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Oscar Profile #90: Hal Ashby

Born September 2, 1929 in Ogden, Utah, William Hal Ashby was the fourth child of a Mormon dairy farmer who committed suicide when the future director was 12. His troubled early life, including finding his father’s body, led to five marriages, two of them before he was 21.

By his own account, Ashby had fifty or sixty jobs before his first industry job as a multilith (lithograph printing machine) operator.

Ashby gradually moved into film editing. He was an uncredited assistant editor on three major 1950s films, William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion and The Big Country and George Stevens’ The Diary of Anne Frank. He received his first on-screen credits as assistant editor for Phil Karlson’s The Young Doctors and Wyler’s The Children’s Hour in 1961.

After working as assistant editor on Franklin J. Schaffner’s The Best Man and Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told, he became the principal editor on Tony Richardson’s 1965 film, The Loved One. Thereafter he worked exclusively with director Norman Jewison on the films, The Cincinnati Kid; The Russians Are Coming; In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair. He was nominated for an Oscar for Russians and won for In the Heat of the Night.

Too busy to direct The Landlord, Jewison, who remained the film’s producer, turned over directorial duties to Ashby who finally achieved his dream of becoming a director at the age of 40.

Ashby’s wedding to fifth wife, actress Joan Marshall, is seen in the background of the opening credits of the film. A critically acclaimed film and a modest box office success, the film is about a wealthy young white man who buys a building in a black ghetto and becomes involved in the lives of his tenants. Lee Grant received an Oscar nomination as Beau Bridges’ coy, cunning mother.

His first film without Jewison in some years, 1971’s Harold and Maude an unconventional love story about a suicidal 20 year-old and a devil-may-care 80 year-old woman, was a box-office failure upon its initial release but within five years became an international cult favorite.

His next film, 1973’s The Last Detail earned Oscar nominations for Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and screenwriter Robert Towne. Towne was nominated as well for Ashby’s next film, 1975’s Shampoo, which also garnered nominations for Art Direction and Supporting Actor Jack Warden. Lee Grant won as Best Supporting Actress.

Ashby’s 1976 film, Bound for Glory, a biography of folk singer Woody Guthrie, received six Oscar nominations and won for Haskell Wexler’s Cinematography, but neither Ashby nor his star, David Carradine were among those singled out by the Academy.

Ashby’s 1978 film, Coming Home earned eight Oscar nominations including Ashby’s only bid for Best Director. His stars, Jane Fonda and Jon Voight won for their performances. Supporting players Bruce Dern and Penelope Milford had also been nominated.

He received his last critical huzzahs for 1979’s Being There which received a Best Actor nomination for Peter Sellers and a Best Supporting Actor win for Melvyn Douglas.

Becoming more and more reclusive, the director who had been ill for some time finally went to see a doctor in 1988 when it was determined that he had terminal pancreatic cancer which had already spread to other organs. Hal Ashby died December 27, 1988 at 59.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

THE LANDLORD (1970)

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Ashby liked to appear as an extra in his films and began with the very first shot in the very first film he directed in which he and fifth wife Joan Marshall appear in a scene from their wedding ceremony behind the film’s credits. That scene has nothing at all to do with the film we are about to see but sets up the quirky nature of the film as Marshall instead of being seen kissing the groom turns instead and kisses the best man.

The film itself is a comedy-drama about a rich white kid who leaves his Long Island home at 29 to live in the basement of the apartment building he just bought in a black ghetto in Brooklyn. Beau Bridges had one of his best early roles as the overage kid while Lee Grant received a well-deserved Oscar nomination as his controlling mother. Diana Sands also turns in a memorable performance as the tenant with whom Bridges has an affair while her husband (Lou Gossett) is in jail. Pearl Bailey, as another tenant, is the comedy relief, and Marki Bey is the light-skinned African-American who Bridges intends to marry despite his fair weather liberal mother’s objections.

HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971)

Ashby’s first film without his mentor, Norman Jewison, was well publicized. Bud Cort, who a year earlier starred in Robert Altman’s quirky Brewster McCloud, was cast as the 20 year-old suicidal Harold and Ruth Gordon beat out Dames Edith Evans and Gladys Cooper for the part of the 80 year-old eccentric Maude, with whom he would fall in love. Despite the anticipation in the press, the film was not a hit in its initial run, its subject matter no doubt putting off a large percentage of the population. Nevertheless the film was an immediate hit outside of the U.S., particularly in Paris, where it ran for years. It eventually became a cult favorite in the U.S. as well. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association at the time was the only awards group that honored it with Golden Globe nominations for both Cort and Gordon.

The film, in addition to being both very funny and somewhat sad, is notable for its use of music. Cat Stevens’ songs from two of his early albums, “Mona Bone Jakon” and “Tea for the Tillerman”, as well as two songs he composed for the film, are used in the same manner that Simon and Garfunkel’s music is used in The Graduate.

SHAMPOO (1975)

Much to her chagrin, Ashby incorporated stories from his wife’s experiences on Election Eve, 1968, to tell the tale of a lecherous Beverly Hills hairdresser, played by Warren Beatty, who co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Towne. Julie Christie, then Beatty’s girlfriend in real life, plays his former girlfriend here. Her character’s best friend, played by Goldie Hawn, is his current girlfriend. Christie’s character is currently having an affair with wealthy businessman Jack Warden, whose wife, Lee Grant, is one of Beatty’s conquests as is their daughter, Carrie Fisher.

Warden received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, while Grant won for Best Supporting Actress.

COMING HOME (1978)

One of several 1978 films about the Vietnam War made five years after the war ended, this and The Deer Hunter were the two most successful, as well as the front-runners for the Best Picture Oscar. While Michael Cimino and The Deer Hunter would beat Ashby and his film for Best Picture and Director, Ashby’s stars, Jane Fonda and Jon Voight would take home the Best Actor and Actress prizes.

Voight, who shot to stardom with his Oscar nominated performance in John Schlesinger’s Oscar winning Midnight Cowboy nine years earlier, gave an even more impressive performance here as a wounded veteran, a paraplegic who raises the conscience of a career soldier’s wife who volunteers at Voight’s rehabilitation center.

While Fonda does an admirable job as the volunteer, one can’t help but see the changes coming as convincing as she goes from conservative Army wife to committed liberal because of Fonda’s well-known political views at the time. Bruce Dern as her tortured husband and Penelope Milford as her friend, were nominated for their supporting roles. Ashby’s nomination was his only one for Direction.

BEING THERE (1979)

Ashby’s film version of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel about a simpleton gardener who is mistaken for a genius by Washington D.C. intellectuals is a comic masterpiece thanks to Ashby’s deft direction and the performances of Oscar nominated Peter Sellers as the gardener, Oscar winner Melvyn Douglas a political kingmaker and Shirley MacLaine as Douglas’ much younger wife.

Sadly, this would be the last film of significance for Sellers who died in 1980; Douglas who died in 1981 and Ashby who died in 1988.

HAL ASHBY AND OSCAR

  • The Russians Are coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) – nominated - Best Editing
  • In the Heat of the Night (1967) – Oscar - Best Editing
  • Coming Home (1978) – nominated - Best Director
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