Hal Ashby ended up becoming a man out of time after the New Hollywood era came to a close at the start of the money driven 80s, unable to work with the same freedom that enabled him to create a stream of classics. Films such as The Last Detail, Harold and Maude, Shampoo and Being There were made with a spirit we have become accustomed to in today’s independent scene. And yet, as much as he inspired a generation of filmmakers to create these character-centric dramas, Ashby sadly missed out on its explosion when he died from pancreatic cancer in 1988.
While the Spielbergs, Scorseses, Coppolas and Lucas’ went on to be acknowledged by today's mainstream, Ashby's work has remained largely unrecognised by the wider public. It is mostly film fans who delve into the string of 70s classics he produced, some of which received Oscar nominations and wins, while collaborating with the finest acting talent of the time, including performers like Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine, Peter Sellers, Bruce Dern, Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda and Julie Christie.
Amy Scott’s documentary, Hal, offers a long overdue tribute to the director and highlights not only the quality of his work, but just how far ahead of the cinematic curve many of his themes were. He dealt with race in films like The Landlord and The Last Detail, the former marking his debut in 1970 by examining class, white guilt and gentrification shortly after the race riots in Ashbury Park, New York.
Vietnam dominated the politically charged Coming Home which saw Fonda and Voight pick up Oscars for their lead roles. Over four decades later Peter Sellers' last ever performance in Being There still strikes an unnerving chord about celebrity and the gullibility of the public. Harold and Maude displayed his dark humour and its odd romance remains dearly loved by cineastes the world over today. Ashby brought an outsider's perspective to Hollywood, centring his films around characters who tended to exist on the fringes of society.
Working chronologically through his career we are told about his early life as an editor and how he slowly graduated into the director’s chair. That included winning an Oscar for his editing work on In the Heat of the Night, a year on from his nomination for The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming, before acting as editor on The Thomas Crown Affair.
All of these films were directed Hal’s long time friend Norman Jewison, who fondly recalls many of the fierce fights Ashby had with studio execs to retain control of his work. A voice actor reads out some of the angry memos and letters he would fire off in frustration as many of his films went way over budget and deadline.
During her research Scott rightly guessed that directors such as Alexander Payne, David O. Russell and Judd Apatow took inspiration from Ashby’s work and they all wax lyrical about the effect he has had on their filmmaking. Respected screenplay writer Robert Towne also appears and recalls the battles he and Ashby had over the various scripts they worked on together.
Editor Robert C. Jones remembers threatening to call the police on the head of Columbia Pictures who was poised to send lackeys to take over The Last Detail in post production and winning. In many ways, Hal serves as an insight not only into the maverick style of Ashby but of the freedom found by many working during this period.
As is so often the case in documentaries such as this, the messier side of Ashby’s life is left on the cutting room floor. He married five times and played little part in his daughter's life, such was his obsession with cinema, yet she appears in the film and sounds remarkably forgiving, all things considered. A joint was never far from Ashby's hand although it is mentioned he graduated onto cocaine later in his career. The time spent on his four 80s films is fleeting but Scott succeeds in placing the spotlight on a succession of releases few other directors can match, all of which went on to shape the stories we hear in cinema today.