Ashby directing Bound for Glory (1976)
William Hal Ashby|
September 2, 1929
Ogden, Utah, U.S.
December 27, 1988 (aged 59)|
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). Other films directed by Ashby include The Landlord (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976) and Being There (1979).
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; studio biographies concealed the latter fact, fallaciously asserting that Ashby graduated from Utah State University to ensure that he fit into the same social milieu as college-educated peers like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. 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 pursued a bohemian lifestyle and ultimately became an assistant film editor through a long apprenticeship. His career gained momentum when he served as the editor of The Loved One (1965), an adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel that involved such New Hollywood contemporaries as Terry Southern and Haskell Wexler. 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 often stated that the practice of editing provided him with the best filmmaking 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 mentor Norman Jewison, Ashby directed his first film, The Landlord, in 1970. While his birth date placed him within the Silent Generation, the filmmaker—who had been a habitual marijuana smoker since 1950—eagerly embraced the hippie lifestyle, adopting vegetarianism and growing his hair long before it became de rigueur. He also married actress Joan Marshall that year. 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, giving the star a well-received role after many felt he 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, 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. Arriving in the post-Jaws and Star Wars era, Coming Home was one of the last films to encapsulate the modestly-budgeted, socially realistic ethos of the New Hollywood era, earning nearly $15 million in returns and rentals on a $3 million budget.
Because of his critical success and dependable profitability, shortly after the success of Coming Home, Ashby was able to form a production company, Northstar, under the auspices of Lorimar. After Being There, Ashby became more reclusive, often retreating to his home in Malibu Colony, a gated enclave in the city. Later, it was widely rumored in a likely whisper campaign from Lorimar (whose executives clashed with the director) that Ashby had become dependent upon cocaine, a drug that he only used intermittently since the production of Bound for Glory. As a consequence of these rumors, he slowly became unemployable. Eva Gardos, an editor who worked with Ashby during the period, has claimed that his drug intake was largely confined to "lots of marijuana smoking" and occasional psilocybin use.
Following Being There, Ashby was provisionally set to reunite with Sellers and writer Terry Southern on Grossing Out, a black comedy inspired by the actor's chance meeting with an international arms dealer on a flight. Although Southern (whose literary and film careers had stalled due to a variety of personal vicissitudes throughout the 1970s) was rejuvenated by the prospect of working with the duo and proffered a script that was said to be on par with his halcyon 1960s oeuvre, the project went into development hell after Sellers' sudden death from a heart attack in July 1980.
During this period, the productions of Second-Hand Hearts and Lookin' to Get Out—the latter a Las Vegas caper that reunited him with Voight and featured Voight's young daughter, Angelina Jolie—were plagued by the increasingly strained relationship between Ashby and Lorimar. Filmed in 1979, Second-Hand Hearts only received a poorly-reviewed limited release in 1981 before being pulled from circulation for nearly thirty years. Belatedly released in October 1982, Lookin' to Get Out earned a little under $1 million in returns and rentals on an estimated $17 million budget. During this period, Lorimar executives grew less tolerant of his increasingly perfectionist production (811,000 feet of film were used shooting Lookin' to Get Out) and editing techniques; a montage in the latter film set to The Police's "Message in a Bottle" took six months to perfect but ultimately proved to be logistically unusable due to a Lorimar agreement with the American Federation of Musicians.
Initially set to helm Tootsie after two years of laborious negotiations and Ashby-directed wig and makeup tests, Lorimar executives succeeded in blocking him from working on the film because part of the preproduction period overlapped with final work on the long-gestating Lookin' to Get Out, which was eventually recut by the studio when Ashby's work proved to be unsatisfactory. (Decades later, Ashby's cut was rediscovered and released on DVD in 2009.) As Dustin Hoffman had not offered a "formal commitment" to the production at the time of Ashby's dismissal, the director forfeited his $1.5 million fee.
A longtime Rolling Stones fan, Lorimar executives improbably allowed Ashby to film the group's 1981 American tour documentary, Let's Spend the Night Together, in the immediate aftermath of the Tootsie farrago. The occupational hazards of the road may have proved to be too much for Ashby, who collapsed before the final filmed concert at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona on December 13, 1981. Although Jeff Wexler claimed that Ashby was "partying way beyond his capabilities with the Stones," Caleb Deschanel has asserted that Ashby (who directed the concert shoot on a gurney) simply had the flu. The film was well-received but gained little traction during a limited theatrical release. In September 1983, Ashby directed Solo Trans, a Neil Young concert video that was released the following year.
The Slugger's Wife, with a screenplay written by Neil Simon, continued the losing streak. Ostensibly a commercially minded romantic comedy, the film reportedly horrified Simon 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 (whose cocaine use had accelerated throughout the laborious shoot) was eventually fired in the final stages of production; the completed film was a critical and commercial failure. While the Oliver Stone-written 8 Million Ways to Die fared similarly at the box office, Ashby's post-production process was considered to be such a liability by this juncture 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 frequently attend 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 one of three pilots for Beverly Hills Buntz, an unsuccessful Hill Street Blues spinoff starring Dennis Franz. He also worked on Jake's Journey, a collaboration in the Arthurian sword and sorcery vein with Graham Chapman of Monty Python.
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.
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!"
The moving image collection of Hal Ashby is held at the Academy Film Archive. The material at the Academy Film Archive is also complemented by material in the Hal Ashby papers at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library.
|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|
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