He directed The Slugger’s Wife and the pilot for Beverly Hills Buntz, neither of which you will find in the hagiographic documentary celebrating the 1970s “New Hollywood” filmmaker. Of course, his admirers will want to focus on his masterworks, but you would think he could walk on water, just like Chauncey Gardner in his classic Being There. Yet, the lack of perspective is a major drawback throughout Amy Scott’s Hal (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Ashby won an Academy Award for editing Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (probably still the best film her ever worked on), but he wanted to direct. Thanks to the help of his friend Jewison, he got his chance on The Landlord. It was a very-1970 movie that did not make a lot of noise at the time, but Ashby followed it up with Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and Being There. It was an excellent critical run and relatively decent in terms of box office returns. Then things falter, as does Scott’s film.
Throughout Hal, she incorporates excerpts of scathing letters Ashby fired off to the studio suits he blamed for sabotaging his films and his career by extension (read by Ben Foster). It is supposed to illustrate what a pure, guileless soul he was, but they are really pretty appalling. Seriously, can you blame a studio executive for not bending over backwards for Ashby, after getting correspondence questioning his integrity, his mother’s integrity, and his dog’s integrity?
Frankly, watching Hal should make sensitive viewers suspect Ashby suffered from some form of undiagnosed mental illness. It is not cute. It is completely irresponsible behavior, bordering on mania. Just imagine being on the receiving end of this sort of invective—and then try to envision giving him final cut on a film your studio plowed considerable money into.
Yes, there are some colorful behind-the-scenes details in Hal. Fortunately, Scott includes the legal dramas surrounding 8 Million Way to Die, because it is some of the most interesting stuff in the picture. However, she ignores The Slugger’s Wife, which reportedly horrified screenwriter Neil Simon. Bafflingly, she also overlooks Ashby’s Rolling Stones concert doc, Let’s Spend the Night Together, which people generally like for what it is.
Regardless, it is painfully easy to see from Hal why Ashby ended up on the outs with Hollywood. Scott and Ashby’s admirers want to believe he was martyred for his politics, but can you name one studio film besides John Wayne’s The Green Berets that supported the Vietnam War effort or any whatsoever that opposed the Civil Rights Movement? Perhaps instead, it was the scathing letters he compulsively sent to apparently every studio executive with the power to say no. Honestly, watching this film leads to a bit of queasiness, because it lacks the self-awareness that Ashby sure seems to have had in short supply. Not recommended, Hal opens this Friday (9/7) in New York, at the IFC Center.