It’s his birthday today.
One of the leading lights of the New Hollywood, bringing fresh energy into a landscape that was busy cracking-apart, and holding on tightly to old stable familiar forms. He believed in the crack-up. He helped the crack-up accelerate.
He started out as an editor, and had a very successful career at it. He won an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night. He and Jack Nicholson went way back, a relationship that would bear major fruit later on. It’s all about relationships. He edited many of Norman Jewison’s films – The Cincinnati Kid, The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming and The Thomas Crown Affair … and if you think of that last film, think of how much of it had to do with the cuh-ray-zee way it was edited. Case in point:
He directed his first film in 1970 – the wild rule-breaking The Landlord, starring Beau Bridges and Lee Grant. It got great reviews.
His second film was the iconic Harold and Maude, a high watermark of all kinds of genres, all mashed together. It’s hilarious, it’s tragic, it’s romantic, it’s dark. It sacrifices nothing.
I came to Harold and Maude late. It was one of my dad’s favorite movies, and he told me about it, and started laughing so hard about all the suicide attempts he could barely continue. I hadn’t seen the film so I was like … “The suicide attempts are … funny?” Seeing Harold and Maude finally, at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, is one of my most memorable moviegoing experiences, for multiple reasons, but the movie itself was central. I’ve written about it before. I had never seen it. I went with a guy I was dating (let’s be honest: I was stringing him along) – and Ted, whom we both took acting classes with. The weird thing was: I made a decision that night – quietly – to cut the guy I was dating to the curb, and the OTHER guy, whom I didn’t really know, is still a really good friend of mine. We just Zoomed a couple weeks ago. Weird how things work out. I wrote about this whole thing here, a long ago piece when I used to write personally here. Here it is boiled down: Both men were so excited to see Harold and Maude through my eyes. I flipped out, and in the scene where Uncle Victor’s pinned-up sleeve salutes all on its own, and gets caught in the repeat salute, I started laughing so hard and so loud it actually became a disturbance.
I couldn’t stop. Ted was DELIGHTED – he was totally into how much the scene hit me – while the guy I was dating “Shhh”-ed me. I kicked him to the curb the next time I saw him. You NEVER “Sh” me especially when I’m LAUGHING. There’s a reason Ted and I are still friends. We went into that night just acquaintances, and we left friends. And we’re still friends. I credit Harold and Maude. And Uncle Victor’s poor arm.
After Harold and Maude Hal Ashby went on a tear of absolutely incredible films, American classics, all. The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There. WHAT. This was done in just 8 years. Incredible.
Hal Ashby, Warren Beatty, Robert Towne, talking “Shampoo”
Ashby died at the age of 59, his career was cut tragically short. In a perfect world, he would have had another productive 20, 25 years in him. He was such a singular and unique artist. Pure counter-culture, but with a sharp disciplined eye. He did whatever the fuck he wanted; his filmography is so impressive. He is heavily imitated, to this day.
Hal Ashby was the genuine article: anti-establishment, a hippie, against “The Man,” a man who marched to the beat of his own drum, and in so doing he helped transform the industry. This is the way it’s done. Create work that matters to you. Do what you want to do. Don’t try to fit in. Fuck that. Make your own way.
For Sight & Sound, I wrote about the final shot of Shampoo, my favorite final shot in all of cinema:
Hal Ashby died way too young. Huge loss. But what an impact!