For one, nine-year period in the 1970s, Hal Ashby was touched by magic like no director before him. Everything he created turned to gold: “Harold and Maude,” “The Last Detail,” “Shampoo” “Bound for Glory,” “Being There,” “Coming Home.” Each one emerging as an enduring classic that pushed the boundaries of what a motion picture could be in the hands of an impassioned artist. They garnered a whopping 23 Oscar nominations, including seven wins. But only one (“Coming Home”) of those 23 was for him.
Like Rodney Dangerfield, Ashby got no respect from his peers. And that fact is an overriding theme in “Hal,” Amy Scott’s long-overdue look back at a filmmaker who revolutionized the kind of character-driven pictures we rarely see anymore. And, boy, does “Hal” make you mourn their loss. The hope rising from the ashes is that now, nearly 30 years after his untimely death at 59, Ashby is finally getting his due through the superb directors he inspired. People like Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Adam McKay, Lisa Cholodenko and Judd Apatow, all seen here singing praises to a maverick who hated compromise at the expense of preservation.
You appreciate what they all have to say. But, really, Ashby’s films speak for themselves through the evocative clips Scott has assembled into a tidy little retrospective guaranteed to inspire you to seek them out, whether it be for the first time, or — as is my case with “Bound for Glory” — a dozenth. And in seeing them spliced together in one 85-minute state of bliss, the thing you notice most is how they all slyly deal with the state of the human condition. When the various talking heads say “Hal loved people,” you have no reason to doubt their words.
Most moving is the man he called his closest friend, Oscar-winning director Norman Jewison. Now 92 and still sharp as a tack, Jewison tearfully admits he loved Ashby more than he’s loved any other man. Serendipitously, they got their starts together at the old MGM studio in the 1960s, Norman as a director and Hal as an editor. It was when they decided to join forces on the classic “In the Heat of the Night,” that these two missiles of artistic integrity took off toward the heavens. Just listening to Jewison reminiscences fills you full of nostalgia for a time when movies were as probing as they were uncompromising.
And for both Ashby and Jewison it was sounding out the people without a voice, be it social injustice in Ashby’s debut, “The Landlord”; ageism in “Harold and Maude”; abused migrant farmers in “Bound for Glory”; and neglected war veterans in “Coming Home.” Politics, too, were something on Ashby’s mind in “Shampoo” and the ever-more prescient “Being There,” about a mentally challenged man becoming a messiah to the upper echelons of Washington’s elite. Sound familiar?
What’s peculiar is why Ashby suddenly lost his fastball after “Being There” in 1979. His friends say it was the advent of corporations scooping up studios and demanding their pictures make money, not win Oscars. But Scott leaves you with the notion that Ashby, a man obsessed with his art, finally just burned out physically, mentally and creatively. How else to account for turkeys like “The Slugger’s Wife” and “8 Million Ways to Die”? You wish Scott had explored this sudden migration a little deeper, but that would undermine her goal of making Ashby the icon she thinks he deserves to be.
Besides, we’re not interested in that Ashby. We want to know about the guy in his prime, and Scott does an excellent job of fleshing out a free spirit who loved smoking pot as much as he liked stirring things up with his warped sense of humor. The man’s dry wit was undoubtedly his finest asset, and you sense it was more than just a gift; it was a coping mechanism for a dark childhood in Ogden, Utah, capped by his father’s suicide when he was just 12. It was an existential event that obviously played a huge part in “Harold and Maude” through Bud Cort’s morose character’s obsession with killing himself.
Also to be gleaned is Ashby’s Midas touch with actors, earning the distinction of being only one of four directors to have helmed pictures in which his stars won at least one of the four major Oscar acting categories (Melvin Douglas for “Being There”; Jane Fonda and Jon Voight for “Coming Home”; and Lee Grant for “Shampoo”). He also introduced the steady cam in “Bound for Glory” and made Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) a household name by prominently featuring the Brit’s glorious tunes in “Harold and Maude.” Those same songs pop up here regularly, too, as does Yusuf, offering a charming anecdote about working with Quincy’s Ruth Gordon on her memorable playing and singing of his “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.”
I discount Scott’s film only slightly for bordering on hagiography. But then, if it wasn’t slanted, it’s doubtful she would have gained access to the estate’s treasure trove of clips, documents (read by Ben Foster) and recordings featuring Ashby’s musings. They are the personal touch that makes “Hal” so engrossing, painting a portrait of a man — and an artist — who gave us movies that captured the heart and soul of America like no other.
A documentary by Amy Scott featuring Hal Ashby, Alexander Payne, Judd Apatow, Norman Jewison, Cat Stevens and David O. Russell.