Posted on 1.22.18: Earlier today I saw Amy Scott‘s Hal, a smart, comprehensive doc that sent some mixed signals. By which I mean it could or should have been a little tougher than it is. I’m not saying that a director pulling his or her punches is a great crime, but viewers can always sense when they’ve done this.
The story of Hal Ashby‘s Hollywood career — assistant editor in the ’50s, Norman Jewison’s editor in the ’60s, influential director of seven great films in the ’70s, an angry and declining director of mediocre films in the ’80s — is exhilarating, colorful and not, if you’re going to be honest (as Nick Dawson‘s “Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel” was and is), altogether tidy or pretty.
My sense of Hal, as much as I enjoyed it, is that every so often it’s a little too gentle.
Scott has covered the chapters in dutiful form, and spoken to a few people who really loved and admired Hal, or at least worship his legacy. Her film moves right along, pushes more than a few emotional buttons, and makes you feel as if you’ve come to know the guy pretty well. I liked it just fine, but a little voice kept whispering that Scott has softballed the extent of Ashby’s cocaine and booze problems during his career-decline period.
Yes, he rarely slept and probably worked harder than anyone, and he had an awful time with the corporate-minded studio heads in the ’80s (particularly with Lorimar). A lot of stress and struggle. I’m not saying Ashby was a total druggie, but no one dies at age 59 unless they’ve been doing something to hasten their decline.
With any kind of half-fair perspective, Ashby’s decade of ’70s glory definitely out-classes and outweighs the tragedy of the ’80s and how the derangement of nose candy enveloped and swallowed the poor guy. But you have to get into that downswirl stuff a little bit.
Scott’s film isn’t hagiography, but my sense is that roughly 90% is a touching, fascinating, no-holds-barred, this-is-who-he-really-was portrait and the other 10% is a little blowjobby here and there.
Judd Apatow and Rosanna Arquette deliver the best talking head quotes.
Apatow: “I think the nightmare for people like Hal Ashby probably was that when you start a project, people say, ‘I totally believe in what you want to do, and I’m going to support you…go for it.’ And then they fuck with you until you lose your mind.” Arquette: “They didn’t respect him, and it killed him.”
I’ve long had to balance my worship of Ashby’s legendary ’70s films (seven classics in nine years) with the awkward, less than fulfilled, in some cases cocaine-flaked failures of his ’80s features.
All hail Harold and Maude, The Last Detail — generally regarded as Ashby’s masterpiece — Shampoo (which Ashby didn’t really direct as much as submit and relinguish to the will of Warren Beatty), Bound for Glory, Coming Home (Ashby’s second-best film) and Being There (which has lost much of its potency since ’79, at least in my own head).
And offer a sad shrug to Second-Hand Hearts, Lookin’ to Get Out, Let’s Spend the Night Together (a better-than-decent Rolling Stones concert doc), The Slugger’s Wife and the half-resurgence of 8 Million Ways to Die.”