'Hal': Film Review | Sundance 2018

A most welcome reassessment of one of the most important figures in 1970s Hollywood.

Amy Scott takes a closer look at 'Harold and Maude' director Hal Ashby.

One of the comparatively unsung luminaries of 1970s American cinema receives a very fine tribute in Hal, an in-depth look at director Hal Ashby. Never a household name like Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola or Lucas and without a genuine blockbuster to his credit, the former film editor nonetheless directed seven of the finest and most emblematic films of the New Hollywood Cinema era: The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There. Then it was all over. Digging deep into the archives for rare and revealing material to accompany interviews with many of his collaborators and intimates, filmmaker Amy Scott packs a lot into 90 minutes with this insightful and warm look at an artist whose best work always revealed a heightened social conscience.

Unlike the film school hotshots who emerged from and put their mark on that era, Ashby had already forged a successful career by the time Hollywood swept out the old and brought in the new in the late '60s and early '70s.  A Utah native and a Mormon, he had a rough childhood, dropped out of high school and became a pot-smoking bohemian in the late 1940s, around the time most of his eventual New Hollywood cohorts were being born.

What saved him was moving to Hollywood and getting into film editing, where he excelled upon teaming up with director Norman Jewison, for whose In the Heat of the Night editor Ashby won an Oscar. Jewison then supported his acolyte’s move into directing with The Landlord in 1970, which centered on a very white-bread character who becomes an inner-city property owner.

The blackly humorous Harold and Maude became a cult favorite if there ever was one, whereupon it was off to the races in rewarding collaborations with Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine and the equally radical cinematographer Haskell Wexler, among many others.

Director Scott gets highly detailed appreciations of Ashby’s talent from Jewison, Beau Bridges and longtime producing associate Charles Mulvehill, who recalls how, “I’d walk into the [editing] room and get a contact high.” At the same time, however, Ashby was a notorious workaholic famous for all-nighters at the Movieola and for knowing “where every frame was. He had an incredible memory.”

In addition to the excellent new interviews, Scott has found wonderful archive commentary about Ashby from the likes of Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort on Harold and Maude, a phone chat with Nicholson in 1972 and a TV interview with Sellers concerning Being There, a fable about an out-of-the-blue American president that is currently being rediscovered in the Trump era.

The section on the anti-Vietnam War drama Coming Home is outstanding, especially in Voight’s recollections about working with combat vets and being confined to a wheelchair, as is the segment devoted to the difficult production of Bound for Glory. Rather less well-etched is the assessment of Shampoo, that superb comedy of Hollywood manners that involved a complex collaboration among Ashby, screenwriter Robert Towne and, above all, producer/co-writer and star Beatty.

Comments about Ashby’s drug use and complicated romantic life pop up here and there through the first hour but become more explicit when it comes to addressing the director’s decline. The documentary puts much of the blame on the arrival of “the suits” in the Hollywood executive suites, people who were not interested in dealing with Ashby’s excesses or his counter-culture attitudes. Abruptly, the projects began to look like packages, the vital artistic collaborations dried up, his early involvement with the eventual smash Tootsie was terminated and a big newspaper article titled “Whatever Happened to Hal Ashby?” appeared.

The documentary touches upon his worsening drug habits and his personal failings when it came to family and relationships; children who have heretofore gone unmentioned suddenly pop out of the woodwork of the doc to say they barely knew their father, and countless affairs are mentioned along with five failed marriages. There is obviously much more to the complicated and neglectful side of the filmmaker than is included here, and the sentimental wrap-up marking Ashby’s death at only 59 (he looked much older) from pancreatic cancer feels a bit pat and unnuanced.

Still, filmmaker Scott has dug very deep to unearth a great deal of valuable information in the way of diverse commentary and visual documentation, the end result being a very keen appreciation of a key figure from one of Hollywood’s most fascinating and rewarding eras.

Production company: Shark Pig
With: Jon Voight, Beau Bridges, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Norman Jewison, Haskell Wexler, Louis Gossett Jr., Pablo Ferro, Chuck Mulvehill, Lee Grant, Nick Dawson, Judd Apatow, Buddy Joe Hooker, Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, Robert Towne, Robert C. Jones, Diana Schroeder, Griff Griffis, Caleb Deschanel, Tony Bill, Allison Anders, Leigh Macmanus, Bruce Gilbert, Lisa Cholodenko, Jane Fonda, Ron Kovic, Jeff Wexler, Adam McKay, Rick Padilla, Al Schwartz, Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette
Director: Amy Scott
Producers: Christine Beebe, Lisa Janssen, Jonathan Lynch, Brian Morrow
Executive producers: Lenny Beckerman, Fred Beebe, Brian A. Miller
Directors of photography: Jonathon Narducci, Adam Michael Becker, Alexandre Naufel
Editors: Amy Scott, Sean Jarrett, Brian Morrow
Music: Heather McIntosh
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

90 minutes