Ashby directing Bound for Glory (1976)
|Born||William Hal Ashby
September 2, 1929
Ogden, Utah, U.S.
|Died||December 27, 1988
Malibu, California, U.S.
|Occupation||Film director, editor|
Before his career as a director Ashby edited films for Norman Jewison, notably The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), which earned Ashby an Oscar nomination for Best Editing, and In the Heat of the Night (1967), which earned him his only Oscar for the same category.
Ashby received a third Oscar nomination; this time for Best Director for Coming Home (1978) but lost to Michael Cimino for The Deer Hunter. Other films directed by Ashby include The Landlord (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Being There (1979), The Slugger's Wife (1985) and 8 Million Ways to Die (1986).
Born William Hal Ashby in Ogden, Utah, he grew up in a Mormon household, the son of Eileen Ireta (Hetzler) and James Thomas Ashby, a dairy owner. His tumultuous childhood as part of a dysfunctional family included the divorce of his parents, his father's suicide, and dropping out of high school. Ashby was married and divorced by the time he was 19.
As Ashby was entering adult life, he moved from Utah to California where he soon became an assistant film editor. He edited the black comedy The Loved One which was released in 1965. After being nominated for the Academy Award for Film Editing in 1967 for The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, his big break occurred in 1968 when he won the award for In the Heat of the Night. Ashby has often stated that film editing provided him with the best film school background outside of traditional university study and he carried the techniques learned as an editor with him when he began directing.
At the urging of producer Norman Jewison, Ashby directed his first film The Landlord in 1970. While his birth date placed him squarely within the realm of the prewar generation, the filmmaker quickly embraced the hippie lifestyle, adopting vegetarianism and growing his hair long before it became de rigueur amongst the principals of the Hollywood Renaissance. In 1970 he married actress Joan Marshall. While they remained married until his death in 1988, the two had separated by the mid-seventies, with Marshall never forgiving Ashby, along with Warren Beatty and Robert Towne, for dramatizing certain unflattering elements of her life in Shampoo.
Over the next 16 years, Ashby directed several acclaimed and popular films, many were about outsiders and adventurers traversing the pathways of life. They included the off-beat romance Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), and the social satire Being There (1979) with Peter Sellers, resuscitating the star's career after many felt it had lapsed into self-parody. Ashby's greatest commercial success was the aforementioned Warren Beatty vehicle Shampoo (1975), about a sex obsessed hair dresser,  Bound for Glory (1976), a muted biography of Woody Guthrie starring David Carradine, was the first film to utilize the Steadicam.
Aside from Shampoo, where he was by all accounts a creative adjunct to Beatty and Towne, Ashby's most commercially successful film was the Vietnam War drama Coming Home (1978). Starring Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, both in Academy Award-winning performances, it was for this film that Ashby earned his only Best Director nomination from the Academy for his work. As Voight had reportedly been difficult and uncooperative during production, many feel that it was Ashby's skillful editing of a particularly melodramatic scene which earned him the nomination. Arriving in the post-Jaws and Star Wars era, from a production standpoint Coming Home was one of the last films to encapsulate the ethos of the New Hollywood era, earning nearly $15 million in returns and rentals on a $3 million budget.
Because of his critical and (relative) commercial success, shortly after the success of Coming Home, Ashby was able to form a production company, Northstar, under the auspices of Lorimar. After Being There (his last film to achieve widespread attention), Ashby became notoriously reclusive and eccentric, retreating to his spartan beachfront abode in Malibu. Later it was learned that Ashby was using drugs, and he slowly became difficult and unemployable.
The productions of Second-Hand Hearts and Lookin' to Get Out—the latter a Las Vegas caper film that reunited him with Voight and featured Voight's young daughter, Angelina Jolie—were plagued by Ashby's increasingly erratic behavior. Studio executives grew less tolerant of his increasingly perfectionist production—811,000 feet of film were used shooting Lookin' to Get Out—and editing techniques, exemplified by his laboring over a montage set to The Police's "Message in a Bottle" for nearly six months. Initially set to helm Tootsie after two years of laborious negotiations, reports of these bizarre tendencies resulted in his dismissal shortly before production commenced.
