Hal Ashby – The Last Detail (1973)


The Last Detail fits very nicely into its early 1970s milieu: distinctly anti-authoritarian, the film is chock full of cursing, sexual language, rowdiness, and downright rudeness. Of course, Jack Nicholson’s devilish grin was the perfect vehicle to carry this sort of pointedly subversive material, because he was so likable doing it. From Easy Rider to Five Easy Pieces to The Last Detail to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nicholson made the role of the (often hilarious) nonconformist his own. Reclusive director/editor Hal Ashby was also a perfect fit for the film and the time period. Fresh from the offbeat critical success of the serio-comic Harold and Maude, Ashby brought an “experimental” feel to the film, most obviously in the jump cut editing borrowed from the French New Wave. Screenwriter Robert Towne was nominated for an Academy Award (his second of three in a row, following Chinatown and preceding Shampoo). Towne’s f-word-strewn dialogue had Columbia shaking in their boots, and they refused to release the picture. It was only after Nicholson won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival that they gave it a run. But they never supported it much, and it died an unnecessary death at the box office. It has since come to be regarded as one of Nicholson’s best, if not best-known, performances. Continue reading

Hal Ashby – Harold and Maude (1971)



In his second feature as a director after his Oscar-winning success as an editor, Hal Ashby complements Colin Higgins’ script (adapted by Higgins from his own student short) with an affectionately non-judgmental view of quirky behavior and a distaste for institutions of authority.

In their deft hands, Harold Chasen may be weird – but his mother and army general uncle are plain nuts. Paramount appeared nonplussed as to how to market the film, and it opened to scathing reviews and died a rapid first-run death, as few viewers seemed to care for the idea of a youth lusting after a grandmother.

But, caught up in a generational revolt of their own, college audiences responded passionately to the message of doing your own thing regardless of what church, state, and Mom say. Harold and Maude became the cult hit of the 1970s, reportedly playing in one Minneapolis theater for three straight years, with fans who claimed to have seen it 100 or more times. Continue reading

Hal Ashby – Shampoo (1975)


Plot Synopsis from allmovie.com
A frankly adult comedy about the sex lives of the aimless and the rich, Shampoo is also a pointed commentary on the demise of 1960s idealism at the dawn of the Nixon era. It is Election Day, 1968, and randy Beverly Hills hairdresser George Roundy (Warren Beatty) is too worried about attending to all of his women’s tonsorial and sexual needs, while trying to swing a bank loan to fund his own salon, to notice the fateful Presidential race. As George juggles the demands of girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn) and mistress Felicia (Lee Grant), not to mention Felicia’s daughter (Carrie Fisher), he meets Felicia’s husband Lester (Jack Warden) to get money for the salon and discovers that his beloved ex-girlfriend Jackie (Julie Christie) is now Lester’s mistress. Lester asks George to escort Jackie to a banquet for Nixon supporters, leading to a series of climactic confrontations at the dinner and a Hollywood orgy that expose the conflicting demands of sex, love, and security among these terminally narcissistic L.A. denizens. As Nixon’s victory speech drones in the background the following day and Paul Simon’s mournful ’60s music plays on the soundtrack, George’s free-wheeling world collapses around him for reasons that he can barely begin to comprehend. Produced and co-written (with Chinatown scribe Robert Towne) by its star Warren Beatty, Shampoo became Beatty’s second critical and popular success as a producer after Bonnie and Clyde, and it bolstered Hal Ashby’s track record as director. Shampoo earned Grant an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, as well as a Supporting Actor nomination for Warden and Beatty’s first nomination as writer. With Nixon’s 1974 Watergate disgrace adding an extra edge to the humor for 1975 audiences, this tragic bedroom farce became one of the highest-grossing films in Columbia Pictures’ history at the time. Continue reading

Hal Ashby – Being There (1979)

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Roger Ebert / May 25, 1997

On the day that Kasparov was defeated by Deep Blue, I found myself thinking of the film “Being There” (1979). The chess champion said there was something about the computer he did not understand, and it frightened him. There were moments when the computer seemed to be . . . thinking. Of course, chess is not a game of thought but of mathematical strategy; Deep Blue has demonstrated it is possible to be very good at it without possessing consciousness.

The classic test of Artificial Intelligence has been: Can a computer be programmed to conduct a conversation that seems human to another human? “Being There” is a film about a man whose mind works like a rudimentary A.I. program.

His mind has been supplied with a fund of simplistic generalizations about the world, phrased in terms of the garden where he has worked all his adult life. But because he presents himself as a man of good breeding (he walks and talks like the wealthy older man whose house he lived in, and wears the man’s tailored suits) his simplicity is mistaken for profundity, and soon he is advising presidents and befriending millionaires. Continue reading

Hal Ashby – 8 Million Ways to Die (1986)

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“The screenplay is a mess, with enough plot holes to drive the latest-model SUV through. Still, the film is colorful and chock-full of energy and several standout moments. It ain’t perfect, yet it’s far from boring.
The bottom line here is whether 8 Million Ways to Die is worth seeing. It is. A guilty pleasure of mine for over sixteen years, it can provide a whopping good time if you’re willing to overlook its many flaws, and just let the innate craziness of it all work on you. Nothing in it is the least bit logical; then again, there’s not a whole lot about it that’s stiff — there’s an aliveness, a pulsating sense of sleaze and profaneness permeating throughout it that can be quite liberating…
Forget the logical lapses and just revel in its quintessential profaneness.”
— Jack Sommersby, efilmcritic.com Continue reading

Nick Dawson – Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel (2009)

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Hal Ashby set the standard for subsequent independent filmmakers by crafting unique, thoughtful, and challenging films that continue to influence new generations of directors. Initially finding success as an editor, Ashby won an Academy Award for editing In the Heat of the Night (1967), and he translated his skills as an editor into a career as one of the quintessential directors of 1970s.

Perhaps best remembered for the enduring cult classic Harold and Maude (1971), Ashby quickly became known for melding quirky comedy and intense drama with performances from A-list actors such as Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail (1973), Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn in Shampoo (1975), Jon Voight and Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978), and Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine in Being There (1979). Ashby’s personal life was difficult. He endured his parents’ divorce, his father’s suicide, and his own failed marriage all before the age of nineteen, and his notorious drug abuse contributed to the decline of his career near the end of his life. Continue reading

Hal Ashby – The Landlord (1970)



From Ebert: link

“Hal Ashby’s ‘The Landlord,’ as you’ve probably already heard, is about a rich white society kid who lolls around the old plantation until he’s 29, then ups and buys himself a tenement in a black ghetto one day. ‘Everyone,’ he reflects while sunning, himself beside the family pool, ‘wants a home of his own, you know.’

So he moves in, installs new plumbing, makes plans to hang a chandelier from the skylight over the stairs, and meets the tenants. They’re a pretty mixed bag, ranging from a Black Nationalist to Miss Sepia of 1957. He never does meet the old couple in the basement, who keeps their shades pulled and apparently never come outdoors. But he’s invited in for soul food by the palm-reader on the second floor (Pearl Bailey). Continue reading