Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hal Ashby

Hal Ashby was a versatile director dabbling in different genres but he proved to be a great comedic director with movies like Harold and Maude, The Landlord, The Last Detail, and Being There, which I have to add, is my favorite of his movies and I highly recommend this to anyone.
His directing career started at age 40 so his body of work is relatively small. He is little remembered today despite being one of the most prolific and successful filmmakers of the 1970s. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he did not have official film training; the editing room was his film school, which he stumbled into almost by accident. According to is career in films came about in a combination of fate, luck, and being in the right place at the right time; ironically these elements of chance often occur to the characters in his films.
At the age of 19, he left his hometown of Ogden, UT to find a job in California. He landed a job at Universal in the mailroom but within a few years he became an apprentice of an editor until he became a full-fledged editor himself. Ashby thought of the editing room as “the perfect place to examine everything. [It] is channeled down into that strip of film, from the writing to how it’s staged, to the director and the actors.” In his collaboration with director Norman Jewison, he received recognition as an editor and won a Best Editing Oscar for In the Heat of the Night (1967). Jewison also recommended him to direct The Landlord, his directorial debut. The film had a modest budget and, despite good critical reviews, went relatively unnoticed on its release in 1970. But The Landlord signaled that a new directorial talent with a flair for black comedy had arrived on the scene.
He proved his flair for black comedy with his second film Harold and Maude, a style that would dominate throughout his films. The film didn’t receive commercial success but it quickly acquired cult status. It’s about a 20 yr-old Harold who learns to love life through his encounter with an eccentric senior citizen whom he eventually falls in love with. One Rotten Tomatoes reviewer said it was “the epitome of a film that you can’t believe you’re laughing at, but you are. A lot. It hurts. In a good way.”
After a series of well-received films, critics didn’t think he had a specific style that was consistent through his filmography, which is to say he was not considered an “auteur”. His final great film, Being There, was a great success but it was a challenge to keep the absurd premise for two hours without allowing it to slip into farce. Unfortunately, after Being There Ashby’s career began a downward spiral from which it never recovered. His abusive use of drugs affected his work. He spent too much time in post-production and was forced from his position to be given to someone else to actually get something done. He died in 1988, according to his obituary, and doesn’t receive the credit as directors like Coppola and Altman get, but he certainly left a legacy.

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