In the 1970s, there was a director who made an extraordinary series of socially conscious and brilliantly entertaining films. His name was Hal Ashby. From Harold and Maude to Being There, his films have endured, yet when people speak of filmmakers from that era, Scorsese and Coppola are most often the names that come up. Most likely that is because they continued to make great films while Ashby’s glory days lasted only a decade. Nevertheless, Hal is a great reminder of his creative genius and the still contentious relationship between art and commerce.
Ashby’s big break into the cinematic world was as an editor on Norman Jewison’s The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! which earned him an Oscar nomination. His next film, In the Heat of the Night earned him the statue. He remained lifelong besties with Jewison who shares their prolific correspondence throughout the film. And it was with his urging that Ashby graduated to directing in 1970, beginning with The Landlord, a film about race in America. His second was Harold and Maude, which has gone on to become a cult classic. What all his films of the period have in common is that the studios did not know how to market them and constantly pushed back, trying to make them more palatable. Fortunately Ashby was able to hold onto control, that is until the 80s. He continued making films, but never made another that stands up against those of the 70s. He died in 1988.
Notable directors, actors, and friends all weigh in on the man and his life, and the portrait that emerges is of an uber-creative humanist whose problems with authority derailed a brilliant career. It’s a very well told documentary that persuasively argues for Ashby’s place on the dais with the greats of the period. I’ve seen most of his 70s films, and I’m going to go back to re-watch several of them now. I’d recommend Hal to film history lovers as well as wider audiences who long for the days when character driven movies for adults were not anathema to the studio heads.
[For Mainstream Chick’s take on Hal, check out this Cinema Clash podcast!]