Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg… those are the names that casual moviegoers will probably rattle off when asked to list the great directors of the 1970s. More knowledgeable viewers will surely add Kubrick, Altman, and Friedkin. Yet it’s only the true cinephiles (or film students) that include Hal Ashby on their shortlist of great directors. Hal, the debut of Amy Scott, looks to illuminate the maverick director’s work and find a possible explanation for the relative obscurity of his classic films.
Ashby’s filmography from the ’70s is an embarrassment of directorial riches. Harold and Maude and Being There alone justify his place among the greats, let alone amazing films like The Last Detail, Shampoo, and Coming Home. The self-described “angry young punk” hitchhiked to Los Angeles at the age of 17 and scammed his way onto the MGM lot. Before long, he was assistant editor on The Loved One, and just two years later he won an Oscar for editing In the Heat of the Night for Norman Jewison.
“The film will tell you what to do,” was Ashby’s editorial philosophy; a philosophy that informed his directing style and collaborative partnership with writers and actors.
Ashby’s relationships with studio executives weren’t nearly as collaborative. In fact, they were downright adversarial. Ashby remained fiercely territorial of his creative output during his entire career and was repeatedly furious with studios for mishandling the promotion of his films. Ashby was famously denied the opportunity to direct Tootsie, for instance, due to his contentious relationship with Lorimar Studios. Watching the grainy amateur-shot footage of Ashby cavorting with Dustin Hoffman (in his woman’s attire) makes you wonder what strange and exciting direction Ashby might have taken the classic farce.
The documentary takes a whirlwind tour through each of Ashby’s films from the ’70s, making strategic use of movie footage, cast and crew interviews, and audio recordings from Ashby himself. He was also a voracious letter writer. He left behind hundreds of impassioned letters that committed his frustration, joy, and simmering rage to the typewritten page. A great many of these letters were addressed to Norman Jewison, his respected friend and colleague, and who is prominent throughout Hal.
Scott also explores Ashby’s troubled childhood and the impact it might have had on his filmic exploits. The 12-year-old boy who endured his father’s suicide grows up to be obsessed with film, perhaps to escape his pain or find some measure of control over the uncontrollable. It’s not surprising, then, that his frequent clashes with the studio over creative control left Ashby jaded and exhausted by the Hollywood machinery.
To Scott’s credit, Ashby isn’t portrayed as a saint; a tortured, misunderstood genius, yes, but not a saint. His relationships with women, for instance, are particularly sordid. Basically abandoning his infant daughter for dreams of a movie career, Ashby turned his back on a conventional family life forever. He loved women, but never in moderation. Perhaps indicative of his restless nature, he was married five times, though all of his former lovers and wives remember him as a romantic and passionate man.
Mostly, this is a loving tribute to a filmmaker who doesn’t get anywhere near the recognition and respect he deserves. Former collaborators and actors gush over his generosity and dedication to the craft. His unfiltered and uncompromising vision arguably produced the clearest, most lucid depiction of the tumultuous ’70s. While his contemporaries were more cognizant of financial considerations, Ashby was incapable of compromise. After legendary producer Robert Evans vehemently opposed the geriatric love affair in Harold and Maude, the film’s marketing budget disintegrated. It’s hard to imagine other directors not making an effort to placate Evans and secure their advertising money, but Ashby stridently defended his final creative decision.
But at what cost? Had Ashby garnered even one box office success that rivaled other prominent directors of that era, it might have afforded him the creative freedom that he craved. Put simply, Ashby’s defiance led to both his success and his demise.
Perhaps Jeff Bridges (in the most Jeff Bridg-iest way) says it best; “Look at the pudding coming out of this guy’s oven, man!”
Hal is a great primer to Ashby’s oeuvre. It paints a vivid portrait of artistic integrity and a complete commitment to the art of filmmaking. While it’s unlikely that Ashby (who died in 1988) would have been comfortable as the focus of a documentary, if it could inspire just one person to make movies from their heart, he would have driven them to the theater himself.