Hal Ashby directed some of the best films to come out of the 1970s, exploding out of the gates with four motion pictures over five years. They were all quirky comedy-drama hybrids that, in terms of subject matter, couldn’t be more different and yet are united in the sense that they all feature offbeat protagonists. They focus on outsiders that exist on the margins of mainstream society, like the death-obsessed young man who falls in love an unflappable, optimistic septuagenarian in Harold and Maude (1971). In its own way, The Last Detail (1973) is a comedy tinged with drama and one that features marginalized protagonists in the form of two veteran United States Navy petty officers that have to transport a young sailor from Virginia to New Hampshire and end up learning something about themselves and each other along the way.
At the time, Ashby was coming off the commercial and critical failure of Harold and Maude when Jack Nicholson told him about The Last Detail. Then up-and-coming screenwriter Robert Towne had adapted Darryl Ponicsan’s novel of the same name with the actor (they were close friends) in mind. Nicholson was on an incredible run of classic film roles that started with Easy Rider (1969) and continued with two Bob Rafelson films – Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). His role in The Last Detail would yet again demonstrate his power and versatility as an actor, resulting in him being crowned Best Actor at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival.
Billy “Badass” Buddusky (Nicholson) and Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are assigned “chasers” duty, which involves taking a young sailor by the name of Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to Portsmouth Naval Prison. He’s been sentenced to eight years for trying to steal $40 from the Commanding Officer’s wife’s pet charity project. They have a week to do it, but Buddusky proposes that they can pocket more of the per diem and spend it on the way home if they get Meadows there as fast as possible. I like how the film settles into a character-driven groove with a series of colorful encounters that provide insight into these guys after efficiently setting up the premise.
Meadows is just a scared kid that did something stupid and pissed off the wrong person as a result. Meadows has hardly had any life experiences and will be denied the possibility of them for eight long years unless Buddusky and Mulhall do something about it. Not surprisingly, Buddusky’s original plan goes out the window as he and Mulhall bond with Meadows by getting him drunk, stoned and laid in one last hurrah before eight years of imprisonment.
The Last Detail continued Jack Nicholson’s fascination with angry outsiders that live on the margins. It was the start of a great run of like-minded characters, beginning with Easy Rider. It is interesting to watch the choices he makes as an actor in this role, from the way Buddusky seems to sarcastically chew his gum to the way he wears his sailor’s cap. Nicholson is equally adept at showing the anger that simmers under his character’s façade and the explosion of rage that occurs when provoked, like the famous scene where a bartender refuses to serve the three sailors, which is reminiscent of the even more well-known diner scene in Five Easy Pieces. Later on, there’s a nice moment where Buddusky explains why he gets so angry and how liberating he finds it to wail on someone that ticks him off. He even tries to pick a fight with Meadows. It gives us some valuable insight into Buddusky’s volatile nature. Nicholson also shows us moments where his character is a consummate bullshit artist, like when he, Mulhall and Meadows get invited to a party in New York City and he tries to impress a young woman (Nancy Allen) by romanticizing life in the Navy. He’s stoned and getting nowhere with this girl who looks like she’d rather be anywhere else. Nicholson effortlessly inhabits the role in a way that seemed to disappear through the late 1980s and beyond when he relied more and more on his movie star persona.
Fresh-faced Randy Quaid does a nice job of conveying his character’s clueless naiveté. He plays Meadows as a pathetic mess of a human being. With his young, soft face, the actor projects a kind of innocence, but his actions sometimes say otherwise. For example, on the train he tries to make a break for it and when caught breaks down crying. Quaid achieves just the right mix of awkwardness and an occasional sympathetic side to keep us interested in this bundle of contractions all the while holding his own against a flashy actor like Nicholson. Quaid exhibits character behavior that is intriguing to watch – so much so that we want to know more about Meadows. Why did he try to steal the money? Over the course of the film, Buddusky and Mulhall try to find out what motivates this kid. As they get closer to prison, Quaid shows how the inevitable weighs more and more on Meadows’ mind by facial expressions, which oscillate between contemplative and anxious.
Otis Young has the least flashiest role, but it is a crucial one as he provides the stable, calming voice of reason, trying to keep everyone on track. When Buddusky comes up with some wild idea or wants to diverge from their mission, Mulhall is the sober realist and this sometimes causes friction between him and Buddusky, but when they are presented with an outside threat they quickly close ranks.
Robert Towne’s script hits us up with salty language right from the get-go, but it never feels false or forced because it rolls off the tongue so easily off someone like Nicholson who curses as naturally as breathing. I also like how the film is set during the winter months and you can tell that they actually shot it during that time by how you can see the actors’ breath in outdoor scenes. It looks so cold that it is almost tangible, most notably in a scene towards the end when the three sailors decide to have a makeshift picnic out in a snowbound park. They stand around freezing their asses off while trying to start a fire to cook hotdogs.
Producer Gerry Ayres had bought the rights to Darryl Ponicsan’s novel The Last Detail in 1969, but had difficulty getting it made because the studio was concerned about all of the bad language in Robert Towne’s screenplay, asking him to reduce the number of curse words. Towne told them, “This is the way people talk when they’re powerless to act; they bitch.” The screenwriter had refused to tone down the language and the project remained in limbo until Jack Nicholson, who was by then a bankable movie star, got involved. Towne, who was good friends with Nicholson, had written the role of Buddusky with the actor in mind.