Shortly thereafter, Ashby—a longtime Rolling Stones fan—accompanied the group on their 1981 American tour, in the process filming the documentary Let's Spend the Night Together. The occupational hazards of the road were too much for Ashby, who overdosed before a show in Phoenix, Arizona. Although the film was eventually completed, it had limited theatrical release.
The Slugger's Wife, with a screenplay penned by Neil Simon, continued the losing streak. Ostensibly a commercially-minded romantic comedy, Simon was reportedly horrified when he viewed Ashby's rough cut of the first reel, sequenced as an impressionistic mood piece with the first half-hour featuring minimal dialogue. Remaining defiant in his squabbles with producers and Simon, Ashby was eventually fired in the final stages of production; the completed film was a critical and commercial failure. While 8 Million Ways to Die, written by Oliver Stone, fared similarly at the box office, by this juncture Ashby's post-production antics were considered to be such a liability that he was fired by the production company on the final day of principal photography.
Attempting to turn a corner in his declining career, Ashby stopped using drugs, trimmed his hair and beard, and began to frequent Hollywood parties wearing a navy blue blazer so as to suggest that he was once again employable. Despite these efforts, he could only find work as a television director, helming the pilots for Beverly Hills Buntz (a Dennis Franz vehicle that purloined the premise of Beverly Hills Cop and lasted for 13 episodes) and Jake's Journey, a collaboration in the Arthurian sword and sorcery vein with Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame.
Longtime friend Warren Beatty advised Ashby to seek medical care after he complained of various ailments, including undiagnosed phlebitis; he was soon diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that rapidly spread to his lungs, colon, and liver. Ashby died on December 27, 1988 at his home in Malibu, California.
Acclaim and influence
The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and Being There were all nominated for the Palme d'Or.
American songwriter and guitarist Guthrie Thomas, who coordinated the music in "Bound for Glory" and acted in the film, called Ashby "one of the finest motion picture directors of the 20th century."
For the 2012 Sight & Sound Directors Top Ten poll Niki Caro, Cyrus Frisch, and Wanuri Kahiu voted for Harold and Maude, with Frisch describing the film as "an encouragement to think beyond the obvious!"
Filmography (as director)
|Year||Film||Academy Award Wins||Academy Award Nominations|
|1971||Harold and Maude||0||0|
|1973||The Last Detail||0||3|
|1976||Bound for Glory||2||6|
|1982||Lookin' to Get Out||0||0|
|1983||Let's Spend the Night Together||0||0|
|1985||The Slugger's Wife||0||0|
|1986||8 Million Ways to Die||0||0|
|1987||Beverly Hills Buntz (TV)||0||0|
|1988||Jake's Journey (TV)||0||0|
- "Ashby, Hal". Who was who in America : with world notables, v. XI (1993–1996). New Providence, N.J.: Marquis Who's Who. 1996. p. 9. ISBN 0837902258.
- Glenn Collins (December 28, 1988). "Hal Ashby, 59, an Oscar Winner Whose Films Included 'Shampoo'". The New York Times.
- Rodger Jacobs (September 25, 2009). "Hal Ashby: Hollywood Rebel". PopMatters.
- "Hal Ashby". Filmreference.com.
- Harold and Maude: 224th in directors poll
- Cyrus Frisch votes in the directors poll
- Hal Ashby at the Internet Movie Database
- Hal Ashby at Find a Grave
- Senses of Cinema: Great Directors Critical Database
- The Director's Director – discussion by directors Ashby influenced
- Literature on Hal Ashby
- Hal Ashby in Images Film Journal – Article summarizing Ashby's career in Images Film Journal
- Hal Ashby papers, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences