When was the last time you watched Being There? Sure, everyone namedropped the Peter Sellers movie, about an idiot savant who watches TV and becomes a major political player, when a certain someone got elected President. And yes, Criterion put out a lovely DVD of it last year. But when was the last time you sat down and actually watched it? How about Coming Home, the returning-veteran movie that won Jon Voight and Jane Fonda respective Oscars, and helped usher in a wave of Vietnam movies? Or Shampoo, arguably Warren Beatty’s best movie that didn’t involve him using a Tommy gun and one of the single most scathing satires of the Me Decade? We might also ask about recent viewings of the bona fide cult classic Harold and Maude or the saltiest of Jack Nicholson movies (which is saying something), The Last Detail; or inquire as to whether you’ve ever seen The Landlord, a moving story of love and gentrification in Brooklyn, or the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory.
These seven films, all released between 1970 and 1979, constitute one of the single greatest runs in American moviemaking. They were all made by the same person, a pot-smoking, rabble-rousing, hippie-ish man with a bad attitude towards authority and biblical prophet’s beard. His name was Hal Ashby, and those in the know about his legacy — i.e. usually cinegeeks and contemporary filmmakers who came from an indie background — have long used his name as a sort of secret-society password. Everyone can go on about the glory days of New Hollywood, when easy riders and raging bulls took over the system, and rattle off the major players: Scorsese and Coppola were the dark brooding geniuses, Spielberg and Lucas were the gee-whiz kids who brought on the blockbuster wave, Altman was the maverick éminence grise among the movie brats. But Ashby was the guy who, in many ways, exemplified the best of Seventies cinema — the iconoclast who made shaggy, messy, funny, funky, deeply felt works that were humanistic to their core. A lot of people may not know his name. Everyone who’s been to the movies in the past 30 years has definitely experienced the impact he’s had on the medium whether they knew it or not.
For those who already worship Ashby as the Great Unsung Hero of the Second Golden Age, Amy Scott’s documentary Hal will certainly validate your love and affection. (It’s already opened in New York and Los Angeles, and starts a wider rollout this week.) Everyone from collaborators like Jane Fonda, Norman Jewison, screenwriter Robert Towne and the late cinematographer Haskell Wexler weigh on working with him; current filmmakers like Alexander Payne, Lisa Cholodenko, David O. Russell and Adam McKay attest to following in his kaiju-sized footsteps; you get not one but two Bridges, Jeff and Beau, waxing on about his go-with-the-flow method of directing actors. There are enough behind-the-scenes stories and audio interviews of the man himself speaking fuck-you to power to make fans salivate, and even if you’re not already predisposed to love montages of movie clips, the collection of moments strung together from his work will give you that tingly, euphoric feeling.
But for those that have not previously genuflected at the altar, or who don’t know his story, or have maybe only heard his name once or twice — this movie is really for you. Hal is a docuportrait, and a smartly constructed one at that, hitting all the beats it needs to, from high points to rock bottom, rough childhood to untimely death at the age of 59. But as a primer for why he’s one of the most important figures of a deservedly lauded era, this film is damn near invaluable. You leave knowing exactly why Ashby mattered. It’s as perfect an act of attention-must-be-paid reclamation, an additional carving on moviedom’s Mt. Rushmore, as anyone could ask for.
The film whisks through the man’s early years, when Ashby talked his way into an editing room “because the best way to become a director was to become an editor.” Next to marijuana — one producer talks of entering Ashby’s sanctum sanctorum and immediately getting a contact high — the movies were the great obsession of his intro-to-the-industry years, with him sleeping in his office and conducting marathon-length cutting sessions. Bonding with director Norman Jewison over a mutual “sick sense of humor,” Ashby ended up editing his friend’s movie In the Heat of the Night; one of Hal‘s talking heads recounts being next to him as he pored over celluloid strips before realizing, oh shit, I’m supposed to be at the Oscars right now! He showed up just in time to collect the Best Editor award.
Jewison was the one who recommended Ashby to direct The Landlord, the 1970 movie that kicks off his nine-year winning streak, and the doc makes a good case for this being the ur-text: It’s got race, class, a disdain for those in power (and those who abuse it), sympathy for the underdog, good intentions, bad vibes, a love of human faces. Payne suggests that a scene in which Beau Bridges, playing a rich white kid who buys a place in pre-Brooklyn-Chic Park Slope, looks into the eyes of Diana Sands, is exemplary of much of Ashby’s work because “it’s a person saying: I see you.” That fascination with the way people connect with each other and their environment, or don’t, would be a running theme through his best work, along with a marked anti-authoritarian streak. “The studios are not your friend,” Jewison told him. “The studios are the enemies of the artist.” The animosity was mutual in his case, with letters to friends (read by Ben Foster) and colleagues recounting horror stories of fighting for final cuts, refusal to grant requests to give over footage, arguments over everything from casting decisions to marketing snafus. It’s central to Ashby’s mythology, as well as, per Hal, a contributing factor to his demise. “He never got respect,” says Rosanna Arquette, who starred in his last feature film, 8 Million Ways to Die. “And it killed him.”
Each of his major Seventies works gets the close-read treatment; if the doc rushes through the Eighties, it’s because Ashby rushed through them in a blur too, and besides, no one wants to rubberneck at a car wreck. It does show footage of the director talking Dustin Hoffman through Tootsie makeup tests — he was supposed to helm it before the studio threatened to sue if he got involved — and talks a good game re. Lookin’ to Get Out, his much-maligned and very autobiographical 1982 gambling drama, getting the reevaluation treatment. In retrospect, perhaps the type of movies Ashby excelled at making could only have been made in that brief window between the studio’s reign and the Age of the Package Deal, or if he’d been born a few decades later in time for the Sundance Revolution. But if Hal does nothing else, it makes you realize that wishful thinking is superfluous here. The man was here. He made great films. They’re here, for you to see or re-see. If you didn’t know his name before, you know it now. There’s no excuse for him not being considered one of the best to ever call “Cut.”