Director Hal Ashby was in pre-production on Three Cornered Circle at MGM when Nicholson told him about The Last Detail, his upcoming project at Columbia Pictures. Ashby had actually been sent the script in the fall of 1971, but the reader’s report called it, “lengthy and unimaginative.” After looking at it again, he had warmed up to it. Ashby wanted to do it, but the project conflicted with his schedule for Three Cornered Circle. However, he pulled out of his deal, impressed by Nicholson’s loyalty, with MGM and took Nicholson’s suggestion that they work together on The Last Detail.
Ashby and Ayres read Navy publications and interviewed current and ex-servicemen who helped them correct minor errors in the script. During pre-production, Ashby worked with Towne on polishing the script and with Nicholson on his character. Ashby wanted to shoot on location at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia and the brig at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but was unable to get permission from the U.S. Navy. However, the Canadian Navy was willing to cooperate and in mid-August 1972, Ashby and his casting director, Lynn Stalmaster, traveled to Toronto to look at a naval base and meet with actors. The base suited their needs and Ashby met actress Carol Kane whom he would cast in a small, but significant role.
Nicholson was set to play Buddusky and so the casting of The Last Detail focused mainly on the roles of Mulhall and Meadows. Nicholson and Towne were friends with Rupert Crosse and felt that he would be perfect as Mulhall. Bud Cort, who had worked with Ashby on Harold and Maude, begged the director to play Meadows, but he felt that the actor was not right for the role. Stalmaster gave Ashby a final selection of actors and the two that stood out were Randy Quaid and John Travolta. Quaid had the offbeat and vulnerable qualities that Ashby wanted.
Shortly before principal photography was to begin, Crosse discovered that he had terminal cancer and Ashby delayed production a week so that Crosse could come to terms with the news and decide if he still wanted to do the film. However, a day before filming was to begin, Crosse had to pull out and Ashby and Stalmaster scrambled to find a replacement, quickly casting Otis Young as Mulhall. Ashby had tried to get Haskell Wexler, Nester Almendros and Gordon Willis as the film’s director of photography, but when none of them were available, he promoted Michael Chapman, his camera operator on The Landlord (1970). Ashby and Chapman worked together to create a specific look for the film that involved using natural lighting to create a realistic, documentary style.
Ashby decided to shoot The Last Detail chronologically in order to help the inexperienced Quaid and the recently cast Young ease into their characters. Quaid was indeed very nervous and wanted to make a good impression. Ashby kept a close eye on the actor, but allowed him to grow into the role. With the exception of Toronto doubling as Norfolk, the production shot on location, making the same journey as the three main characters.
The day after principal photography was completed; Ashby had his editor send what he had cut together up to that point. The director was shocked at the results and fired the editor. The director was afraid that he’d have to edit the film himself. Ayres recommended brining in Robert C. Jones, one of the fastest editors in the business and who had been nominated for an Academy Award for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Jones put the film back into rushes and six weeks later had a first cut ready that ran four hours. Ashby was very impressed with Jones’ abilities and trusted him completely.
However, the studio was not happy with the length of time it was taking to edit The Last Detail as well as the amount of bad language in it. Columbia was in major financial trouble and needed a commercial hit. Jones called Ashby while he was in London meeting with Peter Sellers about doing Being There (1979), telling him that Columbia was fed up. The head of the editing department called to tell Ashby that a studio representative was coming to take the film away. However, Jones refused to give up the film and Ashby called the studio and managed to smooth things over with them.
By August 1973, the final cut of The Last Detail was completed and submitted to the MPAA, which gave it an R rating. Columbia was still not happy with the film and asked for 26 lines with the word “fuck” in them to be cut. Ashby convinced the studio to let him preview the film as it was to see how the public would react. The film was shown in San Francisco and the screening was a success. Columbia decided to give the film a limited release to qualify for Oscar consideration with a wide release in the spring of 1974. Both Nicholson and Quaid were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively.
For all of their fun and wild times – including picking a fight with some army soldiers in a train station washroom – Meadows’ fate hangs over them like an ominous storm cloud that occasionally makes itself known. While Mulhall wants to take Meadows straight to prison, Buddusky wants to show the kid a good time because it will be the last one he’ll have for eight years. Even though, by the end of The Last Detail, Buddusky and Mulhall do their job, you can tell that Meadows got to them, past their hardened Navy lifer exteriors. For them, Meadows represents how fucked up the system is – that someone could get punished so severely for such a minor crime. It’s not right, but there is nothing they can do about it, which ends things on a rather melancholic note of resignation that is refreshing for a film that started off as a comedy.
The Last Detail performed well at the box office and it has gone to become an influential film, representing one of Nicholson’s finest performances of the ‘70s. It was an excellent early role for Quaid and was also part of a fine run of films during this decade for the character actor. And finally, for Ashby it marked another great effort in a decade chock full of classics as he would go on to make, including Shampoo (1975), Coming Home (1978), and Being There.