In the seven landmark movies he made during the ’70s, from his very first feature, 1970’s “The Landlord” (way ahead of the curve in its post-bleeding-heart racial awareness), up through 1979’s “Being There” (way ahead of the curve in its dryly amused satirical image politics), with the New Hollywood classics “The Last Detail” (1973) and “Shampoo” (1975) coming in between, the director Hal Ashby had an entrancingly shaggy, inquiring, no-fuss style that always revealed the most vulnerable and moonstruck qualities of the characters he showed us. By the time an Ashby movie was over, you knew every last facet and hidden beauty wart of the people on-screen. Their daydreams fused with ours.
So it would seem only fitting if “Hal,” a documentary portrait of Ashby, rustled up a certain stubborn intimacy to reveal who this intensely revered and softly mysterious filmmaker really was. Anyone drawn to the subject will probably go into “Hal” knowing certain basic things about Hal Ashby: that he broke into the business by working, for years, as a film editor; that he looked like a furtively angelic hippie biker in his long stringy hair and even longer scraggly white-blond beard; that he had substance-abuse issues; that he died, in 1988, when he was just 59; and that up until he lost his mojo, after “Being There,” he imparted a fresh glancing humanity to everything he touched.
You come out of “Hal” knowing a little more than that, but maybe not as much as you wanted to know. Ashby’s personal life is mostly left off the table, even though he was an aggressive womanizer who was married five times. He routinely went to war with studio executives and relished the battles, yet the place he occupied in the political arena of Hollywood society remains something of a blank. The director, Amy Scott, is a film editor herself, and she’s content, in just 84 minutes, to cobble together an anecdotal, behind-the-scenes film-by-film breakdown of Ashby’s career, narrated by Ashby himself, who is heard on audiotapes and in letters, mostly grousing about them — i.e, the meddling suits he considered his earthly nemesis.
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“Hal” has a once-over-lightly quality, but at times it offers a telling window into how the New Hollywood worked. We first see Ashby bounding up to the podium at the 1968 Academy Awards, looking surprisingly straight — at least, next to the image he would project only a couple of years later — in coiffed hair, a trimmed goatee, and a square-meets-groovy white turtleneck. Yet in his acceptance speech for best editing (for “In the Heat of the Night,” directed by his friend and mentor Norman Jewison), instead of the usual roster of thank yous Ashby offers a message of love — a sign that even as he approached 40, he’d been baptized in the new youth culture. As an editor, cutting a movie was often literally all he did, closeting himself in the editing room for months at a time, sleeping there, obsessing over the pieces of film he had hanging everywhere. But he always wanted to direct, and when he got the chance it meant letting the sunshine in.
“The Landlord,” as tough and soulful as it was, came and went, but Ashby gave his career a jump-start by making one of his most beloved films, and also his most uncharacteristic: the ghoulishly prankish sentimental black comedy “Harold and Maude” (1971). I always had mixed feelings about its slightly smug romantic absurdism, but there’s no denying that Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon (and Cat Stevens) were a match made in cult-movie heaven. We see footage of Cort at Ashby’s memorial, evoking how special Ashby made him feel on the set. He was the anti-Kubrick, treating each actor as the center of the universe.
If “Harold and Maude” was a burlesque ’70s artifact, it was “The Last Detail” that established Ashby as a major voice. If you watch it now, it’s almost shocking how naturalistically it rolls by. We hear testimony from Robert Towne, the fabled screenwriter who was really a nobody, doing uncredited rewrites, up until he wrote “The Last Detail,” talking about how he and Ashby fought to keep in all the profanity that poured out of Jack Nicholson’s “Badass” Buddusky. In so many ways, that’s how the films of the ’70s came into being — one dogged pushback and maverick whim at a time.
Yet Ashby was modest, the kind of invisible great filmmaker who served the material. That was certainly the case with “Shampoo,” since it was Warren Beatty’s vision to make a confessional comedy about the life of a SoCal Don Juan. It was Ashby, working with Towne again, who deepened a soap-opera caper by coaxing out the Watergate subtext, posing the libidinous wanderings of Beatty’s hairdresser against a spangly backdrop of American hypocrisy.
“Hal” sketches in the creative mechanism behind other triumphs, from the majestic dustbowl image poetry of “Bound for Glory” to the way that Ashby used improvisation to bring out Jon Voight’s most emotionally naked performance in “Coming Home” (the actor’s one last tinge of greatness after “Midnight Cowboy”). The glory of “Being There,” which Judd Apatow hails as his idea of a perfect film, is that Ashby staged a comedy as if it were the stateliest of dramas: You laugh at Peter Sellers’ Zen idiot Chauncey Gardner, but mostly you stare at him with a kind of smiling wonder. That, however, was the last time that Ashby connected with an audience.
There was a reason for that. In the ’80s, Ashby made trivial bad movies — “Second Hand Hearts,” “Lookin’ to Get Out,” “The Slugger’s Wife” — because he was still fighting the studios. He didn’t understand that the battle was over; the suits had won. There was little place left for Ashby’s humanism-on-the-fly, though Jeff Bridges’ portrait of a detective who suffers alcoholic blackouts, in “8 Million Ways to Die” (1986), remains the last thing on film that had an Ashby-esque essence. Ashby died, of pancreatic cancer, in 1988, and here’s a hindsight prediction: Had he lived longer and seen the rise of the American independent film revolution, he would have become part of it. As much as any director who ever lived, he was its stirringly empathetic and plainspoken godfather.