Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel

Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel

Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel

Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel


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 Nightand 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.


I was born in Ogden, Utah. Never a Mormon. Hated school.
The last of four children. Mom and Dad divorced when I was
five or six. Dad killed himself when I was twelve. I struggled
toward growing up, like most others, totally confused.

—Hal Ashby

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 City” of the Union and Central Pacific railway. The population was doubling every ten years, and Thomas Ashby benefited hugely from an ever-growing number of customers: by the early 1880s, he was employing eleven men and had moved to a specially constructed building with a factory in the rear and a shop in the front. His family was growing too: by 1885, Rachael had given birth to seven children (only five survived). The following year, however, she died, and Thomas married Emily Coleman, the sixteen-year-old daughter of James Coleman, one of his shoemakers. A year later, Emily bore him a son, James Thomas Ashby, but Thomas’s fortunes after this did not look up.

His decision to bring his brother John into the firm and significantly expand the business coincided with a major downturn in the American economy that culminated in the Panic of 1893. Having had huge . . .

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