HAL (2018, doc)

September 6, 2018

Oak Cliff Film Festival 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There may never have been a director with a comparable streak of 6 films in terms of quality and variety as Hal Ashby delivered between 1971 and 1979. At least 4 of those films would be included on a list of my all-time favorites. Ashby was a maverick filmmaker during an era when filmmaking style and tone shifted, and he was at least partially responsible for some of that change. Amy Scott (fittingly trained as a film editor) chose to make Ashby the subject of her directorial debut, and we can only assume her admiration for his work and curiosity about his later career was her inspiration.

HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971), THE LAST DETAIL (1973), SHAMPOO (1975), BOUND FOR GLORY (1976), COMING HOME (Best director nomination, 1978), and BEING THERE (1979) are the films that comprise the aforementioned “streak”, and are also the projects that afforded Ashby the opportunity to work with such industry talents as writers Robert Towne, Jerzy Kosinski, and Waldo Salt; cinematographers Haskell Wexler, Michael Chapman, and Caleb Deschanel; and actors such as Ruth Gordon, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Lee Grant, Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, and Peter Sellers. All of these folks contributed to the edge in independent filmmaking that arose in the 70’s.

Director Scott works diligently to paint a full portrait of Ashby the man, so that we might better understand the odd career arc. A challenging early family life pushed him to grow up too fast, and with 5 marriages balanced by 5 divorces, it’s likely that Ashby was never destined to be a settled down family man. His drug addictions served to undermine what was already his difficult and demanding style on set, and his trademark look of long scraggily hair and unkempt beard ensured he was never mistaken for an industry insider.

Much of what we learn comes from the voice of Ashby himself, courtesy of audio tapes. Other insights and remembrances come from interviews with: Judd Apatow, Rosanna Arquette, Jeff Bridges, Beau Bridges, Lisa Cholodenko, Caleb Deschanel, Jane Fonda, Lou Gossett, Lee Grant, Dustin Hoffman, Alexander Payne, David O Russell, Cat Stevens, Jon Voight, and Haskell Wexler. We also hear from legendary director Norman Jewison, who gave Ashby his first job as film editor. Ashby later won an Oscar for Best Editor on Jewison’s IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) … and the clip shown of him accepting the award highlights a man who barely resembles the man we would come to recognize over the next few years.

We learn that his ever-present battle with studio executives likely led to his not getting the opportunity to direct TOOTSIE, and more importantly to me, we get an explanation of what happened to Ashby’s 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986) – a film I always thought was oh-so-close to being a great 80’s movie, but instead was a bit of a mess. And now we know why. There may not be a more revered and respected filmmaker and influencer of other filmmakers … certainly not one who is less discussed. Ashby’s BEING THERE ranks with the very best political satires of all-time (yes, even DR STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB), and few could juggle comedy and drama any better. Hal Ashby died from cancer in 1988 at age 59. Was it his uncompromising manner or was it the effects of drugs that brought his career to a halt, and prevented him from achieving the blockbuster status of his peers Coppola, Scorsese, and Spielberg? We’d like to think it’s the age old ‘art vs. commerce’ argument, but that simply doesn’t hold up. Regardless, for a few years, no one did it better than Hal Ashby, and he did it his way.

watch the trailer:

 

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THE LAST DETAIL (1973) revisited

March 11, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness.  Last evening I attended the second film in the monthly 1970’s series being presented by the Dallas Film Society, Landmark Magnolia Theatre and Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News.  This one happens to be one of my all-time favorites and one that seems to have been forgotten by many … THE LAST DETAIL.

It would be easy enough to understand how the film has drifted into oblivion and become just another one of the many fine films that were born during an incredibly prolific and ground-breaking era, if not for these factors:

1. It received 3 Academy Award nominations: Best Actor (Jack Nicholson); Best Supporting Actor (Randy Quaid); Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Towne)

2. It features what may be Jack Nicholson’s finest performance, and certainly one of his top 5.

3. The screenplay was written by the great Robert Towne from the novel by Darryl Ponicsan

4. The film was directed by the beloved (but troubled) Hal Ashby, who had a remarkable string of films that garnered a very faithful following

5. Its humor and poignancy hold up very well today as evidenced by last night’s audience response

 Admittedly, I have always viewed this as a “Guy’s movie” – one of those movies that guys love to quote and girls love to hate.  The audience last night was at least one-third female and the overall response was very strong, especially from those who had not previously seen the movie.  Sure, there was one lady who called the film “despicable”, but as Mr. Vognar pointed out, she was probably bringing her own values and morals into the story. 

To do that is to miss the point entirely.  No denying, there is an enormous amount of booze, fighting, shoplifting, prostitution and swearing.  Oh my, the amount and severity of swearing never ceases to amaze. What’s important to note, and has been stated by Mr. Towne on numerous occasions, these are lifelong military men who feel trapped and powerless most of their waking hours.  The swearing and bravado serve as their defense mechanism … their last grasp of independence. 

Though I have seen the film numerous times over the years, I was struck by two things last night.  First, Randy Quaid’s performance brings an incredible amount of humanity and sympathy to a character that demanded a certain approach.  Many actors would have over-played it, but 22 year old Quaid’s baby-face works magic in the scenes where we see the two hard-nosed sailors begin to soften their stance.  Second, Otis Young as Mulhall showed much more range than I had remembered.  He is the perfect centerpiece between Nicholson and Quaid.  As a side note, this was Gilda Radner‘s big screen debut and a couple of years before the birth of Saturday Night Live.

 A quick note on Nicholson.  This is a far different Nicholson than what we have seen recently in The Bucket List or Something’s Gotta Give.  He was coming off a star-making turn in Five Easy Pieces and was on his way to Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  This is a great actor at his absolute peak.  Sure, there is the infamous “I am the bleepity-bleep Shore Patrol” outburst in the bar, but more impressive are his scenes on the trains, or at the picnic.  Great stuff.

Lastly, I’ll mention director Hal Ashby.  His string of fabulous “little” films include Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There … each quirky, but incredibly insightful, and proof of just what a fine filmmaker he was.

Next month’s screening is the political conspiracy thriller The Parallax View.  It was directed by Alan Pakula and stars Warren Beatty.  For all you youngsters, there was a time when Warren Beatty was Hollywood royalty and not just the old guy who hangs around Annette Bening.