So why exactly did Hal Ashby — director of such enduring classics as Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979) — never really achieve the household-name familiarity of some of his contemporaries? (Think Francis Ford Coppola or Steven Spielberg or Brian De Palma or Robert Altman.) That’s one of the many questions posed by Hal, Amy Scott’s touching documentary journey through Ashby’s life and career, but Hal never quite explicitly answers it. Rather, the film tries to embody the ethos that made the man’s work so special, and maybe even allowed it to be taken for granted.
Ashby was already an Academy Award-winning editor before he directed his first feature; he had cut Norman Jewison’s Best Picture-winning In the Heat of the Night (1967), and he and Jewison remained lifelong friends. One of the more touching elements in Hal is glimpses of the correspondence between the two, their letters filled with the kinds of gently affectionate terms one might direct to a lover. Contrast that with the memos and angry letters Ashby often sent to executives and agents and producers, filled with profanity and rage over the way his pictures were mistreated, often in the editing room. (His words are read in the film by the intense Ben Foster — an unlikely but inspired choice.) The man felt things deeply, and it showed in his movies.
Ashby’s passions infused his work with a relatable honesty and intimacy, even as the subject matter and style of his features often varied. These passions also put him in regular conflict with the studios — a tension that was partly kept in check during the ’70s because, well, his movies then were really good. As Scott makes clear, once the 1980s rolled around, the studios took their revenge. She does valiantly push back against the rumors suggesting that Ashby had lost his mind and become some sort of unemployable addict; as many colleagues and friends make clear in Hal, the director remained a professional, continuing to work and eager to take on new projects until his death from pancreatic cancer in 1988. But newly emboldened executives — no longer willing to give directors the sort of freedom they had enjoyed in the previous decade — second-guessed and undermined him at every turn, often taking over his films in the editing room.
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None of Ashby’s movies were remotely autobiographical — the projects were often instigated by other, bigger names such as Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda — and yet he still found something surprisingly personal in the material. To highlight this, Scott interweaves Ashby’s emotional life with individual themes from the films. His directorial debut, The Landlord (1970), a surreal comedy about a rich white man (played by Beau Bridges) who takes over a decrepit apartment building in an impoverished, crime-ridden Brooklyn neighborhood, allows Scott to explore the director’s obsession with the class and racial conflicts that were tearing the country apart at the time. (And that are still tearing us apart: The Landlord didn’t do well at the time of its release, but it’s now considered a classic, and has only gained in urgency and resonance.)
Scott applies this approach throughout the director’s career. We see the specter of Ashby’s father’s suicide get aired out in the dark comedy of Harold and Maude. The director’s womanizing informs Shampoo, featuring Beatty as a philandering hairdresser. His fears of selling out are reflected in Bound for Glory (1976), the fictionalized Woody Guthrie biopic that showed the legendary folk singer trying to maintain his integrity as his career took off.
Scott weaves these different strands — the personal, the political and the artistic — with uncommon smoothness and dexterity, carrying us through Ashby’s life briskly and movingly. But she also knows how to jar us. About halfway through — right in the middle of the section on Bound for Glory, which also portrays Guthrie’s abandonment of his family — we are suddenly introduced to Ashby’s daughter Leigh MacManus, and the story doubles back to the director’s early years. It turns out he had been married and divorced by the age of 19, and had a child back home in Ogden, Utah, that he hadn’t seen in years.
This new development forces us to reassess Ashby’s career and to take stock of the personal costs of artistic achievement, and the seismic effect it can have on those in the artist’s orbit. The emotional twist also allows Scott to advocate for 1982’s ill-fated gambling comedy Lookin’ to Get Out, a flop starring Jon Voight (who had won an Oscar for his role in Coming Home) and featuring a very young Angelina Jolie, in her screen debut, as his estranged daughter; MacManus makes a point in an interview that the movie was, in some way, her father’s gift to her. Hal is filled with surprising insights such as these. And in making the case for Hal Ashby as a major director due for reassessment, Amy Scott’s documentary exemplifies the notion of cinema as a powerful, complex tool of personal expression.