Appreciating ’70s film maverick Hal Ashby
A new doc on the underappreciated auteur is as good an excuse as any to look back on a unique cinematic voice. By Tim Lowery
Hal, Amy Scott’s documentary that’s currently making the rounds in the States, revolves around one question: Why don’t more people know about filmmaker Hal Ashby? It’s a tough one to answer. Ashby had arguably the greatest run in arguably the greatest decade of cinema, with seven stellar features starting in 1970 with the gentrification dramedy The Landlord and ending in 1979 with the political satire Being There. He worked with the big stars of the time, like Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, in career-defining work. His films won the big awards. (Coming Home earned Jane Fonda and Jon Voight best actor and best actress Oscars.) He had a big influence. (Look at Wes Anderson’s music sequencing or the authentic dude-talk in Richard Linklater’s films.) As my old coworker David Fear nicely put it in Rolling Stone, “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.”
I have to admit, too, that even as someone who considers Ashby one of my favorite filmmakers (The Last Detail might just be my favorite movie), there’s a ton I didn't know about him. Before Hal, I have never seen or read a proper interview with the man (only interviews about him with other filmmakers), and the only real portrait I came across was in Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which painted him as a pot-addled, off-the-grid hippie holed up for months at a time to working. Hal helps fill in some of those gaps (about his upbringing, his relationships with women and his creative struggles in a changing industry in the ’80s), and the documentary shows him as a daring, uncompromising New Hollywood darling. As Fear also put it in his Rolling Stone review (again, excellently): “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.”
Below are two scenes that show Ashby’s knack of tackling capital-B big issues (authoritarianism, sexual politics, the counterculture being co-opted by the establishment) all while capturing wonderful, truly funny performances. Enjoy.
Harold and Maude(1971)