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The Films Of Hal Ashby: A Retrospective

by Oliver Lyttelton
May 6, 2011 6:55 AM
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“Harold and Maude” (1971)
Ashby’s dark spin on “The Graduate” stars Bud Cort as Harold, a wealthy, suicidal teenager who forms a friendship with 80 year old Maude (Ruth Gordon) and swaps Simon & Garfunkel for Cat Stevens. If you’ve never seen it before, you might think your only cultural reference point for this odd couple comedy as being “the greatest love story of our time,” as Cameron Diaz’s character refers to it in “There’s Something About Mary.” But watching the film will reveal it’s influence over modern moviemaking as being much broader (Wes Anderson in particular did some heavy plundering here, borrowing the films center-of-frame compositions, deadpan humor and even taking Cort along for “The Life Aquatic.”). Easily Ashby’s funniest film, but also containing pure heartbreak (it’s hard to imagine the central relationship being treated with as much empathy -- there’s that word again -- by any other helmer), you can’t imagine a director more perfectly suited to the project: a middle-aged man who’d fully embraced the swinging Sixties, a humanist whose films never shied from the darker side of life, the film’s central characters feel like Ashby’s been split into two different figures. He didn’t write it, but it’s the film we’ll always associate most closely with the director. The soundtrack, by Cat Stevens, is a hall-of-famer, but remarkably wasn’t available until a super-limited 2007 vinyl, featuring liner notes from Cameron Crowe, was released. We would urge you to get it, but copies are now going for as much as $600... [A]

“The Last Detail" (1973)
God damn if Jack Nicholson didn't have one of the greatest runs an actor could have in the early 1970s. Between 1970 and 1975, the actor, who only really attained stardom in 1969's "Easy Rider," starred in "Five Easy Pieces," "Carnal Knowledge," "The King Of Marvin Gardens," "Chinatown" and "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," and slap in the middle of all of these was Hal Ashby's wondrous "The Last Detail." Nicholson stars, in a role that fits like a glove, as one of two sailors (the other being the marvelous Otis Young, who mostly gave up acting afterwards to become a pastor and college professor), who are ordered to escort a young colleague, Meadows (Randy Quaid, well before he went off his nut) to Naval Prison in New Hampshire, for a chronically unfair 8-year-sentence for a minor crime. Like a real-world version of "On The Town," Nicholson and Young decide to give Meadows a proper send off, full of sex and drinking, and it's this realism that makes the film sing: the script, by Robert Towne, is never rose-tinted: it's clear that Nicholson's quest is making things worse, rather than better, and however much the men might bond, it doesn't last, as the fiercely unsentimental ending makes clear. It's a film for which the term 'bittersweet,' a term that Ashby firmly made his own, was invented. [A]

“Shampoo" (1975)
Considering the pathetic excuses for what pass as relationship comedies these days, it's possible that "Shampoo" looks even better in hindsight. But that would do the brilliance of the film a disservice. A passion project of star Warren Beatty, who co-wrote the script with Robert Towne, the film was designed as a contemporary reworking of restoration comedies like "The Country Wife," with Ashby turning his eye on the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, and commenting on the just-finished Nixon era. The archetype of the cad-rethinking-his-life is a famililar one now, but Beatty essentially invented it for the modern era here, playing a womanizing hairdresser, bedding both the wife, daughter and mistress of the man he wants to back his own salon. The film might owe a debt of gratitude to "Alfie," but it's infinitely more successful -- bitingly funny, just the right side of farce, but simultaneously consistently insightful about men and women fucking each other. The supporting cast is terrific, particularly Jack Warden, as the man Beatty cuckolds, the Oscar-winning Lee Grant and Julie Christie, here second only to Grace Kelly in "Rear Window" in the Jesus-Christ-was-there-ever-a-woman-as-beautiful-as-this-before-or-since stakes. But it's Beatty at the center of it, and he was never better. The great László Kovács shoots it gloriously, and Paul Simon's score is wonderful too, overshadowed by his contribution to "The Graduate," but just as vital here. [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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