Friday, June 20, 2008

Hilarious and Poignant: The Ballad of Hal Ashby

His movies captured a messy, post-1960s America
in alternately hilarious and poignant ways.

-- Jennifer Wachtell, GOOD Magazine


Ashby and David Carradine, circa 1976's Bound for Glory
(Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

I've loved the work of director Hal Ashby for as long as I can remember. Along with Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, and the late Sydney Pollack, he shaped, for better or worse, the way I look at film (I was a child of the '70s).

My parents divorced when I was three, so my childhood was divided between a West Coast Mom and an East Coast Dad. The latter took me to the darker, more action-oriented films; the former took me to the funnier, more character-driven ones.

Consequently, I associate Ashby with Mom, the Cat Stevens fan (Dad was the Dylan guy), and I can't think about Harold and Maude without thinking about Stevens.

Earlier this year, Say Anything's Cameron Crowe, who's almost as fond of the film as Rushmore's Wes Anderson (possibly the ultimate Ashby acolyte), finally issued the "holy grail" soundtrack through his Vinyl Films label. Click here for the details.

Unlike Crowe and Anderson, a friend of mine, who's authored books about Sergio Leone and John Carpenter, can't understand why anyone would consider Ashby a true artist. I've never attempted to argue the point, even though his opinion means a great deal to me (and I love Leone just about as much as he does). If he doesn't like Ashby's work, I'm not about to try to convince him otherwise. It's his opinion, and I respect it. I just don't agree with it.

Sure, Ashby was all over the map. Sure, he had problems with drugs, studio heads, and strong-willed actors, like Shampoo's Warren Beatty. The same could be said of many American independents who emerged in the Vietnam Era-like Jerry Schatzberg (The Panic in Needle Park, Scarecrow)--but Ashby had a longer run than most of his peers, not counting the names mentioned at the top of this post (and if Pollack was still with us, he'd be continuing to bring his authoritative presence as actor to films like Michael Clayton; click here for a tribute to one of his best roles).

Maybe it's because Ashby's films hit me at such a heady time, from grade school through high school, but they were always there, telling or showing me something new about human nature; and what they had to say wasn't always pretty (see Coming Home), but I was always moved, entertained, affected in some way. And if The Last Detail doesn't break your heart, you're made of sterner stuff than me. Plus, it features my favorite Jack Nicholson performance ever (and yes, I'm a great admirer of Chinatown, which was also penned by Robert Towne). Ashby was able to reign in Nicholson's outsized talent like few filmmakers have done before or since.


Not counting his misbegotten '80s projects, Ashby's work holds up. I suppose if you didn't like it then, you won't like it now, but in my case it isn't just nostalgia talking, because I enjoy those films as much today as I did then--if not more so.

For additional testimonies, you might want to give this feature a look. Not only does Jennifer Wachtell do an excellent job in summing up Ashby's brilliant career, but she has enlisted the following actors and directors to talk about their favorite films: Alexander Payne (The Landlord), Jason Schwartzman (Harold and Maude), Wes Anderson (The Last Detail), David O. Russell (Shampoo), and Judd Apatow (Being There).

You can also click here for my review of The Landlord (I agree with Payne 100% about this amazing debut) and here for a piece about Landlord star Diana Sands--and you thought the Ashby story was sad. (Thanks to Ratzkywatzky for the tip).

Starting on 7/1, the Northwest Film Forum will be screening all of the Ashby titles cited above, along with the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory (the only one I haven't seen). If you're like my book-writing friend, you may want to give it a pass, but if you only know Ashby from Harold and Maude, I suggest giving a few others a try. At the very least, his range may astound you.

In that sense, the all-over-the-map Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape, Schizopolis, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, etc.) is the working-class Ashby's true heir, and not the upper-crust Anderson. After all, the latter didn't direct a four-hour biopic about Che Guevara the way Mr. Soderbergh has done (resulting in a best actor win for Benicio del Toro at this year's Cannes). Somehow, I suspect Ashby would approve.

[harold and maude]

For the full schedule, please click here or call 206-329-2629. The Northwest
Film Forum is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine.
Images from The BBC, Breaking the Fourth Wall, JAMD, and Movie Posters.


  1. I'm a little ashamed to admit this, but I think the only Ashby movie I've seen is Harold & Maude. I better get on that. :)

  2. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. If you only see two, I recommend "Shampoo" and "The Last Detail," because they're the funniest. I mean, "Detail" ends up in a downbeat place, but the dialogue is hysterical (and very, very filthy). Also, Towne adapted the script from local author Darryl Ponicsan's novel. Incidentally, Sean Penn is another "spiritual heir" (sorry, I couldn't think of a better term); not only did he attend Ashby's funeral, but he used Eddie Vedder's music in "Into the Wild," because he was inspired by the way Ashby used Cat Stevens' in "Harold and Maude."

  3. "Shampoo" is one I'm definitely catching again, even though I've seen it multiple times. Because "George is great."
    "Yeah, George is great."
    Even though it has no defenders, though, I really wish they were programming one of Ashby's 80s films: Second-Hand Hearts. If only because I'd love to see Barbara Harris in a romantic lead (opposite Robert Blake!). And it's not available on DVD.

  4. Me too. I was too young for "Shampoo" in the '70s; not too young to watch, but too young to fully appreciate the (sexual) politics. I'm still looking forward to getting caught up on "Eight Ways to Die," with Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette, since both Darren Hughes (Senses of Cinema) and Peter Biskind ("Easy Riders, Raging Bulls") claim that Ashby was just starting to get his mojo back when he made it.