Score: 3.5 stars *** out of 4 ****
As laid out with sprawling detail in Peter Biskind’s controversial 1998 book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" (and to a lesser extent the 2003 documentary adaptation of the same name) the landscape of American films were forever changed by the domestic "New Wave" beginning in 1967, which continued unofficially through 1981.
Bookended by the Warren Beatty movies "Bonnie & Clyde" and "Reds," this glorious period rivals any in the history of the medium. The inmates had overtaken the asylum and in the process obliterated traditional commercials expectations and the staid Hollywood establishment.
In addition to Beatty, icons such as Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Hopper, Friedkin, Altman, and Polanski are given great attention, but Hal Ashby (one of the few not identifiable by just a last name) received mere lip service.
This is unfortunate as Ashby’s output during this time — one stunning eight year stretch —defined the mindset perhaps more so than any other filmmaker of the era.
Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles in the early 1960s, the Utah native Ashby got a job as an editor and soon became the friend and protégée of director Norman Jewison. The pair collaborated on "The Cincinnati Kid" and "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming" then came "In the Heat of the Night."
The film won five Oscars including one for Ashby and three years later, Jewison turned over the director’s reins to Ashby for "The Landlord" which did just well enough to put him on his own path.
It is only fitting that "Hal" is the first feature film for Amy Scott, a former actress who has been a full time editor since 2006, something Ashby would have surely applauded. While spending more than adequate time on Ashby’s early and later years, Scott rightfully puts the bulk of her attention on Ashby’s mind-blowing streak of six straight superb films from the 1970s, all of which were all ahead of their time.
When Ashby started this creative marathon, he had by then period-fitting long grey hair and a matching beard and could have easily passed as the separated-at-birth twin of singer Leon Russell. A pothead workaholic who slept little and was married five times, Ashby rarely started a film with what most would consider a proper screenplay.
Not exactly improvisation, Ashby shared the creative process with his actors which resulted in startlingly original and organic performances and a domino-like process. Ashby was an actor’s director but also served as wrangler, instigator, cheerleader and den mother.
This didn’t work out quite as well as Ashby probably would have liked with "Harold & Maude" (1971), a story about a suicide-obsessed teen (Bud Cort) who falls in love with a woman (Ruth Gordon) old enough to be his grandmother.
The squirm factor was intense and while the film amassed a fervent cult following immediately upon its theatrical release, it wouldn’t get its just accolades for decades to come.
Next up was "The Last Detail" (1973) starring Jack Nicholson as a Naval officer transporting a prisoner (Randy Quaid) to a military trial with a Robert Towne screenplay top heavy with profanity which, even at the time seemed excessive, yet was praised for its unflinching accuracy and frankness.
Pegged by co-writer (with Towne)/co-producer/leading man Warren Beatty, Ashby took on "Shampoo" (1975) which turned out to be his biggest commercial success and proved his deftness when dealing with increasingly high studio demands and Beatty’s towering ego.
The Woody Guthrie bio-pic Bound For Glory" (1976) and the post-Vietnam "Coming Home" (1978) were perhaps Ashby’s two most personal films which were received with mixed critical reviews. "Bound For Glory" was plagued with cost overruns and creative clashes, yet "Coming Home" yielded Oscars for leads Jon Voight and Jane Fonda (who both unabashedly sing Ashby’s praises here) and positioned Ashby for industry immortality with his iconic follow-up, "Being There" (1979).
A movie about a savant (Peter Sellers) who knew life only through what he watched on TV, "Being There" (loosely based on the novel by Jerzy Kozinski) was a damning indictment on society’s impending cult of personality played out as an impossibly adroit mix of art-house and satire which would have never worked without Ashby’s sardonic eye and Seller’s (in his final role) perfectly naive, poker-faced rendering.
A man seemingly unable or ever wanting to fall in line, Ashby’s relatively few box office winners weren’t enough to allow him the freedoms he’d enjoyed up until that point and, due to too much chemical dependence, bad choices in later material and an industry pendulum which had swung back to the bottom line instead of artistic creativity, he floundered and took an unfortunate exit at the early age of 59.
Proving she’s both an Ashby fan and a focused, unbiased observer, Scott devotes the last portion of the film to Ashby’s wanting final years which are not exactly fun to watch, yet provide a fuller picture of a committed, all-consumed artist who could have probably gone on to greater things but ultimately latched on to a destructive mindset and never let go.
Scott gives us the man and the artist, warts and all and as first feature efforts go, it is thoroughly throttling.
Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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