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July 16, 2009

Being Hal Ashby and two later films

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Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel
Nick Dawson - 2009
The University Press of Kentucky

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The Slugger's Wife
Hal Ashby - 2006
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

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Lookin' to Get Out
Hal Ashby - 1982/2009
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

For myself, it seemed like Hal Ashby could do no wrong during the Seventies. My first of Ashby's films, seen as a student film critic, was Harold and Maude. Living in New York City, oblivious to the pulse of the rest of the country, I was unaware of how Ashby's film fared critically or commercially. This was black humor both dark and very funny, and I named Harold and Maude as one of the best films of 1971. I later caught up with Ashby's directorial debut, The Landlord soon after. The one Ashby film that is my favorite is The Last Detail, the odyssey about two military police escorting a petty thief to the brig, only to realize that metaphorical shackles are as restrictive as real ones. Additionally, I knew some of the cast members who essentially played themselves as Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists. I had another "degree of separation" from Hal Ashby when I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Julie Christie at Telluride in 1974. Christie was filming Shampoo at the time, and described Ashby as gentle.

Christie was not alone in her assessment of Hal Ashby. His usually soft-spoken manner is attested to by several people in Nick Dawson's biography. What makes this biography a bit different from other show business biographies is that it more deeply discusses the business as well as the show. More than simply a chronology of events, Dawson explains the politics of show business, that is to say the union rules for editors and directors, the decision making processes at the studios, and the various other aspects that affect a movie from the first proposal to the final cut. Also discussed are several films Ashby did not make including One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Tootsie.

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Dawson also goes into detail on Ashby's career during the Eighties, when he seemed to be unable to do anything right. I avoided The Slugger's Wife primarily because of a lack on interest in almost anything from the pen of Neil Simon. While most of Ashby's films did not originate with his involvement, signing up to do The Slugger's Wife was a mismatch of director and project more several reasons. Seeing on DVD, I was first struck by the impression that the film was made by some middle aged men whose idea of then current popular culture was based on watching half an hour of MTV. The story of a woman who sees her own professional aspirations stifled by her baseball player husband who demands she watch all of his games, alternates between the worlds of professional sports and pop music. Bickering couples is a Simon specialty, but this is no Barefoot in the Park or Odd Couple. The only reason to watch The Slugger's Wife is for the performance of Martin Ritt as the team manager. Ritt originally was scheduled to direct, but bowed out due to health. Ritt is the one cast member who doesn't seem to be acting, delivering his lines with warmth and humor that the rest of the film lacks.

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Lookin' to Get Out is another matter entirely. I can't recall that the film, in it's original theatrical version, taken out of Ashby's hands, ever played in Denver. The DVD is Ashby's cut of this troubled production. Filmed in 1980, the story of two down on their luck gamblers fleeing mobsters in Las Vegas falls almost appropriately between Altman's California Split and Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky on one end, and May's Ishtar on the other. Even when the film isn't improvised it often feels that way with Haskell Wexler's camera sometimes posed back to allow the actors to move around each other. While I am not as enthused about the film as some, I can understand the affection that Lookin' to Get Out has garnered.

While most of the film is devoted to the volatile Jon Voight playing against sheepish Burt Young, the best performance belongs to Ann-Margret as Voight former girlfriend who trades the roller coaster life with Voight for a more solid life with the owner of a big Las Vegas hotel. The hotel is also coincidentally where Voight and Young choose to spend the night with a convoluted plan to win back in gambling the thousands of dollars Voight owes to the mob in, of course, a gambling debt. Angelina Jolie, age 5, appears more or less as herself, that is to say, like many other girls her age, a bit shy and awkward. My own feeling is that had Lookin' to Get Out been released as Ashby intended, it would not have been significantly more successful at the box office, although it might have had less of a critical drubbing. Still, the film as it exists is more interesting to watch than The Slugger's Wife which seems like a second-hand version of the Eighties.

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Beyond simply being about Hal Ashby and his films, Being Hal Ashby brings up more discussion about the function of film criticism. Most of Ashby's films began as projects originated by other, with Ashby refashioning the film where he could, once he signed on as director. Since the films released during the Eighties were re-edited by others without Ashby's participation, the films only partially represent what Ashby had envisioned. As such, because information on the making of films is often limited, or unavailable, what film critics are often unaware of is how much of a film actually represents the filmmaker, and how much may be the result of other people who had a hand in the process from screenplay to final cut. Being Hal Ashby might also serve as a cautionary tale for aspiring directors regarding the navigation of studio politics. Especially at a time when Hollywood is primarily interested in manufacturing movies designed to make the most money in the least amount of time, Being Hal Ashby helps explain why it is difficult to make a truly good movie, and why a great film is almost a miracle.

Posted by peter at July 16, 2009 12:26 AM