Hal Ashby, Final Cut Pro
Peter Sellers in Hal Ashby's last hit, Being There (1979)
Interviewers who ascended to Hal Ashbys home/editing studio in Laurel Canyon referred to his placid, guru-like appearancebarefoot, daishikid, and beardedbut few in town had toiled longer and harder for success.
A footloose kid from Ogden, Utah, who hitchhiked into Hollywood, Ashby worked his way up the ladder to editing, notably in collaboration with Norman Jewison. He won an Oscar for cutting Jewisons In the Heat of the Night (1967), which plays BAMs Ashby retro alongside 13 other titles. A hippie avant la lettre, nicknamed Hashby for obvious reasons, Ashby became the most overtly counterculture New Hollywood figure when, aged 40, he jumped over to directing in 1970 with The Landlord.
The gurus method was once described by Jack Nicholson: He has such a light touch that some people who have worked with him arent even sure hes directed the picture. A vocal proponent of collaborative filmmaking, Ashby benefited from strong, authorial contributors. Screenwriter Bill Gunn, later a director himself, stamped his name onto The Landlords confrontational satire, with Beau Bridgess honky gentrifier busting into a Park Slope row house, while The Last Detail (1973) and Shampoo (1975) are both anchored by their leading menrespectively, Nicholson and taskmaster producer/co-writer/star Warren Beatty. Behind both of those superficially anecdotal films is a tight Robert Towne script, spun by Ashby in the most unaffected manner.
Ashbys next projects, Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory (1976) and Coming Home (1978), were big, vaporous movies, with the directors atmosphere-setting talents now used as ends instead of means. Evaluated on the liberal good intentions of their awards-season-baiting subjects, they confirmed Ashbys cloutlong dispersed by the time he died of cancer in 1988, reportedly disserviced by holistic charlatans.
His last hit was another vital partnership, Being There (1979), with Peter Sellers playing a sweet dullard adopted as a wise man by Americas owning class. Its a fable told at a measured Zen pace that would be completely alien to commercial movies in the decade to come. Ashby had developed a working method of shooting miles of footage, trusting he could carve a movie out of the raw material during months of marathon editing. But after Being There, impatient outsiders began to finish them instead. Unhappy with Ashbys cut, Lorimar Productions dictated their own edit of Lookin to Get Out (1982). Now newly restored and playing at BAM, Ashbys never-screened version is a film whose slovenliness suits its rumpled subjects. Jon Voight and Burt Young play two big, irresponsible brats from Queens, improvising their way into the best suite in the Vegas MGM Grand. Famously studio-bowdlerized, 8 Million Ways to Die (1986) is as crazy a collection of run-on scenes ever to be laid over an L.A. noir plottheres more charm in its confusion than in the brayed, talkin-down folk wisdom of Ruth Gordon and Cat Stevens in Ashbys earlier Harold and Maude (1971).
Ashbys 80s output remains a puzzle. Peter Biskinds 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls attributes Ashbys loss of control over his career to addictions; Nick Dawsons 2009 biography Being Hal Ashby more generously depicts the director refusing to capitulate to an increasingly corporate industry. Whatever the case, in his up-from-the-stockroom rise, and then in the fine, failed, and flawed films carrying his name, theres a distinctly American frustration.
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