American filmmakers enjoyed unparalleled freedom in the 1970s. It is amazing that major studios would greenlight complex, challenging projects like Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, or even Apocalypse Now. This period was dubbed the era of “New Hollywood,” with the likes of Frances Ford Coppola and Robert Altman closely tied to it. Somehow Hal Ashby, whose output was prolific during this period, is rarely mentioned alongside those directors. Director Amy Scott wants to fix that with Hal, a biographical documentary that persuasively argues for his place in the canon of American cinema.
Hal Ashby was always going to be an outsider. He looked like a hippie, with his long hair and unkempt beard, and made no secret about his regular marijuana use. One of the great opportunities of his life was meeting Norman Jewison, a filmmaker best known for Jesus Christ Superstar and Moonstruck. The two men became fast friends and frequent collaborators; Ashby would edit several of Jewison’s films, winning an Oscar for his work on In the Heat of the Night. In one of many interviews, Jewison describes Ashby as “the only man I’ve ever really loved.” Indeed, many directors and actors speak about Ashby with hushed reverence. His films were unabashedly subversive and humanistic, and this was in a period when the country was in the throes of post-Watergate cynicism. Most of Hal focuses on the most successful streak of his career, starting with The Landlord and ending with Being There.
Scott’s approach to Hal is traditional and unobtrusive. She knows her subject is interesting, so she lets her interview subjects—along with footage of his films—tell the story. There are also long snippets from Ashby’s letters, with actor Ben Foster reading them like an angry, passionate artist. The cumulative effect is the realization Ashby was uncommonly sensitive and talented. In the ’70s, his instincts never failed him, even when they veered toward the transgressive: The ending to Being There, for example, contains one of the boldest final images in any film, let alone an American one. There is little attempt to rationalize his methods, and yet Scott’s approach will have the intended effect of getting viewers to revisit his films.
A crucial context to the film is Ashby’s unique worldview. Many auteurs are drawn to extraordinary people or have a negative view of human nature; Ashby, on the other hand, liked to focus on ordinary people in a society that failed them. Hal suggests the man was ahead of his time: There is a moment where he describes the luck of white male privilege. This was before the concept of “privilege” was common in intellectual circles, and yet the principle could be found in The Landlord or The Last Detail, where his frustration with race relations was the overarching principle.
There is some mention of his personal life: Hal’s father killed himself while he was young, so the suicide imagery of Harold and Maude takes on added emotional resonance. And like many other filmmakers before him, Ashby’s imperfect family life would be a revisited theme in his films (Bound for Glory was partially about Woody Guthrie’s failures as a husband and father). Jewison, along with other filmmakers like Alexander Payne and David O. Russell, do not see these personal details as the skeleton key to unlocking his work. They add some interesting context, but this is the rare “great man” documentary where the work stands on its own merit.
In documentaries like this, there’s always a risk that longtime fans won’t find anything new or interesting in how the films are discussed. Hal sidesteps that problem with a strong balance of behind-the-scenes storytelling alongside the usual analysis. There is also an intriguing development that Scott does not shy away from. After Being There, Ashby never found the same commercial or critical success again.
The film suggests that the shift away from the New Hollywood model paralyzed Ashby, since he could not replicate the same independence or control. Either way, his middling late output does not take away from his triumphs. Hal Ashby’s best films are the rare mainstream entertainment that showed what it means to be a better, more conscientious person. Such a purpose would be downright maudlin in the hands of the lesser filmmaker, and in its own bittersweet way, Hal suggests there will never be another one like him.
Hal opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.