An Oscar winning editor who went on to direct some critically acclaimed and popular films in the 70s.

Unlike the professional longevity of his contemporaries Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola, the work of provocative liberal Hal Ashby went into decline in the conservative 80s, and entered a downward spiral when combined with drugs. He died of lung cancer at 59, the full extent of his originality and prodigious talent under-appreciated.

Ashby arrived in Hollywood studios by a road less travelled. At 12 he experienced the trauma of his father’s suicide, and headed for California at 21. At the Board for Employment he asked for work – any work – at a movie studio. Commencing in the mail room, he worked his way up to editor.

In that capacity he worked with many acclaimed directors but his longest collaboration was with Norman Jewison, (whose In the Heat of the Night, 1967, earned Ashby an editing Oscar). Jewison, too, was instrumental in opening the entrée for Ashby to direct when, due to scheduling conflicts he pulled out of The Landlord, thereby handing the movie, the first feature of a prolific period in the 70s, to Ashby to helm.

Ashby’s eclectic selection of critically acclaimed and popular movies followed in quick succession: Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979), Peter Sellers’ last and probably best performance as the slow-witted gardener, Chance, whose TV addiction ironically leads him to one of the highest positions in the land.

Under-rated now, Ashby’s films reflect a wide range of subjects and styles, confronting provocatively, major controversial issues of the times, such as: the Vietnam war, with particular focus on psychological impact on returned soldiers; championing of individuality against institutional oppression; a celebration of difference and eccentricity and satire of the vacuity of television.

His clever use of irony (often heightened by music scores or props) and black humour, generosity with actors, and capacity for personal stories to represent a wider political landscape (such as Shampoo’s representation of the wasted potential of the American cultural revolution) are trademarks of his movies.

Ashby movies tend to celebrate protagonist transformations. In The Landlord, the main character’s attitudes change as a result of the influence of his offbeat tenants. The fascination with necrophilia and suicide of the young man in cult hit, Harold and Maude, a delightful celebration of eccentricity, ultimately turns into an appreciation of life with the death of his 79 year-old free-spirited love. The most profound change is evident in Coming Home, Ashby’s most significant critical success, with the metamorphosis of conventional army wife (Jane Fonda, also script co-writer) into belligerent anti war-activist following her relationship with crippled returned war veteran.

Another obvious strength is eliciting outstanding performances from his actors. Shampoo (1975), about a promiscuous hairdresser’s self-deception, set against the backdrop of the 1968 US presidential election, echoes the subtext of deceit and lack of integrity in one of Warren Beatty’s best performances.
Ashby should be applauded for tackling head on, difficult topics like personal response to the Vietnam war. Coming Home was one of the first movies to expose and express outrage about the personal price of this war. In an extremely moving film, he poignantly expressed the complexity of the war and its cost. It was nominated for Best Picture and Ashby for Best Director but its explosive controversial material daunted the conservative electorate of academy voters.

It meant Ashby’s contribution to diverse American cinema was never celebrated in his lifetime.

– Mary Colbert