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Being Hal Ashby

Life of a Hollywood Rebel

Nick Dawson

Publication Year: 2009

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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Screen Classics

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

I first became interested in Hal Ashby when I read Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls some ten years ago. In 2002, after writing a biographical sketch of Ashby for a biography class, I joked to my tutor, Carole Angier, that I would turn it into a book. Well, the joke was on me. Carole, a brilliant biographer, ...

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pp. 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. ...

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1. Enter Hal

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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, ...

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2. The Artist as a Young Man

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pp. 15-26

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. ...

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3. Los Angeles

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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 and experiencing America, he would find it. “I feel that Americans must leave their homes,” ...

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4. Doors Open . . .

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pp. 42-59

Before the box-office failure of No Place to Hide curtailed Bill Otto’s relationship with Josef Shaftel, the director rushed another film into production. The Naked Hills (1956), shot with the working title The Four Seasons, was a Western, again written, directed, and produced by Shaftel, starring character actors ...

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5. The Family Man

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pp. 60-67

The Sound of Silence was 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 ...

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6. Norman

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pp. 68-73

In 1964, Tony Richardson was the hottest young director in town. Just a few months before The Loved One started shooting, his film Tom 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, ...

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7. Motion Picture Pioneers of America

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pp. 74-84

Back in 1963, Jewison had bought the rights to Nathaniel Benchley’s The Off-Islanders, a novel about a Russian submarine that gets beached off the New England coast. He had engaged William Rose, the writer of Genevieve (1953) and The Ladykillers (1955), to adapt the book, but it was Christmas 1964 before Rose ...

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8. 1968

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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 saw In the Heat of the Night,” enthused Radie Harris in her Hollywood Reporter column. ...

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9. Where It’s At

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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,” ...

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10. The Director

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pp. 106-119

Among the flood of telegrams Ashby received wishing him luck on The Landlord was 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 ...

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11. Harold and Maude

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pp. 120-132

Initially, Ashby wasn’t sure Harold and Maude was 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 ...

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12. Nicholson

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pp. 133-139

In the immediate aftermath of Harold 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. ...

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13. The Last Detail

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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 in The Landlord and in a deified picture on the office wall of Harold’s Uncle Victor, in both cases ...

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14. Shampoo

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pp. 152-164

The Last Detail consolidated 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 ...

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15. Glory Bound

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pp. 165-181

When Oscar time came around, Columbia put Ashby forward as a candidate for Best Director, but he wasn’t nominated. Shampoo received 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 ...

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16. Coming Home

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pp. 182-199

Around the same period that Ashby cut his ties with Straight Time, director John Schlesinger pulled out of Coming Home. The film had been in the works since 1973, when Jane Fonda, inspired by a meeting with Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July, had asked her friend Nancy Dowd to write ...

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17. Double Feature

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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.” ...

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18. Being There

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pp. 216-226

While Ashby was away in Asheville, United Artists had been enthusiastically publicizing Coming Home in 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 ...

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19. Lookin’ to Get Out

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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 Out was 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 ...

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20. Like a Rolling Stone

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pp. 244-256

As soon as Ashby had handed Second Hand Hearts over to Paramount, he began supervising the editing of Lookin’ 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 ...

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21. Getting Out

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pp. 257-267

In January 1982, Merv Adelson sent Ashby a letter with a document detailing the money spent on Lookin’ 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. ...

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22. Old Man

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pp. 268-275

In Let’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 ...

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23. The Slugger’s Wife

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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” on The Last Detail.1 Later, he mentioned in a letter that Peter Sellers had told him about Being There while they were shooting Murder By Death ...

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24. 8 Million Ways to Die

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pp. 293-310

Around Christmas 1985, Ashby was sent a copy of Oliver Stone’s script for 8 Million Ways to Die. It was an adaptation of two crime novels by Lawrence Block, 8 Million Ways to Die and A Stab in the Dark, both featuring New York detective and recovering alcoholic Matt Scudder. Stone and former Creative Artists ...

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25. The Last Movie

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pp. 311-318

On December 16, 1985, just twenty days after Ashby finished shooting 8 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. ...

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26. Starting Over

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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, ...

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27. Do Not Go Gentle

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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, ...


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pp. 343-354


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pp. 355-384


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pp. 385-402

Illustrations follow page 212

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813173344
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813125381

Page Count: 440
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Screen Classics