Hal Ashby was a poet of prickly, anti-authority humanism, a stubborn artist working in an industry that prides cash above all else. He made some of the best films of the '70s Hollywood Renaissance, including The Last Detail, Coming Home and Being There. He got used to doing things his way. And then he collided head-on with the '80s.
Hal, Amy Scott's new documentary about Ashby's life and career, covers the whole arc, from the promise to the glory to the long fade-out. It plays Sunday afternoon at the Texas Theatre as part of the Oak Cliff Film Festival. Also on the OCFF schedule: a free outdoor screening of Being There, Saturday night at Better Block.
Ashby is a perfect match for OCFF, an artistically inclined event that enjoys going against the grain. He was self-righteous and protective of his work, traits that made it even harder for him when studios took his films from his control and cut them to fit commercial parameters. That last part really hurt: Ashby began his career as a film editor, winning an Oscar for his work on Norman Jewison's 1967 film In the Heat of the Night. It was salt in the wound every time the suits took the scissors from his hands.
Given his propensity to clash with executives, shoot exorbitant amounts of footage and smoke enough pot to make Cheech & Chong blush, Ashby's run of films from 1970 to 1979 is remarkable: The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There. Given the consistent quality of those films, Ashby's falloff in the '80s is also remarkable. Anyone watch Second-Hand Hearts, Lookin' to Get Out, The Slugger's Wife or 8 Million Ways to Die lately?
As Hal deftly demonstrates, Ashby was the ultimate casualty of a drastic switch in industry culture. '70s Hollywood happened largely because creative people were calling the shots. By the '80s Hollywood was under the sway of conglomerates that didn't care much for artistic vision, except when it prevented a movie from coming in on time and on budget. The bottom-line approach was anathema to Ashby, and his films of this period show his lack of enthusiasm. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1988, but his heart had long before been broken.
Scott rounds up a murderers' row of heavy comedy hitters, including Alexander Payne, David O. Russell and Judd Apatow, to sing Ashby's praises and lament his demise. She also includes many of Ashby's collaborators, including Jane Fonda, Jeff and Beau Bridges, Roseanna Arquette and Louis Gossett Jr., to discuss Ashby's big-hearted and free-flowing approach to filmmaking. The most authoritative voice belongs to Jewison, who gave Ashby his start and eventually nudged him toward directing. "I just wish his life had a better third act, a better last reel," says Jewison, still with us at 91.
It was Jewison who told Ashby early on to fight for every inch of creative freedom and to remember that executives aren't your friends. Ashby took the advice to heart. It guided him through his creative peak. And it haunted him as he fell.
The Oak Cliff Film Festival runs June 14-17 at venues throughout Oak Cliff. Hal shows 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Texas Theatre, 231 W. Jefferson Blvd. Being There shows 8:45 p.m. at Better Block, 700 West Davis St. For more information visit oakclifffilmfestival.com.