Hal Ashby’s career is often used as a warning when talking about filmmaking. He’s often depicted as a man who made amazing movies in the ’70s only to crash and burn in the ’80s. What brought the director down? His drug habit is the usual suspect as if he was too stoned to know how to make a film. The movies he made at the end of his life were so weak that his death wasn’t treated as a great tragedy. But Hal Ashby deserved more for what he gave. Hal is a documentary that gives a sense of the joy Ashby brought to the screen in the ’70s and a rational of why all went wrong in the ’80s and how he got screwed out of a comic masterpiece.
Ashby had a troubled childhood that continued in his early adulthood. He fled Ogden, Utah without a high school degree and leaving behind his wife and child. He got out to Hollywood and slowly worked himself up the movie studio ladder into the editing room. Things took off for him when he formed a fast and tight friendship with director Norman Jewison. Hal became Norman’s editor during an especially fertile time that included The Cincinnati Kid, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair. Hal won the Oscar for editing In the Heat. Jewison recounts their friendship, reads a few letters and tells the extraordinary story of how he gave Hal his first turn in the director’s chair. Norman was supposed to direct The Landlord, but during preproduction he sensed that Hal was ready to call the shots. And thus began Hal’s amazing run of films in the ’70s. While the film wasn’t a massive success, it gave Hal the clout to make the masterpiece of Harold and Maude. The film was a complete marketing nightmare to Paramount who had no idea how to sell the story of a 20 year old suicide obsessed boy who falls in love with an 80 year old woman. The poster went out with just words. Luckily the film has found an audience over the decades. This was a staple of Midnight Movies. Hal kept his creative hot streak going with Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail, Warren Beatty in Shampoo, David Carradine in Bound For Glory and Jane Fonda in Coming Home. His final masterpiece of the ’70s was Being There with Peter Sellers playing a clueless guy who just liked watching TV that everyone felt was a genius. Stories from each film are related by the stars such as David Carradine, Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Jane Fonda and Jon Voight. A few voice in via vintage interviews and sadly the memorial service for Hal at the DGA.
The film portrays Hal as a man who lived to make movies. Jewison set up a bed near the editing room so that Hal could work around the clock. The man was obsessed by the edit. He had a knack for finding the right frames. He also liked to smoke a lot of dope while cutting away. The tales of him smoking it editing room. He also was noted for enjoying a bit of nose candy. His ’80s output was a bit of a mess for various reasons. He ended up making rock concert films for Neil Young and the Rolling Stones. The only film of note during this time was The Slugger’s Wife. The movie is only remembered because TBS would run it if the Braves game was declared a rain out. The main character played for the Braves. Things completely fell apart during 8 Million Ways to Die with Jeff Bridges when during his two week vacation between production and post-production, the studio showed up and grabbed all the film. The studio cut it together without Ashby and the film was a major disaster. He was judged by critics as a failure even though he was far from responsible for the ham handed splices. Hal should have had a different legacy in the ’80s since he was the original director of Tootsie. The documentary digs up footage of Dustin Hoffman’s screen test in drag that Hal had shot. If a film needs a villain, the studio that blocked Ashby from making what could have been a comeback deserves the hissing.
Director Amy Scott and her crew shine a light on a director who doesn’t get the same level of fanboy love given to the other “stars” of ’70s cinema. Ashby at his peak allowed his characters to make emotional connections which is a rare concept nowadays where the big flicks features superheroes coming to terms with their mutant powers and not just being human. What’s interesting is that feeling that a guy like Ashby couldn’t make his form of films for Hollywood studios although from my weekend of Full Frame, character driven movies still exist. It’s just they are now documentaries. One of them was called Hal.
Tags: Full Frame, Full Frame Film Festival, Hal, Hal Ashby