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The Films Of Hal Ashby: A Retrospective

by Oliver Lyttelton
May 6, 2011 6:55 AM
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“Lookin’ To Get Out” (1982)
A wonderful concept in theory and an excellent retroactive tool in cinema, the director’s cut can only be so powerful when it comes from an artist in decline. Such was the case with “Lookin' To Get Out," the 1982 Hal Ashby oddball buddy comedy about two New York gamblers on the run in Las Vegas. Barely released and just dumped into theaters by Paramount at the time, the picture found a new lease on life in 2009 when the “extended version” was released on DVD, leading to cinephile revisionist claims of a lost masterpiece. Not quite. Starring Jon Voight, Ann-Margret and Burt Young, the film was the second picture in Ashby's unfortunate losing streak in the 1980s, ironic given "Lookin' To Get Out" -- which was co-"written"/improvised by Voight and screenwriter Al Schwartz -- was essentially about a gambler down on his luck with one last shot at redemption. Ripped apart gently by critics at the time (the beloved Ashby always got a pass, or at least at first he did), the reconstituted version is better, allowing for breathing space, meditative moments and a less truncated rhythm, but let’s be honest with ourselves, the picture is still fairly average with some middling humor that's almost pratfall-ish at times. Frustrated with Paramount’s meddling at the time, Ashby abandoned the picture leaving it to his editor Bob Jones to finish it. But even this slightly longer version reveals Ashby’s laidback magic-in-a-bottle genius was starting to sadly wane. [C+]

“Let’s Spend the Night Together” (1983)
“The Last Waltz,” “Gimmie Shelter,” “Stop Making Sense,” these are the classics that come to mind when you’re describing the all-time live-concert documentaries. So there’s good reason that not many people have heard of, let alone seen, Hal Ashby’s 1983 live music doc, “Let’s Spend The Night Together,” documenting The Rolling Stones' 1981 North American Tour promoting Tattoo You. Near the beginning of Ashby’s sad decline (and after the bomb “Second-Hand Hearts”), the doc is largely uninspired, moving from wide shot, medium shot, close-up and back ad nauseum. While there’s a bit of backstage footage here and there to break-up the monotony of a concert shot in day light in a gigantically impersonal outdoor stadium in Arizona (where much of the footage comes from), none of it illuminates at all and the peek behind the curtain is nothing more than the Stones smiling at the camera or doing their hair. Ashby allegedly overdosed before one of the shows in Phoenix as his health was already deteriorating and his drug-intake was beginning to rise. An unfortunate and completely forgettable concert documentary and for Stones completeists only. [C-]

“The Slugger’s Wife” (1985)
Considering his unassailable run of classics in the 1970s, Hal Ashby's missteps in the 1980s, due to poor choices and circumstances (more than just drugs too; bad luck with studios, clouded judgement, poor scripts, films that went into production without finished scripts), were heartbreaking. One of the biggest, though not particularly horrible, just extremely dated, is 1985's "The Slugger's Wife." Based on a Neil Simon script that never seemed to be especially suited to Ashby's sensibilities (the author was billed over-top of the director and somehow he had more control), the romantic comedy centers on two lovers from opposite ends of the social spectrum; a boorish, hotshot Major League baseball player (Michael O'Keefe), and an ambitious, fiercely independent singer (Rebecca DeMornay) in an '80s synth-pop band (co-fronted by Loudon Wainwright III performing covers of Neil Young and Prince) trying to get her career off the ground. Head over heels, the cavalier ball player quickly woes the woman with his dopey charms, much to her chagrin. The picture’s conceit: the deeper the athlete falls in love, the better his hitting game gets, to the point that he becomes the Atlanta Braves' star player. But as soon as the relationship becomes tempestuous, his batting average starts to plummet and it’s up to the ball team (Martin Ritt, Randy Quaid and Cleavant Derricks) to get him back on track. Shot by Caleb Deschanel, even his keen lens can’t really help this largely unfunny misfire. [C+]

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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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