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Hal Ashby Tribute

Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude
Julie Christie, Warren Beatty in Shampoo
Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude (top); Julie Christie, Warren Beatty in Shampoo (bottom)

Hal AshbyCameron Crowe and Peter Bart will host a panel discussion with Haskell Wexler, Jon Voight, Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Diablo Cody, and Ashby's agent Jeff Berg as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences salute to Oscar-winning film editor and director Hal Ashby (right) on Thursday, June 25, at 7:30 p.m. at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

The panel discussion will be followed by a screening of Ashby's quirky 1971 classic Harold and Maude, starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon.

The salute will also kick off a weekend retrospective screening series at the Academy's Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood, featuring five new prints of Ashby's films from the Academy Film Archive.

I'm not sure why Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, and Diablo Cody will take part in the panel discussion. Not that they won't have anything of interest to say, but it's unfortunate that so many of those who actually worked with or knew Hal Ashby won't be present – unless organizers are still working on that, which is a possibility. I sure hope so. After all, it's an impressive list. Keep on reading.

Ashby, who began his career as a film editor, e.g., The Loved One and several Norman Jewison films, including The Cincinnati Kid and The Thomas Crown Affair, won an Oscar in that capacity for Jewison's socially conscious cop thriller In the Heat of the Night (1967).

Ashby's directorial debut was the capable The Landlord (1970), starring Beau Bridges in the title role. From then on, the Utah-born, Mormon-raised filmmaker tackled a series of films that have become emblematic of the offbeat, politically-socially conscious Hollywood of the '70s.

Among those are the aforementioned Harold and Maude, an anti-Establishment, black comedy masterpiece featuring several outstanding performances; The Last Detail (1973), in which three sailors (Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, Randy Quaid) defy rules and regulations to have a little fun and learn a thing or two about life; and Shampoo (1975), mixing national and gender politics, as a Los Angeles (hetero) hairdresser (Warren Beatty) becomes entangled with several women (Goldie Hawn, Julie Christie, Lee Grant).

Jon Voight, Jane Fonda in Coming Home

Also, Bound for Glory (1976), starring David Carradine as Depression Era folk singer Woody Guthrie; Coming Home (1978), a depiction of the plight of handicapped Vietnam veterans that earned Ashby an Academy Award nomination, and Oscar statuettes for Jon Voight and Jane Fonda (above); and Being There (1979), a witty comedy about a naive, TV-addicted gardener (Peter Sellers) who goes far thanks to the powerful imbeciles who surround him. (Forrest Gump was a way subpar rip-off.)

During that period, 11 performers received Oscar nominations for their work in Ashby's films. Four of those (Voight, Fonda, Lee Grant in Shampoo, Melvyn Douglas in Being There) won. Several more (e.g., Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles, Ellen Geer, all in Harold and Maude; Shirley MacLaine in Being There) should have been – at least – nominated but weren't.

With the end of the 1970s, Ashby's career suffered a severe downturn – partly a result of drug abuse; partly, as per Ashby's biographer Nick Dawson, as a result of the new studio system of the 1980s. Unfortunately, the director was never to recover his standing in the industry.

Ashby's 1980s films were generally critical and commercial failures, including the little-seen Lookin' to Get Out (1982), with Voight, Ann-Margret, and Burt Young (the director's cut of this film – which apparently features 4-year-old Angelina Jolie – was recently found and will be made available on DVD later this month); the terrible (and terribly conventional) The Slugger's Wife (1985), with Michael O'Keefe and Rebecca DeMornay; and the much-panned Jeff Bridges thriller 8 Million Ways to Die (1986).

Considering that Ashby's films almost invariably have an unapologetically liberal outlook, it'll be interesting to see what Jon Voight, who now increasingly sounds like a foaming-at-the-mouth right-winger, will have to say about the director's work. Too bad Jane Fonda won't be around, but at least Haskell Wexler – he of Medium Cool, Introduction to the Enemy, and Brazil: A Report on Torture – will be there.

More information at www.oscars.org.

Photos: Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library

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