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The Unassuming Hal Ashby

Published: 12/27/2013
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Hal Ashby speaks at a news conference at the 31st Cannes International Film Festival in Cannes, France, May 26, 1978. (AP Photo)

Twenty-five years after director Hal Ashby's death at 59, his work continues to cast a long shadow over cinema. The unassuming director got his start as an editor, part of the generation of "New Hollywood" filmmakers who revitalized the film industry in the late 1960s and ’70s. His eye for story and narrative construction quickly earned him a shot at the director's chair with 1970's The Landlord. The film showcased Ashby's light touch, his willingness to take on serious topics and his fearlessness as a storyteller.

In his relatively short career, Ashby courted topics many were hesitant to address, so long as there was a story to tell. His first film was a biting satire of American class and race relations at the end of the 1960s that managed to be charming and entertaining as well as unflinching in its examination of American culture. He went on to direct Shampoo, running headlong toward the chaos of America's sexual revolution and giving a young Carrie Fisher her first film role. In Coming Home, Ashby took on the obstacles facing Vietnam veterans as they reintegrated into civilian life. Jon Voight and Jane Fonda picked up Oscars for their performances, though Ashby missed out on the directing honor after having been nominated.

Perhaps his most remembered film is his second, the unforgettable Harold and Maude. The unconventional love story was initially a box office flop but found a second life as a cult favorite thanks to its remarkable style and substance. Ashby also imparted a sense of longing and a desperate quest for meaning in his films, dancing skillfully between bleak resignation and suspicious optimism in a way few other filmmakers manage.

Sadly, Ashby's star faded as the 1970s drew to a close and rumors circulated that the always eccentric director was becoming unmanageable and thus unemployable. Attempting to revive his career, Ashby shed the trappings of the hippie lifestyle he had long embraced. He trimmed his hair and beard, donned a blue blazer, stopped using drugs and started turning up at Hollywood parties to promote the new-and-improved Hal Ashby.

We will never know what kind of films Ashby still had in him, as he died of pancreatic cancer in the midst of his career rehabilitation. But his body of work continues to inspire filmmakers to follow their own muses, no matter where they lead.

Written by Seth Joseph. Find him on Google+.

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