, Lou Gosset Jr., and featuring an excellent soul score written by Dylan co-hort Al Kooper and performed by The Martha Stewart Singers, Lorraine Ellison and The Staple Singers, “The Landlord,” is a sorely undervalued and underappreciated gem not only in the Hal Ashby oeuvre, but in the entire cannon of cinema’s social satires. [A]

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  • Cory | May 16, 2011 5:46 AMReply

    Forrest Gump may have been sans satire, but it wasn't without legitimate themes. And that's what I suspect attracted Ashby to"Being There," even more so than the satire of it. Yes, the revisionist historical aspects of the film and mental limitations of the character do seem a little like an afterthought by the filmmakers to make it entertaining, but there is a solid story there about destiny, determinism, fatalism, freewill, etc.

  • Bill | May 10, 2011 11:49 AMReply

    I think it's unfair to compare Ashby with the Spielbergs and Lucases of the seventies. They used razzle dazzle, special effects and large canvases to paint their masterpieces while Hal used great human stories.

    I think his films define the seventies more so than any other director.

  • Greg | March 12, 2014 11:32 PM

    Right you are.

  • Fairportfan | May 10, 2011 9:29 AMReply

    That "bittersweet ending" of "The Last Detail" is, in fact, only about three-quarters of the way through the full original story.

    The only reason that i can see for ending it there is to give the film an upbeat (so much as is possible) ending.

    Though it looks at first glance as if the story of Badass and Mule escorting the kid to the prison is the story, it isn't.

    The story is the Badass (and, to a lesser extent, Mule), old-time sailor-men who are becoming more and more disillusoned with the Navy and their lives in it. And it comes to the inevitable (tragi-) comic ending.

    (I was in the Transient Barracks in Norfolk where the story begins when i read it, and i was willing to swear that i could see the distinctive crack the opening paragraphs describe in the ceiling of the compartment where i was sitting.)

  • simplysimon2 | May 10, 2011 4:32 AMReply

    I agree with the ratings for the films that I have seen but "Harold & Maude" is in another league, an A+. Perhaps it's the Cat Steven's' music that cements its place as an "essential". As a film editor myself, I appreciate his deft handling of comic timing. I was never a fan of Ruth Gordon but she is believable as "Maude" and Bud Cort never again came close to the perfect fit of "Harold". It's sad yet inspiring as "Harold" moves on to adulthood, sadder and wiser.

    On the other hand, "The Last Detail" is sharp and cynical and ends hopelessly. Not a big fan of Sellers but "Being There" is as priceless as "Strangelove" and I LMAO over Palin as Chance in comments.

    Ashby not only had a gift for the technical side of filmmaking but also his casting and handling of actors is superb along with his selection and use of music. He was as good as it gets.

  • David Ferguson | May 10, 2011 4:13 AMReply

    I have often made the same observation about Julie Christie and Grace Kelly ... you worded it beautifully! Terrific article about a director who never seemed to receive the accolades he deserved. Mr. Ashby was one-of-a-kind and created some films that will last forever.

  • Mr. Arkadin | May 7, 2011 10:57 AMReply

    Ashby never did a movie after 1980, it was someone else (an imposter named Smithee). That's how I see it.

    “Bound for Glory” would probably still score an A in my book, but other than that I concur. Criterion should put out a blu-ray collection like the BBS set with Ashby's 5-7 first films.


  • sp | May 7, 2011 8:17 AMReply

    It breaks my heart that most of Hal Ashby fans do not talk about their affection for ' The Landlord" ( what a wonderful film ) like the way they talk about “Harold and Maude” . I agree that film is completely undervalued on every level.

  • zxcvb | May 7, 2011 1:18 AMReply

    Forrest Gump isn't the remake of Being There. Sarah Palin is.

  • jon | May 6, 2011 9:00 AMReply

    Ashby deserves all the posthumous credit he can get for that incredible body of work. Thanks for publishing such a thorough, thoughtful guide.

  • rotch | May 6, 2011 8:08 AMReply

    Yep, really rich and lovely guide. First time I agree in each one of the grades.

    Great work!

  • Stephen | May 6, 2011 7:09 AMReply

    Of everything you do here, these guides might very well be the best and most useful. I can't tell you how many times I've used them as guides for what to see and what to skip in runs through the works of the auteurs you've done them for. This Ashby entry looks to be one of the same. Wholehearted thanks.

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