Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel

Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel

by Nick Dawson

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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


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 Night and 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.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
The story of how a troubled boy from Utah who rarely watched films became the director of Being There and Harold and Maude, challenging Hollywood with his progressive attitude. FilmInFocus editor Dawson chronicles each of Ashby's films from its conception to premiere in dense detail, enriched by hundreds of reported conversations and recollections. The author pays special attention to Ashby's formative years as an editor, during which he was mentored by director Norman Jewison through many films before eventually being handed the reins. According to countless testimonies from his peers, friends and actors, Ashby was brilliant, witty and entertaining. His reputation and appearance as a drug-addled hippie belied his obsessive work ethic and commitment to professionalism on set. Much of the delight in reading this story comes from the irony surrounding certain films and personal choices. Before it became a cult classic, Harold and Maude was a flop with the critics. Though he climbed purposefully to prominence as a filmmaker, Ashby dove headlong into new love affairs without circumspection; he married within weeks and divorced almost as quickly. Dawson posits that the death of Ashby's father-which Hal, alone among his family, considered a suicide-was the shadow the filmmaker could never escape and the source of chronic unrest in his personal life. The author withholds this kind of analysis for most of the narrative, but he offers it occasionally as a justification for Ashby's eruptions and abandonments. Dawson glides through Ashby's wrecked personal relationships, wisely choosing to dwell instead on the work of a man whose career consumed his life. A worthwhile portrait by a capablebiographer.
From the Publisher
"Dawson's impeccably researched and admirably clear-eyed biography reclaims Ashby from the fog of myth and sets his career in perspective, reminding us again what a loss his death was." —DGA Quarterly" —

"It's obvious that Nick Dawson has a deep appreciation of the director's work and his enthusiasm is contagious.... When a book inspires me to reevaluate my own opinions about a filmmaker's career, it's well worth recommending." —Cinebeats" —

"Dawson depicts Ashby's professional and personal relationships in a way that is fittingly yet painfully human." —Anniston Star" —

"Dawson's brilliantly-written biography will long remain the definitive literary exploration of Ashby's work." —Hugh Lilly, Insequential" —

"Films and books strive toward a common goal: telling a story. And very few modern filmmakers are as good at spinning a yard as the late Ashby was, the subject of a penetrating and applause-worthy biography written by film journalist Nick Dawson." —Pop Matters" —

"Rebel is a biography that finally tells the full story of Ashby's unlikely journey from Ogden, Utah to Hollywood." —Facets Features" —

"Nick Dawson should be teaching a course in how to write a Hollywood biography. Being Hal Ashby is note perfect, with the appropriate attention paid to the art and to the artist's messy life." —Creative Loafing" —

"The legendary director... has finally become the subject of a long-overdue biography." —Splice Today" —

"[Ashby's] speedy rise and spectacular swan dive from Tinseltown's high board is an old story, but a fascinating read as relayed by Nick Dawson in his scrupulously researched Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel." —Sunday Star Ledger" —

"A rigorously researched, page-turning biography of the iconic director that is highly recommended." —Filmmaker Magazine" —

"A fascinating and fun read for anyone acquainted with Ashby's work." —GreenCine Daily" —

"Dawson [excels] when reporting on film, and both Beatty and Ashby remain object lessons of filmmakers taking chances at the top, not simply as first-timers with nothing to lose." —Bookforum" —

"Nick Dawson has written the first biography of Ashby, a work that examines the director's tormented personal life and childhood, and traces the troubled personal skein into an exemplary body of work in motion pictures." —Editors Guild Magazine" —

Product Details

University Press of Kentucky
Publication date:
Screen Classics
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

Meet the Author

Nick Dawson is editor at and writes a weekly interview column, The Director Interviews, for Filmmaker magazine. Originally from the UK, he has written on film for Empire, Uncut, the London Times, and the Scotsman.

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