Hal Ashby (September 2, 1929 December 27, 1988) was one of the most acclaimed directors of the New Hollywood era.
Born and raised in Ogden, Utah, he moved to California in 1949, fed up with the harsh winter weather and drudgery of working on a railroad construction crew in Wyoming. Taking a job in the printing department at Universal, he slowly moved up the Hollywood ladder to become a film editor. After editing several films for director Norman Jewison, including In the Heat of the Night (for which he won an Academy Award) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Ashby moved into directing with 1970's The Landlord (produced by Jewison). A disappointment at the box office, The Landlord still garnered some good reviews, citing Ashby as a talent to watch, and even received an Oscar nomination (Lee Grant for Best Supporting Actress).
His next film, Harold and Maude, recovered from a poor initial reception to become one the most famous and beloved Cult Classics of all time. After that Ashby swiftly became an A-list director, working with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda and Peter Sellers. His films garnered near-universal acclaim, did well at the box office, and won multiple Oscars.
After this incredible run in The '70s, Ashby's career collapsed once The '80s rolled around. Frequent battles over Executive Meddling and rumors of excessive drug usenote made it hard for him to find employment. After directing a few little-noticed big screen films and doing some television work, he decided to clean up his life and make an attempt at a comeback. Unfortunately, by that time he had developed colon cancer and would soon pass away at the age of 59.
While his films continued to remain popular, by the time of his death Ashby himself had been reduced to a footnote in film history. But with the re-evaluation of New Hollywood in The '90s, Ashby came to be appreciated as a symbol of the creative innovation and quality of that era of filmmaking, as well as a sad cautionary tale of the excesses that went along with it. His filmmaking has been Vindicated by History, and many modern directors (most notably Wes Anderson) have been influenced by his work.
He was married five times, but had no children.
Hal Ashby films with their own trope pages include:
- Harold and Maude (1971)
- The Last Detail (1973)
- Shampoo (1975)
- Bound for Glory (1976)
- Coming Home (1978)
- Being There (1979)
- Eight Million Ways To Die (1986)
Tropes associated with Ashby:
- Academy Award: Won one for editing In the Heat of the Night, and his films from The '70s won a total of 7 (out of 24 nominations), including all four acting categories (Jon Voight as Best Actor and Jane Fonda as Best Actress in Coming Home, Lee Grant as Best Supporting Actress in Shampoo, Melvyn Douglas as Best Supporting Actor in Being There). Harold and Maude was his only 70s film to not get a nomination.
- Concert Film: Directed Let's Spend the Night Together for The Rolling Stones and Solo Trans for Neil Young.
- Creator Cameo: Inspired by Alfred Hitchcock, he often gave himself tiny, usually silent parts in his own films. In fact, he's seen in the very first shot of his debut film The Landlord (as the groom at a wedding; it was filmed at Ashby's own Real Life wedding to actress Joan Marshall).
- Production Posse: Frequently worked with actors Jon Voight, Lee Grant, Jack Warden, and David Clennon, writers Robert Towne and Robert C. Jones, and producer Charles Mulvehill.
- Rich Boredom: Several of Ashby's protagonists are wealthy people who find the strictures of upper class life confining and rebel against them: The Landlord (wealthy young white Long Island fop tries to gentrify a black Brooklyn neighborhood, only to develop empathy for the residents), Harold and Maude (wealthy young Californian stages fake suicides and gets into a relationship with an elderly woman), Shampoo (Beverly Hills/Hollywood types engage in sexual shenanigans), Being There (a simpleminded gardener fascinates a bunch of D.C. movers-and-shakers, and the Trophy Wife of one of them becomes sexually attracted to him).