Hal Ashby was one of the great filmmakers of his generation and yet his name isn’t routinely mentioned as one of the greats. After cutting his teeth as an editor with Norman Jewison, winning an Oscar for editing In the Heat of the Night, Ashby went on a historic run as a director in the ‘70s, crafting immortal classics such as Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, and Being There. When the ‘80s came around, Ashby’s films started to wane and the director wouldn’t live to see the conclusion of the decade, passing away at 59 due to cancer. The life and work of Hal Ashby is now the subject of a lively new documentary from director Amy Scott, simply titled Hal. The film is a fairly standard biographical documentary with archival footage and pictures accompanied by interviews with collaborators and admirers, but Scott brings the story to life with cinematic verve and willingness to delve into the character flaws of the man instead of omitting them to create a mythological figure.
Hal Ashby was raised in Ogden, Utah, and the director himself emphasizes in an old tape that he was never a Mormon. Ashby made his way west to California and began working at the studios, first for Frank Capra’s Liberty Films before taking a job at MGM. While working as an editor, Ashby struck up a partnership with Norman Jewison, and the two collaborated on four films together. Hal Ashby loved to smoke marijuana and was known for sleeping very little, working tirelessly editing into all hours of the night. After his Oscar win, Hal followed his own dreams of directing starting with 1970’s The Landlord. Jewison himself makes an appearance in an interview and describes his collaborations with Ashby as well as the circumstances that saw the director hand off The Landlord to his editor and friend to direct.
The Landlord kicked off a decade of dominance for Hal Ashby. Sure, the passionate director had his various battles with studios, but the ‘70s saw Ashby’s films rack up the Oscar nominations and wins for his collaborators. Harold and Maude still plays in repertory screenings and grows in stature more and more each year. The Last Detail is beloved by those who’ve served in the military and it inspired a semi-sequel in Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying. Shampoo was a smash hit that took home an Oscar for Lee Grant (who was also nominated for her work in The Landlord). His biopic on Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory, took home a couple of Oscars and features the first use of the Steadicam. Coming Home was another acclaimed smash that took home Oscar gold while expanding the cultural conversation about the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Then there’s Being There, one of Ashby’s finest and one of the great Peter Sellers’ final performances. Being There is also eerily prescient in portraying an illiterate obsessed with watching television who finds himself pulled into the halls of power.
Amy Scott has assembled an array of archival footage, pictures, and audio of Ashby and some of his collaborators to compliment the contemporary interviews. Hal has illuminating interviews with Norman Jewison, Judd Apatow, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Beau and Jeff Bridges, and many more. Ashby is praised for his professional demeanor and how his films affected audiences. But it’s not all just praise for the man. His problems with relationships is discussed in detail, how Ashby would find himself in love, quickly married, and then quickly divorced. He was married five times. Perhaps most damning is the portrait of Hal Ashby as a father, a workaholic that was distant from a daughter he had when he was teenager in Utah. So often documentaries of this ilk like to just glance over these personal defects and yet Scott refuses to do so, forcing us to confront these flaws as part of a whole person who is more than just what remains on the screen.
It’s in the final chapter of Hal Ashby’s life and career that it veers into tragedy. The economic shits of the ‘80s saw Ashby struggle to get his projects financed and when he did get a finished film on the screen, it paled in comparison to his heyday. Suddenly that golden touch had turned to rust. Ashby was poised to return to form by directing Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman, but the financiers wanted nothing to do with Ashby. Hal Ashby helmed a few more flops with contentious tales behind the scenes before passing away from cancer in 1988.
Working within the confines of biographical documentary format, Hal succeeds because it’s willing to do more than just construct a hagiographical portrait of a great artist and a flawed man. It’s a film that delves into the heart of why the films of Hal Ashby endure three decades after his death, and the personality that brought some of the finest films of the ‘70s to the screen. Amy Scott’s film is greatly aided by the extensive archival and research work that went into the film, complete with old memos written in a haze of pot smoke and frustration and old audio records of the man himself. Sometimes people forget that just because a person might create a work of art that is near perfection that the person themselves is always far from perfect, but Hal approaches its subject flaws and all realizing that the greatness and flaws are all part of a single package and it’s a disservice to everyone to pretend otherwise.
A fascinating documentary examining the life and work of Hal Ashby, Hal succeeds as a biographical documentary because it’s willing to look at its subject both as a great artist and flawed human.