Rainbow with Egg
Underneath and an Elephant

The Films of Hal Ashby

Hal Ashby
(1929 - 1988)
Biography from Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film
Occupation: Director
Also: editor
Born: c.1929, Ogden, UT
Died: December 27, 1988, Malibu, CA
Ashby began his film career, thanks to the California State Department of Unemployment, as a mimeograph-machine operator at Universal Studios in 1957. He rose to become a full-fledged editor within a decade and was given his first chance to direct in 1970, when Norman Jewison was unable to carry out his assignment on THE LANDLORD. Ashby went on to earn commercial and critical success, and gained a reputation as a gentle, amiable director who paid meticulous attention to casting.

January 1989

HAL ASHBY, who has died at Malibu, Calfornia, aged 59, was a versatile film director, with a liberal, gently satirical approach, whose credits included Being There, Shampoo, Coming Home and The Last Detail.

He was born in 1929, at Ogden Utah, and educated at the local state university. Ashby entered the film industry as an assistant editor in the early 1960s and by the end of that decade had earned a reputation as one of the most skilful in the business. This was largely through his work with the director Norman Jewison on such films as The Cincinnati Kid, The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! and The Thomas Crown Affair.

He won an Oscar for his editing of the acclaimed In the Heat of the Night (1967) - directed by Norman Jewison and starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger - and went on to establish himself as a director in the 1970s.

Ashby made a somewhat unpropitious start with The Landlord (1971), a comedy about the inner-city collision between rich whites and poor blacks, which attracted unflattering comparison with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. The whites in the film are presented as idiots, the blacks as clowns and though some scenes come off the general effect is of a punch pulled.

The next year he recouped with Harold and Maude, which quickly acquired cult status. In summary the story does not seem promising. Harold, a spoilt young man with necrophiliac tendencies (played by Bud Cort) recovers his joie de vivre through a love affair with an octogenarian car thief (Ruth Gordon). But, largely through the sly skill of Ashby's direction, the film was outrageously funny and obscurely edifying.

In 1974 Ashby made his mark as a mainstream director with The Last Detail, which told the story of two hard-boiled naval petty officers (Jack Nicholson the senior) escorting a young comrade (Randy Quaid) to a military prison, where he is to serve eight years for a minor offence.

The old salts take pity on their charge, and give him a tour of the fleshpots of New York and Boston so that he will have something to remember in captivity.

Ashby followed this with Shampoo, which followed the amorous career of a Hollywood hairdresser (Warren Beatty) on the eve of Richard Nixon's election in 1968.

The idea was to satirise the permissive apathy that produced the Watergate scandal. The action of the film - which focused chiefly on Beatty's heaving rump and stentorian grunts as he pleasured Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie - was unable to sustain its didactic burden, though it did no harm at the box-office.

Bound for Glory, which Ashby directed in 1977, was made of sterner stuff. It was a musical treatment of the life of Woody Guthrie (played with admirable awkwardness by David Carradine), the rabble-rousing folk singer of the American Depression, who abandoned his family for a life of riding box-cars and hitch-hiking and became a hero to migrant fruit pickers (and to such musical successors as Bob Dylan).

Ashby's next film, Coming, Home (1978), was both his most crudely propagandist and one of his most commercially successful.

It concerned the nastiness of the Vietnam war and starred .Jane Fonda - who had been a vociferous campaigner against the war - as a hospital visitor married to a patriotic officer, who commits adultery with a crippled veteran (Jon Voight).

The film begins with political speeches and descends into French farce, but caught the mood of American post-imperial trauma and, as a bonus, appealed to the fashionable interest in the sexual needs of the disabled.

Ashby's last film - and perhaps his best - was Being There (1980). It is a delightful comic fable, bizarre and engaging, about the banality of modern American politics and the pervasive influence of television.

The star was Peter Sellers, who gave one of his finest performances as Chance, an illiterate gardener who ends the film as a presidential candidate. Chance's only knowledge of the world was from television; he was a dumb innocent, a complete cipher, played by Sellers with impeccable comic restraint.

At the time of Ashby's death he was working on a new film, with the characteristically film noir title of Hand Carved Coffins.

The Front Page
Top of the Page