Being Hal Ashby

Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel

Nick Dawson
Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 440
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jcd2k
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    Being Hal Ashby
    Book Description:

    Hal Ashby (1929--1988) was always an outsider, and as a director he brought an outsider's perspective to Hollywood cinema. After moving to California from a Mormon household in Utah, he created eccentric films that reflected the uncertain social climate of the 1970s. Whether it is his enduring cult classic Harold and Maude (1971) or the iconic Being There (1979), Ashby's artistry is unmistakable. His skill for blending intense drama with off-kilter comedy attracted A-list actors and elicited powerful performances from Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail (1973), Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in Shampoo (1975), and Jon Voight and Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1979). Yet the man behind these films is still something of a mystery. In Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel, author Nick Dawson for the first time tells the story of a man whose thoughtful and challenging body of work continues to influence modern filmmakers and whose life was as dramatic and unconventional as his films. Ashby began his career as an editor, and it did not take long for his talents to be recognized. He won an Academy Award in 1967 for editing In the Heat of the Night and leveraged his success as an editor to pursue his true passion: directing. Crafting seminal films that steered clear of mainstream conventions yet attracted both popular and critical praise, Ashby became one of the quintessential directors of the 1970s New Hollywood movement. No matter how much success Ashby achieved, he was never able to escape the ghosts of his troubled childhood. The divorce of his parents, his father's suicide, and his own marriage and divorce -- all before the age of nineteen -- led to a lifelong struggle with drugs for which he became infamous in Hollywood. And yet, contrary to mythology, it was not Ashby's drug abuse that destroyed his career but a fundamental mismatch between the director and the stifling climate of 1980s studio filmmaking. Although his name may not be recognized by many of today's filmgoers, Hal Ashby is certainly familiar to filmmakers. Despite his untimely death in 1988, his legacy of innovation and individuality continues to influence a generation of independent directors, including Wes Anderson, Sean Penn, and the Coen brothers, who place substance and style above the pursuit of box-office success. In this groundbreaking and exhaustively researched biography, Nick Dawson draws on firsthand interviews and personal papers from Ashby's estate to offer an intimate look at the tumultuous life of an artist unwilling to conform or compromise.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7334-4
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. 1-1)

    June 2, 1969, the morning of his first day directing, and Hal can’t breathe. He has bronchitis. He can’t talk. All he can do is gasp and point. The doctor comes, checks him over, and tells him he has walking pneumonia, brought on by fear.

    In the seven months or so since his mentor, Norman Jewison, had told him he would be directing his first film,The Landlord,a nagging doubt had been eating away at him. Over the past ten years, he’d collaborated closely with Jewison, as well as such Hollywood greats as William Wyler and George Stevens, and...

  5. 1 Enter Hal
    (pp. 2-14)

    Hal Ashby’s paternal grandfather, Thomas Ashby, came to America in 1870. Just twenty-one when he left his hometown of Leicester, England, he crossed the Atlantic with his eighteen-year-old fiancée, Rachael Hill. After training as a shoemaker in Lynne, Massachusetts, then the American center of quality shoemaking, he moved west in pursuit of new opportunities. He ended up in Utah, and, after unsuccessfully joining a boot and shoemaking cooperative, he settled in Ogden, where he started his own business.

    Sixty miles north of Salt Lake City, Ogden was a growing town rich in potential for entrepreneurs because it was the “Junction...

  6. 2 The Artist as a Young Man
    (pp. 15-25)

    After Eileen brought the boys back to Ogden, Hal spent less time with Jack and began making friends, a luxury he had not had while they were moving around. He was charming and amiable and soon became widely liked. He started to express his personality through his appearance and was always up on the fashions of the day. His hair was perfectly cut and styled, and he wore peg trousers with a key chain. A dapper, handsome teenager, he looked very distinguished in his glasses, while his blond hair, blue eyes, and soft voice added an innocence to his mature...

  7. 3 Los Angeles
    (pp. 26-41)

    When Hal Ashby left Ogden, he knew that being responsible for a wife and child at such a young age was not what he wanted from life. He did not know what he did want, but he was confident that out there, traveling and working andexperiencingAmerica, he would find it. “I feel that Americans must leave their homes,” he said later. “It is easier if you come from a small town because the thrust of life is outward. I feel, for example, it is harder to leave the Bronx because it is more complex than a small town.”¹...

