With his long hair, sunglasses and bellbottoms, Hal Ashby was the epitome of the 1970s flower child, even though he was a decade older than most of the filmmakers working at the time. Though his flame burned brightly and briefly, he left behind a series of classics that signified the nose-thumbing, countercultural attitude of the era, with a bit of humanism and heart thrown in for good measure. Let’s take a look back at all 12 of his films, ranked worst to best.
Born on September 2, 1929 in Utah, Ashby ambled around before becoming an apprentice editor for Robert Swink, working for Hollywood legends William Wyler (“Friendly Persuasion,” “The Big Country,” “The Children’s Hour”) and George Stevens (“The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told”). He moved up the ranks to become an editor for Norman Jewison, with whom he shared a fraternal and professional relationship. They cut five films together, including “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” (1966), which earned him his first Oscar nomination, and “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), which brought him a win.
He transitioned into directing when he was 41-years-old with the racial satire “The Landlord” (1970), produced by Jewison, and that kicked off a sting of critically acclaimed hits: the pitch-black romance “Harold and Maude” (1971), the military drama “The Last Detail” (1973), the sex comedy “Shampoo” (1975), the period biopic “Bound for Glory” (1976), the Vietnam War love story “Coming Home” (1978) and the media sendup “Being There” (1979). He earned Oscar, DGA and Golden Globe bids for directing “Coming Home,” plus Globe nominations for helming “Bound for Glory” and “Being There.”
Yet with the end of the 70s came the end of Ashby’s career, as one title after the other (1981’s “Second-Hand Hearts,” 1982’s “Lookin’ to Get Out,” 1985’s “The Slugger’s Wife” and 1986’s “8 Million Ways to Die”) bombing with critics and audiences. Along the way he helmed a Rolling Stones documentary (1983’s “Let’s Spend the Night Together”) and lost a chance to direct “Tootsie” (1982). Though he never stopped trying, his life was cut short with a cancer diagnosis; he died in 1988 at the age of 59.
Though he wasn’t alive to see it, Ashby’s impact on cinema has been felt in new generations of filmmakers. A recent documentary, “Hal” (2018), highlighted his influence, with directors such as Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Lisa Cholodenko, Adam McKay, Judd Apatow and Allison Anders professing their love for his work. So take a tour through our photo gallery above of Ashby’s 12 films, and see if your favorite topped the list.
– Original text and gallery published in August 2019.