“Being Hal Ashby” by Nick Dawson
Review by Hugh Lilly
The director Hal Ashby was somewhat of an anomaly in Hollywood: someone who could make heartfelt, carefully crafted personal films within the confines of the studio system. Although Ashby frequently ignored box-office forecasts in favour of relentlessly pursuing an artistic vision, many of his films were equally well-received by critics and cinemagoers alike, and a couple are worthy of the tag ‘cultural touchstone’.
In his exhaustively-researched book “Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel,” ex-pat Brit Nick Dawson tracks Ashby’s tumultuous life from his Mormon upbringing in Ogden, Utah through his untimely death in 1988 at the age of 56. Between those years Ashby won many awards, consumed a heck of a lot of drugs, was married not once or twice but five times, and made some of the best films of the late-’60s and ’70s. Films like Harold and Maude, Being There and Shampoo became massive successes both financially and critically.
After a rough childhood (his father died when Ashby was only 12), Ashby worked his way up from the bottom rung of the movie business. He landed a job as an editor—it would become his passion, moreso perhaps than directing—and, in 1967, won an Academy Award for Film Editing for Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night. From there it was a relatively simple hop, skip and a jump across to the director’s seat, and in 1970 The Landlord, Ashby’s directorial début, was released. Marketed poorly and at the wrong demographic, the sex comedy starring Beau Bridges and a young Lou Gossett, Jr. floundered and is more or less forgotten today.
Over the next ten years, while slipping in and out of countless relationships and various drug-induced states, Ashby made some of the best films of the decade, including the social satire Being There with Peter Sellers and the unusual and hugely influential romantic comedy Harold and Maude which made a star of Bud Cort and introduced the singer-songwriter Cat Stevens to an American audience. Coming Home, Ashby’s Vietnam war picture, commercially successful despite its political outlook, was written alongside his frequent collaborator Robert Towne, one of the best screenwriters in the business at that time.
Shampoo, a 1975 political satire set on the eve of the first election of Richard Nixon, was for the most part a vehicle for its star, Warren Beatty, but nonetheless retained the feeling of “a Hal Ashby picture,” and was the director’s most commercially successful film. In 1976 Bound For Glory, a biopic of the dustbowl folk troubadour Woody Guthrie starring David Carradine, won Oscars for Cinematography—it was the first feature film to incorporate Steadicam technology—and Music. The aforementioned Being There, starring the incomparable Peter Sellers, is in many respects Ashby’s masterwork and would be his creative zenith. From there, his career moved slowly but surely downhill.
In the ’80s he was attached to a multitude of projects but only a few saw the light of day—most languished in development hell until finally being released years or even decades after they were first sold to studios. In 1981, Ashby directed a (now long out-of-print) Rolling Stones concert film, Let’s Spend the Night Together, and in September of 1983 made a film of a show from Neil Young’s Solo Trans tour. The few films he made that decade were either handled badly by manipulative movie execs or ended up being edited or re-made against Ashby’s wishes. Sadly, in 1988 Ashby discovered he had a form of asbestos-related lung cancer, and he died a few months later.
Dawson painstakingly researched almost every facet of Ashby’s life, and brings together a considerable amount of material in an entertaining fashion. First-hand interviews with Ashby’s family and figures like Dustin Hoffman and Sean Penn are cited alongside countless articles, profiles and contemporaneous reviews. Peter Biskind’s seminal book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, an examination of the New Hollywood movement of the ’70s, is also consulted along with other similar material.
A hippy at heart and an important counterculture figure, Ashby was never one to set aside his artist’s instinct at the expense of projected profits. Although we will never know what he would have made in the intervening years since his death, his body of work remains as important and affecting as each film was upon its release, if not moreso; Ashby’s sense of emotion on screen and his technical construction are highly influential and can be felt in the work of contemporary film artists like Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers, to name but a few. Dawson’s brilliantly-written biography will long remain the definitive literary exploration of Ashby’s work.