  8. 4 Doors Open . . .
    (pp. 42-59)

    Before the box-office failure ofNo Place to Hidecurtailed Bill Otto’s relationship with Josef Shaftel, the director rushed another film into production.The Naked Hills(1956), shot with the working titleThe Four Seasons,was a Western, again written, directed, and produced by Shaftel, starring character actors Keenan Wynn and Jim Backus. Shooting began in the fall of 1955 at Republic, the biggest of the Poverty Row studios, and Otto brought Ashby and Bill Box along to watch.

    Determined to make the most of the opportunity, Ashby volunteered to carry cans of film and soon was hired as an...

  9. 5 The Family Man
    (pp. 60-67)

    The Sound of Silencewas written ten years after Ashby had bailed on Lavon and Leigh, and possibly marked a change in his attitude toward children. The idealistic hero, David Cassidy, has a seven-year-old son; given that the screenplay is set in 1965, he would have been born in 1958, right around the time that Ashby and Ian Bernard were writing the script. Was Ashby thinking about becoming a father again and imagining the world his child might grow up in?

    Though Mickey had a daughter with John Barreto a few years after she left Ashby, she had told Ashby...

  10. 6 Norman
    (pp. 68-73)

    Had Ashby known what lay ahead, he might have thought better of his decision to work onThe Loved One;in a letter to Ashby, the film’s creative assistant, Budd Cherry, referred to its production period as “the Great Trauma of ’64.”¹

    In 1964, Tony Richardson was the hottest young director in town. Just a few months beforeThe Loved Onestarted shooting, his filmTom Jones(1963) had won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Richardson, from its ten nominations. However, when MGM, with whom he had a multipicture deal, refused to reward his Oscar...

  11. 7 Motion Picture Pioneers of America
    (pp. 74-84)

    Back in 1963, Jewison had bought the rights to Nathaniel Benchley’sThe Off-Islanders,a novel about a Russian submarine that gets beached off the New England coast. He had engaged William Rose, the writer ofGenevieve(1953) andThe Ladykillers(1955), to adapt the book, but it was Christmas 1964 before Rose delivered his first draft. Jewison could not interest any of the studios in a film that they felt was, as he put it, “about a bunch of communists,” but he set it up as part of his threepicture deal at the Mirisch Corporation.¹ Run by brothers Walter, Marvin,...

  12. 8 1968
    (pp. 85-97)

    “Have you ever gone to a preview and seen a film so outstanding that you wanted to rush into the street, grab the first person you see, and shout ‘Don’t miss this when it comes to your favorite theatre!’ Well, this is exactly how I felt when I sawIn the Heat of the Night,” enthused Radie Harris in herHollywood Reportercolumn. “If it isn’t the big ‘sleeper’ of the year, I’ll toss my personal crystal ball overboard into the East River.”¹

    In early June, a new glow of optimism appeared in Ashby’s life.In the Heat of the...

  13. 9 Where It’s At
    (pp. 98-105)

    In the days following the Oscars, Ashby was flooded with telegrams, phone calls, and letters from friends and excited well-wishers. Haskell Wexler sent three notes, Marilyn and Alan Bergman wrote that they hoped it would be “the first of a string of those little fellows that will someday adorn your pad,” and his assistant, Byron “Buzz” Brandt, wrote him a poem:

    It was a thrill working beside you

    And watching that flick come alive

    Being molded and shaped like a statue

    By tender hands, deep feeling and drive.¹

    There were even messages from luminaries like Steve McQueen (“Congratulations on your...

  14. 10 The Director
    (pp. 106-119)

    Among the flood of telegrams Ashby received wishing him luck onThe Landlordwas one from a friend telling him: “The world will not be interested in the storms you encounter, but did you bring in the ship. Give it all you’ve got and that will suffice.¹ Ashby braved the storms of the first morning, specifically the walking pneumonia brought on by nerves. Fortunately, he was working only with Beau Bridges, and, with a lot of gasping and pointing, the two friends got through the day together. From then it just got easier, and Ashby found not only that he...

  15. 11 Harold and Maude
    (pp. 120-132)

    Initially, Ashby wasn’t sureHarold and Maudewas the right kind of script for him. It seemed to be set in a world of its own, and the fact that he had laughed out loud when he read the script made him doubt that it would be funny on the screen. The story was, however, right up his alley, a wildly offbeat romance between Harold, a death-obsessed twenty-year-old who repeatedly fakes his own suicide, and Maude, an irrepressible, vivacious woman a week away from her eightieth birthday. With its philosophies of nonconformism and free-spiritedness, it embodied many of Ashby’s ideals,...

