Thursday, August 28, 2014

façade: hal ashby's third act

Hal Ashby, who would have turned 80 last September, enjoyed a brief but exhilarating directing career. The former editor (an Oscar winner for 1967's "In the Heat of the Night") helmed eleven narrative films, plus one documentary, in a span of about 15 years.

His debut, 1970's fabulous "The Landlord," was something of a happy accident. Norman Jewison had commissioned Kristen Hunter's novel to direct himself, but pre-production work on "Fiddler on the Roof" sidelined him and he generously handed the material to Ashby, his house editor.

A year later came the seminal "Harold and Maude" which, like "The Landlord," was not immediately embraced by critics or audiences.

This was Ashby's Act One as a budding auteur.

His Act Two was something of a jaw-dropper - rich, beautifully realized films starting with "The Last Detail" in 1973 and continuing with an almost breathlessness with "Shampoo," "Bound for Glory," "Coming Home" and "Being There." Much of what is written these days about Ashby revovles around these titles.

Ashby with Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon on
"Harold and Maude," perhaps his signature film
Ashby's Act Three, however, produced during a particularly troubling time in his private life, is no less interesting. His choice of material was as personal and idiosyncratic as ever and his eye for casting remained fresh and sure. Less sure was his directorial confidence but the shared erratic quality of his final four films only make them more fascinating.

Either by accident or perhaps on purpose, Ashby's work on "Second-Hand Hearts" (1981), "Lookin' to Get Out" (1982), "The Slugger's Wife" (1985) and "Eight Million Ways to Die" (1986) mirrored much of the expressionism that John Cassavetes was specializing in at the time.

"Second-Hand Hearts" (aka, "The Hamster of Happiness"), a shaggy-dog tale about losers, offers the singular team of Robert Blake and Barbara Harris, who are compulsively watchable here. "Second-Hand Hearts" may be a genuine lost title, but "Lookin' to Get Out" recently made it to DVD in a narratively enhanced version that restores footage excised by Paramount. Ashby managed to take a buddy gambling film here and somehow twist it into something vaguely existential.

More mainstream and middlebrow, "The Slugger's Wife," an original screenplay by Neil Simon, comes with an unexpected melancholy with Michael O'Keefe and Rebecca DeMornay, fine performers who never hit the big time, as two people - a ballplayer and a singer not entirely made for each other. The film lingers almost in spite of itself.

Martin Ritt puts in a bit as the wittily named Burly DeVito, manager of the Atlanta Braves, the team for which O'Keefe slugs.

Much more memorable but no less erratic is "Eight Million Ways to Die," an atmospherically sordid character study with Jeff Bridges outstanding as detective who uses booze to self-destruct, seesawing between his planned rehabilitation and the vices that permate his personal/professional lives. Rosanna Arquette and Alexandra Paul are the atypical female leads here.

Ashby's documentary was The Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together" (1983). Trailing off towards the end, he directed Neil Young in something called "Solo Trans" (1984); the pilot of Dennis Franz' TV series, ""Beverly Hills Buntz" (1987) and his last, "Jake's Journey," a 1988 British TV film with Graham Chapman and Peter Cook.

He died in in December of that year of liver and colon cancer.


Barrie said...

Thank you for the spot-on analysis of the three distinct chapters in Hal Ashby's brief career as a director. I’m now looking forward to seeing “Second-Hand Hearts" one day, an Ashby movie that I somehow have overlooked.

I also have found there are interesting performances in allo of his films. His was a good director of actors.

Barbara said...

I love Ashby and really enjoyed reading what you wrote about him. How anyone could ever say he wasn’t a great director, I don’t know – his handful of films are impressive and he made you believe his off-kilter characters. You believe that they are people who could actually exist. I find that amazing. Though people like Altman and Scorsese always get more attention, I do believe Ashby was the best director of the three. Ashby always took us to another level of depth and feeling.

Daldry said...

Was going to put in a commendation for late-period Ashby in your earlier post on the filmmaker but you beat me to it this time with this eloquent appreciation. It was a genuinely sweet-natured period for Ashby, no matter what his personal and professional problems were at the time, and these films deserve more respect than the backhanded references that they usually receive. Bridges, Blake, Harris, DeMornay and Voight all relaxed into the rhythms of their respective films.

Noel said...

I’ve been wanting to see Second-Hand Hearts for ages. I caught a bit of it on TV a years ago, pan-and-scanned of course, and Blakes’s performance seemed very crafty, very shrewd. A taut piece of work with a grim, sober view of the world that’s very similar to The Last Detail. And Barbara Harris' delivery of her lines makes for the strangest line readings I’ve ever heard. In a good way.

David Dunham said...

With so many schematic and desperately murky liberal social soap operas in the 1950s and '60s, Ashby's decidedly '70 perspective provided something much richer (and I suppose I was and still am one of those “liberals,” otherwise this stuff wouldn’t have affected me as much as it did). What I'm saying is that his films never changed.

joe baltake said...

David- Yes, Ashby brought a socially-conscious richness to his films, most of which - if you look closely at them - are domestic dramas about assorted dysfunctional people. Yes, the stuff of soap operas. He elevated whatever material he approached.