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The Films Of Hal Ashby: A Retrospective

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com May 6, 2011 at 6:55AM

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.
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“8 Million Ways To Die” (1986)
It wasn't his very last directing work, but the cop thriller "8 Million Ways To Die" was Ashby's last big-screen work. And quite frankly, we wish it hadn't been. Making even the rest of his '80s output look genius in comparison, the film's a none-more-eighties picture, based on a Lawrence Block novel, starring Jeff Bridges as a disgraced drug cop, out to avenge the death of a prostitute. Despite a script that Oliver Stone and Robert Towne both took a pass at, the plot never escapes cliche, and the cast, which also includes Rosanna Arquette and Andy Garcia, mostly mistakes shouting for drama. More importantly, Ashby was singularly unsuited for the genre -- it never feels like his heart's in it, directing the picture like a parody of early, "Miami Vice"-period Michael Mann, and when he does try to be more distinctive, it mostly falls flat -- we recall a bizarre confrontation between Bridges and Garcia over ice cream cones that felt like something from a Zucker Brothers movie. A sad conclusion to a titanic career. [D]

There are a few more films, during the ‘80s downward spiral, but so far none of them are available on any format currently and considering all of them were routinely ignored during their day, and aren’t considered undiscovered classics, we may be waiting a long time. However, Nick Dawson, the aforementioned writer of Ashby’s autobiography, discovered, or at least helped flush out, the extended version of “Lookin’ To Get Out,” and to hear him tell it there could very well still be director's versions of "Second-Hand Hearts," "The Slugger's Wife" and "8 Million Ways To Die" hitting DVD one day (“The Slugger’s Wife” is on DVD, but in a fairly barebones version). The director’s cut of “Lookin To Get Out” suggests that these films surfacing won’t be the unveiling of any unfound holy grails, but for Ashby enthusiasts, they would be great closure to his tale. Might we suggest a box-set that lumps all these pictures together? And while Ashby tried unsuccessfully to get Neil Young to score "The Landlord” (he even wrote some music, but it never panned out), the two finally paired together in 1984 for the concert film “Solo Trans” and we’d be curious to eventually see that as well.

As mentioned, Ashby’s solo Best Director nomination came for 1978’s "Coming Home,” but his effortless comfort with directing actors would do well for many of their careers. Two of Lee Grant's Oscar nominations came from Ashby films and she even won her only Best Supporting Role Oscar for "Shampoo" (excellent character actor Jack Warden also earned himself a supporting Oscar nod for that film). Both Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid were nominated for their turns in “The Last Detail" and 2 of the 4 Academy Award nominations that the great screenwriter Robert Towne received would come from Hal Ashby films (‘Detail,’ & ‘Shampoo’). Peter Sellers would earn his third Oscar nomination for "Being There" under Ashby, and Melvyn Douglas actually won the Best Supporting Oscar for that film. While the conventional wisdom goes that Ashby himself wasn’t appreciated from the Hollywood establishment during his day and didn’t get full recognition for his work until after his death, his seven ‘70s films combined for a total of 24 Oscar nominations and seven wins, which isn’t too shabby. Maybe a posthumous honorary Oscar isn’t out of the question one of these days? Tip of the cap to Hal. He is still missed. - Rodrigo Perez, Samantha Chater, Oliver Lyttelton, Cory Everett, Gabe Toro

This article is related to: Feature, Hal Ashby, Features


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