Hal Ashby: Interviews/Billy Wilder, Movie Maker: Critical Essays on the Films

By Briley, Ron | Film & History, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Hal Ashby: Interviews/Billy Wilder, Movie Maker: Critical Essays on the Films


Briley, Ron, Film & History


Nick Dawson, editor Hal Ashby: Interviews University Press of Mississippi, 2010; 138 pages; paperback; $22

Karen McNally, editor Billy Wilder, Movie Maker: Critical Essays on the Films McFarland & Company, 2011; 246 pages; paperback; $45

Hal Ashby and Billy Wilder are two prominent Hollywood directors whom critics often exclude from the pantheon of auteur filmmakers. After beginning his film career as an editor, Ashby enjoyed a string of commercial and critically acclaimed films during the 1970s that made him one of Hollywood's most sought after directors. His demise during the 1980s was equally dramatic, however. On the other hand, European émigré Billy Wilder was an influential American filmmaker from the 1940s into the early 1970s, whose films earned box office receipts and Oscar recognition. Nevertheless, critics have accused Wilder of lacking a stylistic flourish and presenting a cynical vision in his films and then diluting it with happy endings for commercial reasons. Two new books edited by Nick Dawson and Karen McNally, offer strong arguments for including Ashby and Wilder in the top ranks of Hollywood auteurs.

Dawson, the author of a previous academic biography of Ashby, illuminates Ashby's life and career through a collection of interviews published in the influential Conversations with Filmmakers Series by the University Press of Mississippi. Ashby was a humble man who stressed collaboration rather than his own ego in his films. He did not seek publicity and fame; thus, Ashby's interviews are a little terser than many of the conversations contained in the film series. But this brevity certainly does not suggest a lack of depth to the interviews Dawson collected for this volume.

Ashby's early life was troubled. He was born in Ogden, Utah as the Great Depression commenced in 1929. The family left the Mormon Church, and his parents divorced when Ashby was six years of age. His father later committed suicide, and Ashby dropped out of high school. He was married and divorced before his eighteenth birthday. After working construction in the Pacific Northwest, Ashby decided to pursue a career in Hollywood. He began his film work as a multilith operator at the Republic Studios, followed by an eight-year apprenticeship as a film editor. While acknowledging the importance of his editing experience to his directorial work, Ashby believed that the apprenticeship program was too long and confining. His advice to young people seeking to break into the industry was simply to make films and seek venues to screen their work.

Ashby's prolonged labor as an editor included working with such directors as William Wyler and Tony Richardson. However, it was in association with Norman Jewison that Ashby really hit his stride, earning an Academy Award for his editing of In the Heat of the Night (1967). Two years later when Jewison was bogged down with film projects, he arranged for Ashby to direct his first film, The Landlord (1970), which opened to a modest box office but received strong reviews. Based upon this promising first film, Ashby was assigned to Harold and Maude (1972). Although the film initially bombed and Paramount Pictures proved inept at marketing it, Harold and Maude went on to become a cult classic.

A series of acclaimed films followed in the 1970s, establishing Ashby's reputation as one of Hollywood's most significant directors of the era. Ashby's credits include The Last Detail (1973) with his friend Jack Nicholson, Shampoo (1975) featuring Warren Beatty, Bound for Glory (1976) in which David Carradine portrayed folksinger Woody Guthrie, Coming Home (1978) with Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, and Being There (1979) with Peter Sellers as Chance in this adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski's novel. Ashby asserts that the common theme for this diverse Filmography is a concern for humanity. The filmmaker concludes, "There's no story line or anything like that running through my pictures, but I do try to do films that deal with human relations, with people relating to one another" (50). …

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