There are few filmmakers in Hollywood history as stylistically modest and cinematically successful as Hal Ashby. One of the great shining lights of the 1970s, Ashby specialized in small, character-driven films that managed to capture the pathos and humor of human existence. Ashby, an editor who fell into directing, shot his films with a sense of economy, ensuring that the attention he felt should be directed at character and story was never distracted by technique and flourishes.
Ashby's career was woefully short, abbreviated by his demons and death in 1988. Still, he left a legacy of important, interesting and entertaining movies. Here are five of his finest:
HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971): A beautiful black comedy built around a May-December romance, Harold and Maude has become required viewing for generations of sensitive young film fans. It's a powerful, poignant and uplifting story that touches on mortality, morbidity and living life without becoming too maudlin.
THE LAST DETAIL (1973): A magnificently profane meditation on military justice and the frustrations of enlisted men caught in what they see as an unfair system. Jack Nicholson stars as a foul-mouthed member of the Navy shore patrol charged with bringing an unjustly sentenced seaman (Randy Quaid) to prison. A bright and beautifully honest film about frustrated men lashing out against the military system.
BEING THERE (1979): This nearly perfect film stars the late, great Peter Sellers as an emotionally and intellectually stunted gardener who becomes an inadvertent media darling when he stumbles into the world of national politics. Jack Warden, Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas also give career-defining performances.
COMING HOME (1978): One of the first films to address Vietnam, Coming Home is remarkable in that it avoids the easy politics of the conflict, instead opting to focus on the human toll of war. Jon Voight stars as a paralyzed vet who enters into a relationship with the wife (Jane Fonda) of a serviceman still overseas.
SHAMPOO (1975): A bright, light and still searing indictment of the sexual revolution, Shampoo stars Warren Beatty as a superstar hairdresser whose uncontrolled libido eventually brings him down. The film also stars Goldie Hawn, Carrie Fisher, Lee Grant and Julie Christie as the women with whom he has the occasional dalliance.
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