In A Wave Of Documentaries, Here Comes The Ghost Of Hal Ashby

Hal Ashby

Here comes Amy Scott’s Hal, one of eight, count ‘em, eight feature documentaries scheduled to open in theaters on Sept. 14. This one is about the (sometimes) brilliantly off-center film director Hal Ashby, who died at the age of 59 in 1988. Already seen at Sundance, it will make its commercial debut, as documentaries sometimes do, with a star-filmmaker Q & A—the session, set for that first Friday evening at the Nuart Theater in West Los Angeles, will include both Scott and Rosanna Arquette, who had a lead role in Ashby’s last film, 8 Million Ways To Die, from 1986.

If Arquette is candid, and there’s no reason she shouldn’t be, it will be a sad, complicated conversation.

My only brushes with the Ashby legend came late—long after he had directed pictures like Being There, Coming Home, Shampoo and Harold and Maude, and well into his substance-fueled decline. I never met him. But I saw the damage he left on Ray Stark, as tough a producer as ever lived, before getting himself thrown off Stark’s baseball romance, The Slugger’s Wife, in 1985. At a depressingly low-key “VIP” screening for the film, Ray, by my recollection, showed up in a down vest and jeans. Maybe he was just in from the ranch. Or maybe he was simply too battered to pretend he was enjoying this one. Associates said the back-breaker had come when he filled the 50,000-plus Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for his director, and spent a fortune to entertain the crowd with free drinks and hijinks, only to find Ashby shooting close-ups in the dug-out.

The film flopped. Stark eventually recovered, but not until about 1989, when he was back on top with Steel Magnolias.

Not so, Ashby. By the time Arquette inherited him, the anti-authoritarian streak and habits left over from the 1960s had turned him into horse that no one could ride. One vaguely recalled a story that said that Ashby didn’t show up for a scheduled shoot. The production team supposedly found him at home in Malibu. He said it was garbage pick-up day, and he couldn’t leave until the trucks had come.

8 Million Ways To Die may be slightly better-remembered than The Slugger’s Wife. But it closed the door on Ashby’s movie career; and it opened an era in which Arquette worked regularly but slipped in and out of focus.

A couple of years ago, the producer Arthur Cohn introduced her at one of his pre-Oscar dinners with a painfully blunt toast noting that her career was not all it might have been. She paid him back by delivering a fine performance in his latest film, The Etruscan Smile. You might have seen it, but only if you were in Germany. American distributors have so far deemed its themes—love, death, family, ambition, food—and a cast that included Brian Cox, Thora Birch, Treat Williams, Tim Matheson and Peter Coyote to be a bit too limited for the domestic market.

But that curves back to Hal, and to that Sept. 14 conversation at the Nuart. Movies rarely let you touch the heartaches inside. Both Ashby and Arquette have had their share. It’s probably worth being there.

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