Movie Review: Hal (2018)
What did I know about Hal Ashby before I saw this documentary?
That he was an iconoclastic filmmaker whom actors loved working with, and who made his best movies, including “Harold and Maude,” “The Last Detail,” “Bound for Glory” and “Being There,” in the 1970s. He didn’t do much in the 1980s. He might’ve died early in that decade.
And what did I learn about Hal Ashby from this doc by first-time director Amy Scott?
Oh, right, “Shampoo” and “Coming Home.” Can’t believe I forgot those.
And, wow, I guess he did make movies in the ’80s; they were just stinkers. The way that all of his movies in the ’70s were good, all of his movies in the ’80s were not. It’s like a switch had been thrown. “Slugger’s Wife”? That was his? Never even heard of “Second-Hand Hearts” (with Robert Blake) and “Looking to Get Out” (with Jon Voight). The doc implies that “Eight Million Ways to Die” (with Jeff Bridges) was ruined because the studio took it away from him and edited it poorly, but who knows? He’d already directed three stinkers in a row by then. The highest IMDb rating among his ’80s work is “Eight Million,” which garners a 5.7. That’s the highest. His lowest of the ’70s is “Shampoo,” a 6.3—and that underrates it considerably. It’s much better than that.
What was true for Ashby was also true for the movies themselves. The great directors’ decade of the 1970s was over; the era of the blockbuster had begun. But did any great director fall so precipitously?
On the road to find out
Ashby was born and raised in Utah, wasn’t a Mormon, and his father left the family when he was about 6. He worked his way up in Hollywood—although they don’t tell us when he arrived. Like even a decade. I hate that. Give me some chronology, people. Norman Jewison talks up running into him in an editing room where he was helping edit William Wyler’s movies and grabbing him for himself—but not when this was. 1964? 1957?
Ashby wound up editing some of Jewison’s best: “The Cincinnati Kid,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Then Ashby began to direct his own. He and Jewison remained tight all of their lives.
(Among respected directors, Jewison is the real oddity, isn’t he? He flourished in the late ’60s, stumbled in the director's decade of the ’70s (“Rollerball,” “F.I.S.T.”) when everyone else was prospering artistically, and righted himself in the ’80s (“A Soldier’s Story,” “Moonstruck”) when everyone else was stumbling artistically. That arc seems worthy of a doc of its own.)
“Hal” barely touches on the work Ashby did with Wyler. According to IMDb, helped edit “Big Country,” “Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” What was that like? Watching the studio system disintegrate? And it doesn’t mention this fact at all: In the midst of that A-level Hollywood work, Ashby was also assistant editor for “Captain Sindbad, a cheapie German film from 1963 that my brother and I saw, dubbed, at the Boulevard Theater in re-release some Saturday matinee in the early 1970s. I mostly remember it because Sindbad (the extra “d” was to avoid copyright infringement) stabs the villain in the chest but the blade comes out clean. The villain has no heart! It’s locked at the top of a tower. Sindbad’s goal thus becomes getting to that tower and throwing the beating heart over the parapet. Which he does.
So how did Ashby wind up working on that? Nothing. Crickets.
Miles from nowhere
What else did I learn? He had a lot of girlfriends/wives and he smoked a lot of dope. The great Cat Stevens’ songs in “Harold and Maude” were demos, but Ashby liked them well enough, or was behind deadline enough, that he stuck them in—much to Stevens’ initial chagrin. He’s cool with it now.
Ashby also set to be the original director for “Tootsie” but had to step out because his post-production work on “Lookin’ to Get Out” wasn’t fulfilled. Too bad. His ’80s oeuvre would’ve looked a little better with that on it. If it came out similarly.
That’s about all I learned.
“Hal” is well-named: It's pleasing; I’d recommend it for film fans. It's about Hal, your pal. I wanted more on Ashby.