Film Review: Hal

This doc about a great but troubled director tells a fascinating story, but you somehow want even more.
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Of all the lauded directors of that now-fabled movie era of the 1970s, when the counterculture became mainstream and Hollywood studios gave innovative talents like Altman, Coppola, Scorsese and Peckinpah creative freedom, the most unsung is probably Hal Ashby (1929-1988). Although he had a glorious string of seven gems—The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Being There and Coming Home, all so very different and special—in that artistically fecund decade, there have been few serious reconsiderations of his work and his name is not all that mentioned, even by serious film geeks.

Amy Scott’s affectionate and smart documentary sheds light on an artist obsessed with addressing the injustice and intolerance in this country, but who himself could be the most problemmatic of men. Born in Utah to a Mormon family he pretty much rejected, and a high-school dropout personally riddled with issues (stemming from the suicide of his father as a child), Ashby hated authority and it is almost a wonder that any one of those seven titles ever got made in the first place, so adversarial and uncompromising was he. He was also honest to a fault, a quality most rare—and actually quite self-destructive—in a business that thrives on duplicity, ass-kissing and always, always the bottom line, demanding the thickest of skins of those who woud survive and thrive. A good deal of this film is taken up with the heartfelt but devastatingly vitriolic missives he would send to those he was most in need of but rather considered a less than necessary, art-obfuscating evil: his producers. 

However, those wonderful movies did get made, making you wish this particular film was longer, if only to hear even more tantalizing off-camera anecdotes from an impressive assemblage of his co-workers and intimates—fellow director Norman Jewison and longtime Ashby cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who are particularly enlightening; Robert Towne recounting the stand-offs between him and producer-star Warren Beatty during the ineffable Shampoo; Cat Stevens talking about his indelible score for Harold and Maude; Lee Grant, a true Ashby muse by virtue of her dazzlingly varied characterizations in The Landlord and Shampoo; Jeff and Beau Bridges, Lou Gossett, Jr. and Rosanna Arquette; Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, who remind us how seriously groundbreaking Coming Home was in so many ways. I could have done without the two cents of Judd Apatow, however, who, although admiring, is responsible for the very sort of lowbrow, commercial fodder Ashby would have hated, I think.

The coverage of his early years, starting out as an eventually acclaimed editor—which, of course, is key to his terrific storytelling—of films such as The Loved One and his Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night, is far more exciting than the 1980s, about which one interviewee states he is hard put to recall a single film of Ashby’s following his golden streak. He only managed to come up with a string of misbegotten/misguided flops, and a chance to direct Tootsie, which he had prepared, came to naught. Severe drug abuse—beginning with marijuana and escalating into heavy cocaine usage—came with success and his maverick style of directing—shooting tons of film, with an actual script the least of his concerns—made him more and more unemployable. The film seems to get a little loaded here, with his infamous coke habit soft-pedaled as bad, studio-spread publicity by those pesky business-minded suits who took over the industry, but there is no denying the toll his personal choices made on his family. He was married five times, and some of his many women give testament here to what their rollercoaster life was like with him. His daughter confesses that while her father had huge concerns for downtrodden urban blacks, maimed and forgotten Vietnam vets and starving Dust Bowl Oakies, he was just never there for his own child.

Tarnished the man might finally seem, both professionally and personally, but nothing can erase the glow of that magical duo of Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon capering along to Cat Stevens’ cherished ditties in Harold and Maude; Diana Sands’ face, an ocean of emotion in The Landlord; Lee Grant and a drop-dead-gorgeous Julie Christie malevolently eyeing each other in Shampoo; or the groundbreaking Steadicam use which brought the Depression to such vivid-dreary life in Bound for Glory. A difficult man, yes, but his best films pull you in beautifully, with an ease of which only a true master of his craft is capable.