  16. 12 Nicholson
    (pp. 133-139)

    In the immediate aftermath ofHarold and Maude’s release, Ashby and Mulvehill’s prospects were decidedly gloomy. “We were devastated, couldn’t believe it,” says Mulvehill, “and the scripts and phone calls that had been coming in just stopped. It was as though somebody had taken an ax to the phone lines. It was a really rude awakening. It was a big, big shock to Hal.”¹

    But just a few months after the apparent catastrophe ofHarold and Maude,things began looking rosier for Ashby, both personally and professionally. During the editing ofHarold and Maude,Ashby had made Joan part of...

  17. 13 The Last Detail
    (pp. 140-151)

    Because Ashby and his cast and crew were shooting in Toronto at the time, they voted by absentee ballot in the U.S. presidential election on November 7, 1972. Richard Nixon’s image had appeared on a television screen inThe Landlordand in a deified picture on the office wall of Harold’s Uncle Victor, in both cases embodying for Ashby all that was wrong with the country. Though he was rarely vocal about it, Ashby was highly politicized and in the past two years had written numerous letters to Washington to lobby for several environmental acts, help Hopi Indians, stop the...

  18. 14 Shampoo
    (pp. 152-164)

    The Last Detailconsolidated Ashby’s growing friendship with Jack Nicholson, and he became part of the actor’s inner circle, going with him to Lakers’ games, and hanging out at his house on Mulholland Drive. He got to know Nicholson’s new girlfriend, Anjelica Huston, and many of his friends, including record producer Lou Adler, writer Rudy Wurlitzer, and, most notably, Warren Beatty.

    One night in the fall of 1973, Beatty told Ashby aboutShampoo,a project he and Robert Towne had been working on six or seven years earlier about the exploits of a womanizing hairdresser in Beverly Hills. Both Towne...

  19. 15 Glory Bound
    (pp. 165-181)

    When Oscar time came around, Columbia put Ashby forward as a candidate for Best Director, but he wasn’t nominated.Shampooreceived four Academy Award nominations in all, for Beatty and Towne’s script, Richard Sylbert’s art direction, and Jack Warden’s and Lee Grant’s performances, but Grant was the only one to return home with a smile on Oscar night. Though Ashby was delighted for Grant, he felt a degree of detachment when it came to the film and said, “That’s not my picture, that’s Warren’s picture.”¹ However, he was still relatively happy withShampoo,saying, “There are always things that will...

  20. 16 Coming Home
    (pp. 182-199)

    Around the same period that Ashby cut his ties withStraight Time,director John Schlesinger pulled out ofComing Home.The film had been in the works since 1973, when Jane Fonda, inspired by a meeting with Ron Kovic, author ofBorn on the Fourth of July,had asked her friend Nancy Dowd to write a script about a paraplegic Vietnam veteran. When Dowd’s script was deemed unfilmable, the creative team behindMidnight Cowboy(1969)—writer Waldo Salt, producer Jerome Hellman, and director Schlesinger—came on board and secured a development deal at United Artists (UA). Hellman and Salt did...

  21. 17 Double Feature
    (pp. 200-215)

    “I’ve always led a very simple life,” Ashby reflected in early 1978. “Materially, I’m living very comfortably; I can afford the things I need. But it’s not as if I’ve been striving for all this. It’s just starting to happen now and it’s all very weird to me. I just won’t let it take me over. . . . I won’t lose that basic value.” Ashby’s commitment to basic values was apparent in his filmmaking as well. In the face of the success of an emerging breed of blockbusters such asJaws(1975),Star Wars(1977), andClose Encounters of...

  22. 18 Being There
    (pp. 216-226)

    While Ashby was away in Asheville, United Artists had been enthusiastically publicizingComing Homein the buildup to awards season. There had been a huge Oscar push for Jane Fonda and Jon Voight as Best Actress and Actor candidates, and Ashby himself was being touted for Best Director. When nominations were announced in February,Coming Homewas represented in the five main categories (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay), with Bruce Dern and Penelope Milford also up for Best Supporting Actor and Actress and Don Zimmerman in line for Best Editing on his very first film as chief editor....

  23. 19 Lookin’ to Get Out
    (pp. 227-243)

    Once again, it was time for Ashby to line up his next film. Given the range of projects on the table,Lookin’ to Get Outwas a typically idiosyncratic choice. In the mid-1970s, the singer Chip Taylor had introduced his brother, Jon Voight, to his manager, Al Schwartz, who was writing a screenplay with dialogue that Taylor thought particularly impressive. Schwartz, who had quit high school after ninth grade and learned life’s lessons hustling on the New York City streets, had produced thirtyodd pages about the misadventures of two gamblers in New York City. Voight was so taken with the...

