Hal

I’m a boxing fan, and I’ve always said the best decade for heavyweights was the ‘70s with Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Jerry Quarry, Earnie Shavers, George Foreman, Larry Holmes,  Jimmy Young, and San Diegan Ken Norton (who broke Ali’s jaw right here at the Sports Arena).

As a movie fan, I feel the ‘70s was the best decade in movie history. The heavyweight directors

were Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, and Steven Spielberg. The second tier would include George Roy Hill, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Norman Jewison, and Milos Forman.

I consider Ingmar Bergman and Billy Wilder the Floyd Patterson’s of the group — they did some work in the ‘70s but their best stuff was from previous decades.

Hal Ashby goes on the first list, yet surprisingly, he’s not a household name unless you’re a movie buff. He only won one Oscar (for editing In the Heat of the Night), but directed three movies that are on my all-time list: Coming Home, The Last Detail, and Being There. I was never the biggest fan of Harold & Maude (although I’ve had two girlfriends that both named this as their all-time favorite film); it did have its moments.

It’s great that writer/director Amy Scott showed Judd Apatow praising Harold & Maude and Being There (his all-time favorite comedy). My wife said, “It’s weird that that’s his favorite movie when his films are nothing like that.”

The Artist Formerly Known as Cat Stevens, who did the terrific soundtrack for Harold & Maude, has a few interesting things to say. Now, I saw one critic that was complaining that Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty weren’t featured in this (aside from a clip of Beatty at the funeral service). You could also argue that it would’ve been nice to hear from Goldie Hawn and Bruce Dern, but I find it hard to complain when we get Jeff and Beau Bridges, Jon Voight, Lou Gossett, and directors Norman Jewison, David O. Russell, Adam McKay, Alexander Payne (who started to make a Hal Ashby type of run with movies like Sideways, Election, About Schmidt, The Descendants), and Lisa Cholodenko (who directed my favorite movie of 2010, The Kids Are All Right).

The letters written to Norman Jewison were narrated nicely by Ben Foster, and they give us a bit of insight into how Ashby was slowly delving into a bizarre paranoia.  

When you see clips of Ashby winning his Oscar, and he’s clean cut in his tuxedo, and giving a speech about love…it’s strange to later see him transformed into a long-haired, bearded hippie who would smoke pot all night while editing films. It reminded me a lot of George Carlin and how he started as a comedian and what style of comedy/comedian he transformed into in the ‘70s.

There certainly seemed to be some parallels to the characters Ashby was interested in making movies about and his own life. They were confused, honest people that were always stifled by the higher ups.

The complaints I have with this is that they don’t delve enough into his personal life (he had five wives, and we only hear from one). He had a daughter that he abandoned, and she has a few interesting things to say.

It’s great that, with all the well-deserved hero worship we get, we also see the rage and angry side of this filmmaker. That means we get some interesting stories of Ashby dealing with the studio heads.

It’s interesting that, when people always ask me why studios keep giving us remakes and reboots, the simple answer is that they make money. In the ‘70s, these talented filmmakers were able to give us interesting stories different than anything we had seen on screen before. That’s not because the guys in suits read the scripts and liked them. Hell, they often missed the point of the films. But they brought butts into the seats. Once Ashby had a few flops, the studios stopped letting him make movies the way he wanted. Sometimes that even meant them showing up and confiscating his movies so they could edit them the way they wanted. And while the film buffs always like to gripe about these things, I think about the fact that Ashby was supposed to direct Tootsie. Director Sydney Pollock made it perhaps, the best comedy of all time. I feel Ashby, at that stage of his career, would’ve been a disaster with that material.

It’s so fascinating to watch and listen to how some of your favorite movies were made. They talk about how Jon Voight was put on his stomach in a hospital, merely listening to disabled veterans talk and play pool. Another director would’ve wanted their star to have dialogue there, yet it’s so much powerful seeing Voight’s eyes look around, and occasionally put his head down in sadness. Oh, and the studios originally thought Voight wasn’t good looking enough to be the lead in the film, and Ashby had to fight to get him in the picture (which won him the Oscar).

When there’s talk about how great it was using the Rolling Stones song Out of Time to start the movie Coming Home, while Bruce Dern is running on a military base…I immediately thought how amazing it was to also bookend the film (side note: the song Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel was also used in the movie)…to end the movie with Dern running again, naked on the beach into the ocean, while Tim Buckley sings a mournful dirge. I was 11-years-old watching that on HBO, and just burst into tears. That scene, edited with Voight talking to a group of high school kids about the war (a scene in which Ashby told Voight to improvise)…pure brilliance. People ask my why or how I got into film criticism, well…I didn’t have the talent to edit and make movies like Ashby and those 70s directors, so watching them and reviewing them was the next best thing.

His movie Bound for Glory was the first film to use a steadicam shot. His first flick as director, The Landlord dealt with racial issues in an interesting way. Shampoo showed off Warren Beatty’s hair and womanizing in a fun way. Ashby did seven amazing films in a nine year period in the ‘70s. It’s a shame that he basically started to lose his mind, and became a paranoid nutjob. That led to a handful of flops in the early 80s, followed by some tragedy.

This is a documentary any film lover should see. And for people that always complain critics don’t like anything, this sheds some light as to why that often seems to be the case. It’s because we remember a time in the ‘70s where you could have a variety of different movies, and they were all great. It might be some Spielberg blockbuster, or it might be an indie character study. Gene Hackman might be a police detective with some cool car chases (The French Connection) or he might play a private investigator in a low key movie (The Conversation) that’s just as intriguing. Now you get Transformers 3 and a reboot of Halloween.

This documentary is probably going to be lost in the shuffle, as it’s opening the same weekend you’re getting the fourth remake of A Star is Born, and another superhero, special effects laden flick, Venom. Film lovers should seek this one out.

4 stars out of 5.