For a director who had one of the greatest cinematic runs in history, Hal Ashby really ought to be more of a household name. Certainly just as much of one as his New Hollywood peers from the ‘70s: Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Coppola. With any luck, Amy Scott’s fiery new documentary about this one-of-a-kind movie maverick, Hal (in theaters Friday), will do just that.
Despite her anything-but-conventional subject, Scott’s cradle-to-the-grave narrative is laid out like a pretty straightforward, traditional biography. But it’s spiced up with liberal and well-curated clips from Ashby’s remarkable filmography. A tall, gangly hippie who looked like Rip Van Winkle snapping out of a slumber on Max Yasgur’s farm, Ashby began his Hollywood career in the cutting room, editing films for directors such as Norman Jewison.
It was Jewison, also the film’s most insightful interview subject, whose 1967 Best Picture winner, In the Heat of the Night, won Ashby his first and only Oscar. The two men had a loving, mentoring relationship. And it was Jewison who nudged Ashby toward becoming a director in the first place with his 1970 debut, The Landlord. Their letters back and forth provide some of the deepest insights and biggest laughs of the movie. Ashby’s words are read by actor Ben Foster, and they give the documentary a warmth and intimacy that even the best film clips cannot.
Ashby’s streak of critical hits as a director in the ‘70s was, and still is, jaw-dropping. Ready? Okay, fasten your seatbelts: Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979). That last one seems extraordinarily prescient about where we are right now politically, and if you haven’t seen it recently – or ever – by all means, do yourself a favor. All of those films, as different as they are, share an off-kilter air of decency, a strident sense of justice, and a truly independent (which is to say, American) outlook.
Those points are reinforced by Scott’s talking-head interviews with such stars and collaborators as Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, Robert Towne, Beau Bridges, Cat Stevens, and Louis Gossett Jr. — as well as younger filmmakers who still feel his influence like David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Allison Anders, and Lisa Cholodenko. Sadly, Warren Beatty, who worked closely with Ashby on Shampoo (my personal favorite of both of their films) is only heard in an archival clip delivering Ashby’s eulogy after his death in 1988 at age 59 from pancreatic cancer. It’s a doozy. But it would have been nice to have heard more from him.
Despite his long, shaggy hair, love beads, and high-as-a-kite cannabis grin, Ashby could be a prickly dude. He was part dashiki, part Molotov cocktail. He bucked hard against producers and studio brass who made the mistake of asking him to compromise. And he could be like a cornered bull who only knew one way out of a conflict — through the other guy. Ashby could be just as destructive in his personal life. Scott goes easy on some of his more toxic qualities as well as his lesser later work and candle-burning-bright fade out in the final years of his life. Surely, the studios can’t be blamed for everything. Still, Hal gives us a lot to take in, whether you’re an aficionado or new to Ashby’s work. Scott has done movie fans a real service. She’s finally given an under-sung filmmaking giant his well-deserved close-up at long last. B+