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From capturing the zeitgeist to dabbling in drugs, what we learned from the new documentary on Hal Ashby

From capturing the zeitgeist to dabbling in drugs, what we learned from the new documentary on Hal Ashby
Entertainment
Given that Hal Ashby died (too young) 30 years ago, and that his best work was 10 years before that, it’s not surprising that his legacy has gotten a little, shall we say, dusty. But editor and first-time director Amy Scott aims to rectify that with the new documentary Hal, which looks back at the career of a Hollywood icon and iconoclast.

Here are five things we learned from Hal:

Ashby was working as a film editor on the MGM releases The Loved One and The Cincinnati Kid (both 1965) when he met director Norman Jewison, who hired him to work on his films The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966) and In the Heat of the Night (1967). But he really wanted to direct, and got his chance in 1970 with his first feature, The Landlord, which resulted in an Oscar nomination for supporting actress Lee Grant. Over the next decade, seven features would gather 24 Academy Award nominations and seven wins.

Jewison speaks fondly of Ashby, and the prolific letter writer would sometimes address his correspondence to “Dearest Dearheart Norman.” Though only three years older than his pal, Jewison was also something of a mentor. “I told him from the very beginning, the studio is not your friend,” he recalls. “The studio is the enemy of the artist.” And Ashby reciprocated: “It was Hal who introduced me to pot!”

Jewison remembers that Ashby would work through the night, editing and smoking weed. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler remembers telling him to lay off the cocaine. But Jeff Bridges, who starred in Ashby’s last feature, 1986’s 8 Million Ways to Die, remarks that the results of his work were legendary: “You’ve got to look at the pudding that’s coming out of this man’s oven!”

In the ’70s, an era of great independent American cinema, Ashby managed to keep creative control on unusual projects like Harold and Maude, about a suicidal young man who falls for a much older woman. “Who wants to aim a film down the middle?” he says in an interview from the time. “Is that when they make a film for? For the middle of the road?” But by the 1980s, he was seen as difficult to work with, and was forced off Tootsie; Sydney Pollack took over.

1970’s The Landlord was filmed in a New York ghetto when most filmmakers wouldn’t have dreamed of shooting on location; Beau Bridges remembers being chased by Louis Gossett, Jr. in one scene, and having onlookers, unaware it was a movie, cheering for Gossett to catch him. Shampoo (1975) was set during the 1968 presidential election, and opened just days before Richard Nixon resigned. Bound for Glory (1976) was among the first films to dramatize the Vietnam War. And Being There (1979) remains a chilling look at how a simpleton can rise to great power in Washington.

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