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Hal Ashby: a retrospective of a Hollywood Rebel

First titles announced "A Star Is Born" starring Lady Gaga to open the American Film Festival

by Matthew Thrift (BFI - Little White Lies - Cinephile)

It's taken a long time for Hal Ashby to get his critical dues. Until recently, there was little by way of the considered appraisals afforded his better known New Hollywood contemporaries. It wasn't until 2011 - more than forty years after his magnificent directorial debut, The Landlord (1970) - that the first biographical study appeared in the form of Nick Dawson's excellent "Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel."

Beginning his career as an assistant editor for the likes of William Wyler and George Stevens, Ashby got his big break when he stepped up to full editorial duties for Tony Richardson's "The Loved One" (1964) and Norman Jewison's "In the Heat of the Night" (1967), the latter of which saw him take home the Oscar. It was Jewison that offered him a chance to direct, setting him up for the seven substantial pictures that would make his name and reputation through the 1970s.

The 1980s proved a difficult period for the filmmaker professionally, from which he never recovered before his death in 1988. His work for the Rolling Stones on the concert film "Let's Spend the Night Together" (1982) demonstrated his peerless gifts as an editor, but the fiction features that followed suffered at the hands of negligent producers.

It makes for bittersweet viewing in the second half of Amy Scott's wonderful film, "Hal" (2018), the first comprehensive documentary portrait of Ashby's life and career. Playing at this year's American Film Festival following its January premiere at Sundance, it's the perfect primer ahead of the accompanying programme of features.

We wanted to pick out a few of Ashby's greatest films that you ought not to miss, but revisiting his magnificent seven, there wasn't one we felt we could leave out…

The Landlord (1970)

A masterpiece, straight out the gate, and strong contender for Ashby's best film. A dazzling piece of political satire - both formally and thematically - any suggestion that "The Landlord" is pandering to liberal guilt assuagement in undermined at every turn by the sensitivity of the film's subjectivity. Ashby didn't write the pictures he directed, and much of the credit for this film's success lies in the screenplay by Bill Gunn, the filmmaking force behind the sensational "Ganja & Hess" (1973), and as deserving of the feature-doc treatment as Ashby.

Harold and Maude (1971)

A cult object and arguably the film for which Ashby is best known these days, Harold and Maude charts the strange relationship between a death-obsessed youngster (Bud Cort) and his septuagenarian love-interest (Ruth Gordon). Charmingly eccentric and in possession of a bitter distaste for bourgeois conformity, the film would prove hugely influential on shaping the tastes of emerging talents like Tim Burton. The outsider's outsider movie, it's the movie in which Ashby's hippie credentials are most prominently on display.

The Last Detail (1973)

The other film in contention as Ashby's greatest, for all its surface hilarity, "The Last Detail" might also be the director's bleakest. Jack Nicholson and Otis Young are the two Naval officers, Badass and Mule, tasked with escorting a young offender (Randy Quaid) to prison, but not before giving him a couple of nights on the town first. A damning indictment of the military made during the dying days of the Vietnam war, The Last Detail's success is often credited to screenwriter Robert Towne and a magnificent Jack Nicholson. Yet Ashby's direction proves formidable, testing the waters for the documentary approach to performance and action that he'd return to with "Coming Home" five years later.

Shampoo (1975)

Perhaps it's the force of Warren Beatty's personality - both onscreen and off - or the rigidity of his and Robert Towne's screenplay that makes "Shampoo" feel the most impersonal of Ashby's 70s features. Not that it mattered in the end, delivering as it did the filmmaker's biggest commercial hit. In its telling of a latter-day "Don Juan" on the eve of Nixon's election (the film was released the year following his resignation), "Shampoo" is a study in moral degeneration wrapped up in a bedroom farce. Containing what is perhaps the quintessential Beatty performance, with the actor's own directorial career incoming, one might argue the film belongs more to him than Ashby. Still, it's very funny and tinged with a tender melancholy.

Bound for Glory (1976)

The least seen picture in the Ashby canon these days, "Bound for Glory" is the film we're most excited about catching up on the big screen at AFF. Haskell Wexler won the Oscar for Best Cinematography, and his work here - which contains the first ever Steadicam shot - is nothing short of miraculous. Charting four years in the life of folk icon, Woody Guthrie, the film does have its critics, those accusing Ashby's most ambitious production of staid hagiography. The great American writer, Joseph McBride wasn't one of them, calling Bound for Glory, "a majestic film, the most ambitious made in the United States since 'The Godfather Part II.'"

Coming Home (1978)

Wexler would re-team with Ashby for their subsequent project, but this time it was the actors who took home the Oscar gold. Jon Voight and Jane Fonda won Best Actor and Best Actress for the respective takes on the paraplegic Vietnam veteran and the volunteer nurse with whom he begins an affair. Formally speaking, "Coming Home" sees Ashby at the peak of his powers, best evinced by its opening scenes. Sure, the soundtrack is heavy-handed and the speechifying a little much at times, but in its quieter moments the film soars.

Being There (1979)

One of the most heartbreaking moments in the new Ashby documentary comes with the revelation that Robert Jones wrote the screenplay for "Being There," rather than Jerzy Kosinski, who took full screen credit for adapting his own novel. It's a magnificent achievement, both Jones and Ashby wrangling a tale with utmost tenderness that could easily tip into farce. With a stellar performance from Peter Sellers front and centre, as the simple gardener, Chance - a modern-day Prince Myshkin - who finds himself let loose in the corridors of power, "Being There" is an incisive satire on the empty rhetoric of politics and the pervasive influence of television in American lives. It all leads up to one of the great endings in cinema.

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