By the time Hal Ashby made it to the director’s chair in 1970 after a stint as one of the most acclaimed film editors of the 1960s, he’d grown out his hair to a shaggy fullness more in keeping with the hippie-ish message he sent over the airwaves when accepting his 1968 Oscar for editing “In the Heat of the Night”: “I hope we can use all of our talents and creativity for peace, and for love.”
Ashby would never lose his vibey guru mien thereafter, and through the Me Decade, he turned out a remarkable stretch of socially conscious, bitingly funny and character-rich pictures — including “The Last Detail,” “Shampoo” and “Being There” — that have made him a giant among cineastes who see the ’70s as Hollywood’s most satisfyingly adult and uncompromising period. But if there’s still the sense that Ashby isn’t as sanctified as American New Wave stalwarts Coppola or Scorsese — with his stories of small-bore goodness invariably less sexy than tales of gangsterdom — Amy Scott’s breezy tribute of a documentary “Hal” is out to correct that oversight.
Mentor-turned-bestie Jewison wells up when holding forth on Ashby, whose discursive, passionate letters to Jewison — blasting hypocrisy and society’s ills — the director holds in his lap on-camera. Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Lee Grant and Louis Gossett, Jr. speak to the freedom he gave them as actors. Robert Towne, Haskell Wexler and editor Robert Jones provide insight into his behind-the-camera mode. And the next-generation fan base is marked by encomiums from Alexander Payne, Alison Anders, David O. Russell, Judd Apatow and Lisa Cholodenko.
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“Hal” is the kind of career survey designed to spur rewatches and never-too-late introductions to his work. (Which will, in turn, incur much bemoaning that we live in a dark age for the availability of classic films for instant viewing.)
What comes through is a story of a stumbled-upon calling: an aimless Utah-born escapee from troubled family circumstances (and, we learn, an abandoned infant daughter), who fell into studio work in California through an unemployment agency and hit upon the magic of splicing movies into a meaningful shape. A great story comes out of Jewison’s fever to protect Ashby’s process — a sometimes 24-hours-straight obsession with organic discovery — that led the “In The Heat of the Night” director to spruce up the studio lot’s editing bungalow so that it more resembled a home in which Ashby could spend every waking hour.
With Jewison’s help, Ashby landed the job of directing “The Landlord,” a then-daring, of-the-moment story of race, class, love, and gentrification in Brooklyn. Though not a hit, it was an ideal launching pad for Ashby’s continued interest in not just hot-button issues, but also their human side. Barely-seen led to barely-seen-but-future-cult-classic with 1971’s “Harold and Maude,” whose groundbreaking mix of fable-like positivity and dark, worldly wit showed Ashby’s alchemic gifts as well as his way with actors as far-ranging in style as Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon.
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Ashby also knew what to do with big stars, though, as proven by the “The Last Detail” — which featured one of Jack Nicholson’s finest turns, and also a movie nearly robbed of its profanity by a worried studio — and “Shampoo,” Warren Beatty’s pet project about sexual mores. Scott, through some of her interviews, gently rebukes the accepted lore that “Shampoo” was more Beatty’s movie than its director’s.
Ashby’s reputation, the industry’s tolerance for difficult auteurs, and the success of “Shampoo” allowed him to push further. He used his whammy to realize an expensive, elaborate Woody Guthrie biopic (“Bound for Glory”), and on “Coming Home,” he persuaded stars Voight and Fonda to improvise, even casting real Vietnam vets to bolster the realism he sought. And it’s still something of a miracle that Ashby secured a major release for a surreal satire of mass-media personality cults (“Being There”). Prepare yourself for eerie parallels to our current bizarro leadership crisis when revisiting Peter Sellers’ turn as feeble-minded sponge Chauncey.
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It’s cosmically fitting that Ashby’s storied run of seven straight acclaimed films tracks squarely with the accepted lifespan of the New Hollywood now lionized as a golden age. But “Hal” also acknowledges that Ashby’s increased drug use and willful, suit-enraging filmmaking style had as much to do with the drop-off in quality and acceptance after “Being There” as did the studios’ realignment toward bottom lines and blockbusters. Reagan-era flops “Lookin’ to Get Out” and his last film, the seized-and-recut “8 Million Ways to Die,” reflected Ashby only in bits and pieces.
We can merely speculate as to whether Ashby might have enjoyed a creative resurgence with the rise of indies had he not succumbed to cancer in 1988. But as “Hal” entertainingly reminds us, his influence as a righteous, challenging, humanist chronicler of mortal foibles — and as a filmmaker on a quest for a greater understanding of our world — remains a force among today’s more conscientious directors.