  24. 20 Like a Rolling Stone
    (pp. 244-256)

    As soon as Ashby had handedSecond Hand Heartsover to Paramount, he began supervising the editing ofLookin’ to Get Out.On hiring a new chief editor to oversee the cutting, he had noted that, unlike his predecessor, the replacement “did know how the basic mechanics worked, so things got done, and my life seemed more pleasant, for awhile, in that area.” Now, however, he began to notice a new problem: “In a few short weeks I was able to see how bad my new editor was, not the mess of before, just not much reason behind any of...

  25. 21 Getting Out
    (pp. 257-267)

    In January 1982, Merv Adelson sent Ashby a letter with a document detailing the money spent onLookin’ to Get Out.“Just so that you are aware of the ridiculous costs of this film as it now stands,” Adelson wrote. “This kind of thing is part of what is wrong with our business today. These costs do not include interest or overhead. When is it going to stop[?]”¹ The film had been budgeted at $12 million but was more than $5 million over budget and estimated to cost a further $1 million before completion. To ensure that it was finished...

  26. 22 Old Man
    (pp. 268-275)

    InLet’s Spend the Night Together,as Mick Jagger sings the lines “When you’re old, when you’re old / Nobody will know” from “She’s So Cold,” there is a cut to Ashby sitting on a sofa backstage, bare chested and wearing shades, waving at the camera. And he does look old, the effects of the stress, trauma, and hard work of the past few years all too visible on his face. This cameo appearance was a dig at himself but also an acknowledgment that he was no longer a young man of boundless energy, that he didn’t get up so...

  27. 23 The Slugger’s Wife
    (pp. 276-292)

    Producer Ray Stark was a fan of Hal Ashby’s, having twice gone to the trouble of writing him to say how much he admired his work. He had told Ashby he’d done “a damn good job” onThe Last Detail.¹ Later, he mentioned in a letter that Peter Sellers had told him aboutBeing Therewhile they were shootingMurder By Death(1976), adding: “[Sellers was] very lucky . . . that [he] didn’t make the film [Being There] with me. I never could have contributed to the making of a film from a book which I wasn’t quite knowledgeable...

  28. 24 8 Million Ways to Die
    (pp. 293-310)

    Around Christmas 1985, Ashby was sent a copy of Oliver Stone’s script for8 Million Ways to Die.It was an adaptation of two crime novels by Lawrence Block,8 Million Ways to DieandA Stab in the Dark,both featuring New York detective and recovering alcoholic Matt Scudder. Stone and former Creative Artists Agency “superagent” Steve Roth had bought the books a few years earlier intending to make the film at Embassy Pictures with Stone as director but were unable to get funding. By the end of 1985, Roth had produced two other films and managed to interest...

  29. 25 The Last Movie
    (pp. 311-318)

    On December 16, 1985, just twenty days after Ashby finished shooting8 Million Ways to Die,a five-ton truck arrived at the cutting rooms where Bob Lawrence was working. Producers Sales Organization (PSO) representatives confiscated the footage and refused Ashby and Lawrence access to the film. “PSO’s attitude was ‘Fuck him, he’s going to take the film to Malibu and cut it as some unreleasable art film,’” says Chuck Mulvehill.¹

    The following day, Ashby received a letter from PSO saying his uncommunicative behavior was being interpreted as an indication that he had resigned from the film—but that if he...

  30. 26 Starting Over
    (pp. 319-332)

    Since the start of the 1980s, Ashby had had four films taken away from him in the editing room and then flop at the box office, had turbulent business relationships with Ray Stark and the Producers Sales Organization (PSO) and a nightmare partnership with Lorimar that descended into a prolonged legal battle, and seen his utopian production company Northstar flounder and fail and his reputation in Hollywood change from that of a charmed maverick to an aging hippie burned out on drugs. Weary after this litany of negative experiences, the fifty-six-year-old Ashby now took time out to rethink his lifestyle...

  31. 27 Do Not Go Gentle
    (pp. 333-342)

    After hearing Ashby’s prognosis, Beatty took him to Johns Hopkins for more tests, CAT scans, and pancreatic scans, which revealed that there were malignant tumors in his pancreas and the cancer had almost entirely consumed his liver. His doctors recommended an aggressive treatment beginning with surgery, but Ashby refused. “I think you should have the surgery,” Beatty told him.¹ Ashby could not be convinced, however, and returned home. Agreeing to surgery would have been admitting he might die, so as he had often done in his life, he chose denial instead.

    Back home, Ashby kept working and even tried to...

  32. Filmography
    (pp. 343-354)
  33. Notes
    (pp. 355-384)
  34. Index
    (pp. 385-404)
  35. Illustrations
    (pp. None)