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New biography, Sarasota Film Festival celebrate unwilling icon, director Hal Ashby

Director Hal Ashby speaks at a news conference at the Cannes International Film Festival in France. A posthumous award will be presented in his honor Saturday in Sarasota.

Associated Press (1978)

Director Hal Ashby speaks at a news conference at the Cannes International Film Festival in France. A posthumous award will be presented in his honor Saturday in Sarasota.

Mention Hal Ashby's name these days and eyes usually glaze with nonrecognition. Start listing the late filmmaker's movies and they glimmer with admiration.

Harold and Maude. Shampoo. Coming Home. The Last Detail. The Landlord. Bound for Glory. Being There.

They are the movies that reflected and shaped a generation in the 1970s, breaking taboos and bending conventions about love, sex, politics and authority while society did the same. Ashby was a rebel with compassion for misfits. He worked on his own terms: abusing drugs, ducking fatherhood, bucking the studio system, succumbing to cancer in virtual isolation in 1988.

Unlike his film school generation peers — the Scorseses and Coppolas dubbed New Hollywood in what now seems like ancient times — Ashby never became larger than his movies, or the household name he deserved to be.

Author Nick Dawson, who wasn't born when Ashby thrived, aims to end that anonymity. The 28-year-old Scotsman recently published Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel, a biography that sheds light on one of Hollywood's most gifted enigmas.

Dawson will lead a retrospective of Ashby's entire 1970s output — seven films plus a rediscovered 1980s comedy — at the Sarasota Film Festival. Ashby will receive a posthumous career achievement award, one that he might have shrugged off.

"He was someone really egoless," Dawson said in a recent telephone interview. "He was all about the work. If you compare that with his contemporaries — (Francis Ford) Coppola, (Peter) Bogdanovich, (William) Friedkin, for example — they managed to package themselves as auteurs, as personalities, as much into self-promotion as well as promoting their films.

"Ashby saw the difference between himself and the films, but it was the work that he put front and foremost. He was always two or three years ahead of the zeitgeist, with this incredible ability to gauge what subjects were interesting and how to tackle them, provocatively and accessibly at the same time."

Like puckishly coupling young Harold (Bud Cort) with insane old Maude (Ruth Gordon), to prove true love beats societal standards, at a time when interracial romance was discouraged. Warren Beatty's sexy hairstylist in Shampoo had his rampant amorality footnoted by TV screens broadcasting Richard Nixon's re-election. The Navy lifers of The Last Detail found their sense of duty at odds stateside, while Vietnam vets did the same.

Jon Voight won an Oscar for playing one of Ashby's social mirrors, the paraplegic Vietnam veteran in Coming Home, falling in love with a gung-ho officer's wife (Jane Fonda). Voight recalled the "interesting looking fellow" in T-shirts and dark glasses, a unique artist in an evolving industry.

"It was something about his personality, kind of a maverick but kind of mysterious," Voight said by telephone. "Nothing was ordinary about Hal. There was a particular vision and personal stamp that Hal had, something unusual and refreshing."

Voight was impressed enough to produce and star in Ashby's later film, Lookin' to Get Out, a gambler comedy that Warner Bros. wouldn't release without 15 minutes cut. Ashby left in anger; Voight picked up the pieces. The movie quickly disappeared.

"It came out crippled," Voight said. "We all licked our wounds and found something else to do."

In 2007, Voight learned from Dawson of a version of Lookin' to Get Out found in UCLA's archives, supposedly the director's privately composed version (before directing, Ashby won an Oscar for editing In the Heat of the Night). Voight arranged a screening, loved it, and pushed Warner Bros. into an upcoming DVD release.

Dawson also introduced Voight to Leigh McManus, a Northern California woman who — to the actor's shock — was presented as Ashby's biological daughter. She and Ashby planned to meet through the years but never did.

"I had no idea," Voight said, "and I felt very sad about that. I'm pretty sure I would've been able to get those guys together. Hal would have had a lovely blessing meeting this gal."

McManus told Voight that Lookin' to Get Out was her favorite of her father's films. She thought the girl in the movie, played by Voight's own daughter, Angelina Jolie, was meant to be her.

"I told her about the conversation on the set about whether it should be a daughter or son, because I had both who could do the shot," Voight said. "Hal wanted to make it a little girl, and I remember we had the sweetest conversation about that.

In a way, Voight said, that scene was Ashby's way of communicating with her. Like every other movie he made, the message was understated, cryptic, ahead of the curve. Just waiting to be decoded and treasured when the curve catches up.

Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. For more with Dawson on Ashby's career, read Persall's blog, Reeling in the Years, at


Sarasota Film Festival

The 11th annual festival includes a retrospective of Hal Ashby's films from the 1970s, plus the unreleased director's cut of Lookin' to Get Out (1982). The tribute culminates with a posthumous award Saturday at the Filmmakers Tribute Gala at 7 p.m. at Sarasota Opera House, 61 N Pineapple Ave. Author Nick Dawson, Academy Award winner Jon Voight, actor Illeana Douglas and Ashby's daughter Leigh McManus will attend. Tickets are $35-$125. Visit the festival Web site,, for information.

New biography, Sarasota Film Festival celebrate unwilling icon, director Hal Ashby 03/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2009 4:30am]
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