New Hollywood auteur Hal Ashby is considered by many to be one of the most influential American filmmakers of the 20th century. Remembered for his cult classics like Being There as well as Harold and Maude, among other brilliant cinematic masterpieces, Ashby’s works have influenced younger directors like Cyrus Frisch and Niki Caro. Even after all these years, Ashby remains a criminally neglected master of the cinematic medium who used his works to explore the whimsical mysteries of human existence.
Ashby once said: “When film comes into a cutting room, it holds all the work and efforts of everyone involved up to that point. The staging, writing, acting, photography, sets, lighting, and sound. It is all there to be studied again and again and again, until you really know why it’s good, or why it isn’t. This doesn’t tell you what’s going on inside a director, or how he manages to get it from head to film, but it sure is a good way to observe the results, and the knowledge gained is invaluable.”
He also commented on the fundamental nature of cinema, claiming that the art form was a collective effort made possible due to the honest artistic output from various kinds of artists with different backgrounds: “The great thing about film is, it really is communal. It really is the communal art, and you don’t lose anything—all you do is gain,” he said, adding: “Your film just gains and gains. The more input you get, the better it is. “
As a tribute to one of the greatest and most influential directorial talents from the American New Wave, we take a look at some of the finest works from Hal Ashby’s illustrious filmography.
Hal Ashby’s 10 greatest films ranked:
10. Lookin’ to Get Out (1982)
Starring the great Jon Voight, who also features as the film’s star, Lookin’ to Get Out follows two gamblers who embark on a journey to Las Vegas with dreams of making it big. However, one of the gamblers already owes a huge amount of money to a group of thugs.
The film was a critical as well as a commercial failure, but it’s still a reminder of Ashby’s unique sensibilities. Lookin’ to Get Out is also remembered for another special reason: it was the acting debut of Angelina Jolie, a future star who was just seven years old at the time.
9. Second-Hand Hearts (1981)
Another late gem from Ashby, Second-Hand Hearts is another divisive film that was neglected at the time of its release but is now being rediscovered by students and fans who want to learn more about Ashby. This was Ashby’s follow-up to his 1979 masterpiece Being There.
With a screenplay by Charles Eastman, Second-Hand Hearts stars Barbara Harris and Robert Blake as a terribly mismatched married couple who set out on a road trip to recover Harris’ separated children. In retrospect, the film serves as a documentary of American life on the road.
8. Let’s Spend the Night Together (1983)
A fascinating documentary about The Rolling Stones, Let’s Spend the Night Together was only the fifth time that the iconic band ever appeared in a feature-length film. Due to the historical value of the footage, this is a must-see for any Rolling Stones fans if they haven’t seen it already.
Ashby tagged along with the band during their North American Tour in 1981, filming their concerts in Arizona and New Jersey. While the documentary itself is not as engaging as many of the other features made about the Rolling Stones, the music is great as always.
7. Bound for Glory (1976)
A loose adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, from 1943, Bound for Glory features David Carradine as Guthrie and his attempts to shed some light on the plight of Dust Bowl refugees during the terrible Great Depression. Haskell Wexler picked up the Best Cinematography Oscar for his brilliant work.
While discussing the challenges about making a biopic, Ashby acknowledged that one has to draw a line between reality and fiction to create meaningful art: “Doing a film about a real person drove me crazy at first, trying to be faithful, until I decided I should just do a story about the character.”
6. The Landlord (1970)
This was Ashby’s memorable directorial debut which told the story of an ignorant and privileged white man who buys a building in the ghetto in order to turn it into a “sophisticated” complex. The Landlord is an increasingly relevant and hilarious commentary on the evils of gentrification.
Based on Kristin Hunter’s novel, The Landlord received critical acclaim when it first came out with many people recognising the originality of Ashby’s vision. Although it was a commercial failure, the film picked up several nominations at prestigious award ceremonies.
5. Shampoo (1975)
A brilliantly composed satire of the dominant sensibilities surrounding sex during the ’60s, Shampoo follows a hairdresser (Warren Beatty) from Los Angeles who tries to figure out his financial as well as romantic problems posed by multiple lovers. Thanks to later re-evaluations, Shampoo is championed as one of the great comedic gems from the ’70s.
Ashby maintained that a film’s subtext has to be open to interpretation, claiming that it was important for the audience to be subjected to some form of artistic ambiguity: “I like to leave a little bit of an enigma there about exactly what it is because I think that’s what makes it not a totally down kind of an ending.”
4. Coming Home (1978)
A critically acclaimed masterpiece by Ashby, Coming Home tells the story of a military wife who falls in love with an injured veteran while her husband is out fighting in the Vietnam war. The film won various coveted prizes, including three wins at the Academy Awards.
The director said: “I identify with all my characters in one way or another. I never sat in a wheelchair like a Vietnam veteran, that’s true. But in a sense, I transcend that reality somewhere inside me when I go to make a film like Coming Home. It then becomes what I would do, how I would feel if I were this particular human being in this particular situation.“
3. The Last Detail (1973)
Based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan, The Last Detail follows two young sailors who are assigned the complex task of escorting a disillusioned recruit to a military prison. It won two British Academy Film Awards and picked up Oscar bids as well as Golden Globe nominations.
Ashby insisted: “I’m not laid back. There’s a tremendous energy going on all the time. What are you going to accomplish by raising your voice? Even if you’re striving for some tense thing in your film, getting the crew tense isn’t going to help. I went through a period in my life where I argued about everything, and I found I wasn’t getting much accomplished.”
2. Harold and Maude (1971)
One of the most beloved films from Ashby’s extensive oeuvre, Harold and Maude revolves around an unlikely couple of a suicidal young man in his 20s and a sweet, 79-year-old woman who is full of life. It is a moving existential examination of social conventions and the fundamental functions of romantic relationships.
A true cult classic, Harold and Maude is now regarded as one of the greatest black comedies of the 20th century. The American Film Institute included it in its ambitious list of the 100 Funniest Movies of all Time, giving it a pretty respectable rank of 45.
1. Being There (1979)
Perhaps the most divisive addition to Ashby’s filmography but also the greatest, Being There is an enigmatic portrait of a clueless gardener (Peter Sellers) who rises to the very top by doing nothing. Just because he is white and well-dressed, everyone around him mistakes his silence and gardening tips for profound wisdom.
While reflecting on his entry into the film industry, Ashby said that it was a matter of passion as well as money: “I was a kid looking for something but I didn’t know what. The movie business seemed like a terrific thing to get into, because that’s where the money and the fun was at.”