“Reach out, take a chance, get hurt even, play as well as you can.” — Hal Ashby

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!

This entry was posted in Directors, Movies, On This Day and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to “Reach out, take a chance, get hurt even, play as well as you can.” — Hal Ashby

  1. Vanessa B. says:

    I absolutely love when you take a specific topic (e.g. final shot of a movie) and develops it into an excellent and well elaborated article. That’s how I came to know you, actually, through your “death scenes” piece at Film Comment (which is from Sept 2019, one year ago!).

    Huge fan of your work and assiduous reader of your blog :)

    • sheila says:

      Vanessa – thank you so much for stopping by. I also love to hear how people “found” me – and love that it was from that death scenes piece which generated hands down the most epic Twitter thread in history (at least my history). It went on for days. I finally stopped Retweeting other people’s favorites but I looked at them all. It made me want to do a sequel and include some of the other ones I hadn’t mentioned.

      Maybe some day, when Film Comment comes back – so much up in the air right now.

      Thanks so much for the kind words!

  2. Jim Reding says:

    His 1970s run gets my vote for the best of any director from that decade, maybe all-time.

    Have you read the Matt Zoller Seitz “Mad Men” article where he comments “While the series deals with history head-on, it mostly avoids the temptation to explain what it all “meant,” preferring to view the biggest events obliquely, cutting their potency by having characters hear the big news late, or at a moment when their own personal problems seem much larger”? It was only after reading that I realized “Shampoo” would make a great thematic pairing with certain episodes.

    • sheila says:

      // His 1970s run gets my vote for the best of any director from that decade, maybe all-time. //

      yeah, me too. I’m pretty fond of Howard Hawks’ run from 1938 to 1943 – Bringing Up Baby to Air Force (speaking of which, a couple of years ago I wrote an insanely detailed essay about Air Force for a book about Howard Hawks – which ended up getting caught up in publisher squabbles – but it now looks like it’s a “go” – have no idea when, these things take forever. But I’m excited because I was really proud of that piece – it’s not a straightforward “take.” I found this other way in and had a blast – it’s such a gorgeous lOOKING film too.)

      I read all of Matts pieces for Mad Men – don’t remember that specifically but I definitely agree with the sentiment. The way it’s handled – real world events – makes you feel like what it must have been like to be there, in the moment. The assassination of JFK – my particular favorite was the death of Marilyn Monroe – how that was handled was just beautiful.

      When I think of Shampoo, even though I’ve seen it so many times – I mainly thing of the whole sex farce aspect of it. And every time I sit down to watch it, I am reminded again of the almost existential ache – the bleak nothingness – not just of its ending, but seeping through the air vents into the whole thing. It’s like I KEEP blocking that part out of it – I love that about the film. It “fools” me every time, and that final scene between Beatty and Christie sucker-punches me every time.

  3. Donna Thomas says:

    Needing to take a break tonight from the news and like often happens here I got sent down several lovely covid diversions. I ended up watching Coming Home and then Prairie Home Companion. Both great movies I hadn’t seen in years. Thanks. I too love Lily in everything.

    • sheila says:

      Prairie Home Companion – if that movie had come out in 1948, it would have been followed by a hugely successful series of films featuring Lily and Meryl’s characters going out on tour and having adventures. Their dynamic was GOLD.

  4. Clary says:

    When Harold and Maud came to the cinemas, I still wasn’t 18 years old, so I had to pass, but I so much wanted to watch it from the posters! That face of the boy. I still haven’t, except for the excerpts on Youtube.
    So thank you for remind me of the movie. I think I would have enjoyed it so much. The atmosphere of those films around 1968 to 1975 was so “grown up”.

    • sheila says:

      Clary – they really are so “grown up” aren’t they?? Movies for adults, real grown-up shit!

      You should check out the whole thing – it’s so wonderful, so deep and funny and heartbreaking.

  5. hugh says:

    hi sheila, i hope you and your loved ones are well . i enjoy your posts, read them every day. hint, hint! isnt it about time for another i-pod shuffle playist? i enjoy them so much! stay safe and healthy!

    • sheila says:

      Hugh! lol I’m so glad you like those shuffles! You read my mind – I actually have been keeping notes over the last couple of weeks, since I have a new job, and work from home, and listen to music all day. So I was thinking along the same lines as you – that it is definitely time for another one!

      I’ll finish it up this week. :)

  6. Shawn says:

    I was with my father when he went to see Harold and Maude. I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 years old. It was a midnight showing at the same theater in Pasadena where I was also with him when he saw Bambi Meets Godzilla. I didn’t quite have much of an attention span at that age, but the scenes that caught my attention shocked me. I was terrified at the cleaver to the hand scene, and especially horrified when Bud Court drives over the cliff. Then completely confused when everyone including my father laughed very loudly when they saw him come into the frame picking at the banjo (or was it a guitar?). I probably asked why everyone was laughing and didn’t get an answer.

    Years later, when I saw the film at an appropriate age, I fell madly in love with it. When Maude throws the ring, I just about died laughing, but I also experienced that scene as if I had gained a personal moment all my own, like a memory. It’s such a distinctly rich instance of humor like no other. Can you imagine being R Gordon when she first read that script? What a day that must have been for her.

    • sheila says:

      What a beautiful memory – series of memories. I love it! I love how your child self was struck by it – and confused by adult laughter – I can totally see that! It makes me realize that even though it’s whimsical and funny – it’s really quite an adult movie. I don’t think I had thought of that before. You might need to have some miles on you before you can really groove to it.

      // I also experienced that scene as if I had gained a personal moment all my own, like a memory //

      That is such a great way to put it.

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