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The Films Of Hal Ashby: A Retrospective

by Oliver Lyttelton
May 6, 2011 6:55 AM
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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

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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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