ICYMI: Oscar Edition - Hal (2018)
Last June when my wife suggested we see a documentary about filmmaker Hal Ashby I was curious but not excited. I knew the name and remember him making a few films like Shampoo, Being There, and the truly awful 8 Million Ways to Die. Then before the doc started, a helpful representative from Cinetopia (the annual Michigan film festival) started mentioning the truly astonishing film resume of Hal Ashby which includes: The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound For Glory, Coming Home, and Being There. Any one or two of these films would be more than enough to establish any filmmaker’s career. The fact they were directed by the same visionary is truly astonishing.
Amy Scott’s Hal is an insightful and beautifully layered documentary that paints the rich canvass that was the gone too soon life of filmmaker Hal Ashby. The film gives a surprisingly in-depth look into life of Ashby and certainly pulls no punches in giving a full picture, warts and all. Like many great artists, Ashby was gifted with producing endless artistic endeavors but had little success in his personal life which included five marriages and a daughter that he abandoned before she was before.
At the outset of the film we learn of Ashby’s lifelong friendship with equally renown filmmaker Norman Jewison. Ashby got his start as a film editor on three of Jewison’s films: The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, In The Heat of the Night, and The Thomas Crown Affair. Their friendship is highlighted in a series of typed letters written by Ashby and narrated by actor Ben Foster. The letters are an insight into Ashby’s developing genius as well as his liberal mindset that was on display in his best films.
True film lovers get a cinematic review of Ashby’s greatest hits from the ahead of its time interracial love story of The Landlord, to the infectious irreverence of Harold and Maude, to the touching camaraderie of The Last Detail, to the surprising political timeliness of Shampoo, to the gorgeous landscape of Woody Guthrie’s early life in Bound For Glory, to the touching anti-war love story of Coming Home to the sublime social satire of Being There. Hal includes testimonials from plenty of today’s filmmakers who were inspired by this era of Ashby’s work which includes Allison Anders, Judd Apatow, Lisa Cholodenko, Adam McKay, Alexander Payne, and David O. Russell
Sadly, the 80’s were not kind to Ashby as his great run of success was followed by mystifying string of mediocrity and failure. Perhaps it was bad luck, bad material or his developing bad health (he died of cancer in 1988 at the age of 59), but this disappointing end to Hal Ashby’s career may be the reason that he rarely gets the recognition that he deserves. Thankfully director Amy Scott finds the perfect testament in Hal.
While I do recognize that all five Oscar nominees for this year’s Best Feature Length Documentary were all worthy (I have no idea which one you’d eliminate) I do wish the Academy could have recognized Hal. Like Ashby’s best work, it’s a celebration of life, diversity and embraces anyone who sees themselves as an outsider.