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'Hal': A Genius Director's Fiery Rise and Fall

A new documentary celebrates '70s director Hal Ashby's heroic, tragic career 

Rating: Unrated

Run time: 90 minutes

Stars: Jon Voight, Norman Jewison, Haskell Wexler, Judd Apatow

Director: Amy Scott

You may not know director Hal Ashby’s name, but if you loved movies in the 1970s, you’ll never forget his incredible string of utterly original art-house hits: the intergenerational love story Harold and Maude, with its unforgettable Cat Stevens soundtrack; Jack Nicholson’s foulmouthed Navy drama The Last Detail; Warren Beatty’s L.A. hedonism epic Shampoo; the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory; Jon Voight and Jane Fonda’s Vietnam-vet movie Coming Home; and Peter Sellers’ final masterpiece, Being There, a very prescient satire about a clueless gardener who rises to nationwide fame. Most of these idiosyncratic, daring movies earned nominations for the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, and you should watch (or rewatch) every one of them.

This uneven but absorbing documentary presumes that you already know a bit about Ashby. A Utah Mormon who became the ultimate Hollywood workaholic hippie, the bearded and long-haired Ashby resembled an Old Testament prophet — and behaved like one, railing against the studios until they fired him from Dustin Hoffman’s female-impersonator hit Tootsie and booted him out of the A-list directors club. In moving, thoughtful interviews with Nicholson, Beatty, Voight, Fonda, Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Rosanna Arquette, Louis Gossett Jr. — and the irascible Ashby himself — the film sheds light on the director’s dazzling gift, his impossible personality and his five bad marriages (almost certainly his fault). 

Great contemporary auteurs Judd Apatow, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell and Lisa Cholodenko analyze his immense influence, but the most insightful interviewees are genius cinematographer Haskell Wexler — the only one who’s totally upfront about Ashby’s bad cocaine problem, which the studios used against him — and Ashby’s mentor, Norman Jewison, 92, who's still about the smartest man in Hollywood.

Ashby’s career really began when he earned an Oscar for editing Jewison’s 1967 race-relations classic In the Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier. Everyone grants that his rebellious ways sometimes created needless problems, which destroyed his career after his 1986 drama, Eight Million Ways to Die, fell weeks behind schedule. Jeff Bridges, the star of that ill-fated flick, says that he understands why the studio took the film away from the out-of-control director but protests, “You gotta look at the pudding that is coming out of this guy’s oven, man!”

But as the modern blockbuster era dawned, massively profitable cookie-cutter movies were more in style than subtle, sensitive, character-based dramas — and Ashby defiantly refused to adapt. As Gossett points out in the film: If you take on a Hollywood studio singlehandedly, you will lose.

Ashby made his first film at 40, became a ‘70s legend who ranks right up there with raging bulls like Martin Scorsese, lost his career at 50, and died in 1988 at 59, looking 79. “I just wish his life had a better third act, a better last reel,” Jewison says in the film. Hal helps us see how important Ashby’s first two acts were, and why he’s still worth our attention.

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