Review: Tracing the Rise and Fall of Director Hal Ashby

Posted September 6, 2018 8:37 p.m. EDT

When director Hal Ashby is mentioned now, he’s often squeezed into a cohort called New Hollywood, or as I think of it AltmanBogdanovichCoppolaFriedkinScorsese. This lineup changes depending on who’s telling the story and to what revisionist or orthodox end. Members, almost always men, are added, deleted or downgraded in the footnotes. Warren Beatty plays a role, as does the upstart Steven Spielberg. Ashby — who died at 59 in 1988 and whose films include “Being There” — remains another constant, a mainstay in a group that stormed the old studios in the late 1960s, changing Hollywood forever. (That’s one take, anyway.)

The documentary “Hal” fleshes out Ashby’s story, which presumably is not well known to those who believe movie history begins with those 1970s hits “Jaws” and “Star Wars” (or later), or perhaps haven’t dog-eared (and watched) many of the histories on New Hollywood. Yet even if you haven’t read Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” (juicily subtitled “How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood”), the subject may sound familiar. Whatever the book’s merits, its title serves as handy shorthand for an often-mythologized period, one that has become movieland’s own paradise lost.

The director Amy Scott resurrects this Eden in “Hal,” filling it with new (now seasoned) wonders, holy innocents and an abundance of snakes. Using both archival and original material, she fills in Ashby’s past — born in Utah, he was a divorced father by 18 — explores his greatest hits, underscores his singularity and rather too quickly glides over his later-life disappointments. She begins at the inescapable end, revving up with a visibly moved Beatty emotionally eulogizing Ashby. From there, Scott jumps deeper into Ashby’s past, checks in with friends and lovers, and then marches forward in time toward his rise and fall.

It’s a consistently engaging trip. Scott has assembled a nice, fairly well-rounded group to testify on her subject’s behalf, including people who were part of Ashby’s foundational years in Hollywood — most important, director Norman Jewison. (The present-day Beatty is among the regrettably missing.) An engaging, at times emotionally raw presence, Jewison helps Scott sketch in Ashby’s early tenure as a studio editor, work that became his entry into directing. The two men met when Jewison stopped by an editing room in which Ashby was cutting a film. (They bonded, in part, over their love of William Wyler.)

The men became good friends, and Jewison evolved into a mentor figure. They worked together on films that Jewison directed, including “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), for which Ashby won an Oscar for best editing. They also wrote each other a lot of letters, some very funny. In voice-over, actor Ben Foster reads Ashby’s, which were often effusively signed with appeals to peace and love. These friends’ obvious affection (“Dearest dearheart Norman,” Ashby began one letter) greatly warms the documentary, along with Jewison’s sensitive remembrances, helping turn an already attractive portrait into a vividly alive one.

It was Jewison who encouraged Ashby to direct “The Landlord” (1970), his debut. As Scott does for much of “Hal,” she lingers on specific films, using clips from them and colleague interviews to fill in Ashby’s increasingly indistinguishable personal and professional lives: Beau Bridges and Louis Gossett Jr. for “The Landlord” and so on. Robert Towne, who wrote (or co-wrote) Ashby’s greatest films — “The Last Detail” and “Shampoo” — drops in, as do Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, who starred in Ashby’s “Coming Home.” Each new film brings new friends, allies and memories, some increasingly sad as Ashby’s drug use escalates.

It is very pleasant to gather at the knee of legends like Towne, listening to once-upon-a-studio-time stories. Even some of Scott’s more seemingly unlikely interview subjects — Judd Apatow, Lisa Cholodenko, Adam McKay — have something to say. Taken together, they may not always make the strongest case for Ashby’s cinematic genius (the films themselves are greater proof), and there’s also a bit too much vague talk about humanism and individuality. But with Scott, they remind you that some of his films remain among the finest American works of his era, even if I’m not convinced that I need to see “Harold and Maude” again.

“Hal” is not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.