Hal Ashby was one of the leading filmmakers of the 1970s. The march of time relegated him to near-anonymity until lately. His work is being re-examined, thanks in large part to Amy Scott’s new documentary, Hal which explores Ashby’s success with a decade-long chain of splendid films beginning with the little-known gem, The Landlord, which addresses inner-city conflicts in 1970s Brooklyn. It was followed by Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Coming Home (1978) which won Ashby a Best Director Oscar, and Being There (1979). Harold and Maude, like many of Ashby’s other films, features a rebel who refuses to mindlessly go along with the system at its heart.
The dark comedy, Harold and Maude tells a simple tale of a love between a boy not yet 20 and a 79-year-old woman.
Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) is a teenager with a raging death fetish. He eats, sleeps, and breathes death. Harold regularly designs elaborate suicide set pieces in which he is the victim. These are funny and at the same time, grotesque. His mother (played by the hilarious Vivian Pickles), in exasperation, disengages from her son’s weird ways, his staged suicides. Her reaction to finding her son hanging from a noose is to phone to confirm a hair salon appointment. Harold, failing to gain her attention, goes about feeding his death obsession. A walking wound of teenage angst – the confusion, the alienation, the self-consciousness – Harold is a bundle of silent neuroses. He pouts. He sulks. He tools around in a hearse attending funerals of people he doesn’t know. Maude, too, attends funerals recreationally, and so they meet – and a friendship develops. Maude is the antithesis of Harold; for her, life is one never-ending adventure – she can’t squeeze enough out of every moment. This, of course, puzzles and intrigues the sad, pallid Harold. Soon, camaraderie turns to romance, romance to a marriage proposal, you have to come see the movie to find out what happens from there.
The two leads couldn’t be more perfect. Cort is appropriately oddball, a coup of casting. He has the elongated body of a stilt-walker with a little boy’s head perched atop it, chalk-colored, bloodless. His lifeless eyes imply he died a long time ago. Think “ventriloquist’s dummy”. The great and memorable Ruth Gordon plays Maude. She is a wonder. She was a talented theater actress and screenwriter, collaborating with her husband, Garson Kanin on the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy classic, Adam’s Rib which earned the pair an Oscar nomination. Gordon found success as a screen actress later in life, earning an Academy Award nomination for Inside Daisy Clover and a win for her role as Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby.
Gordon was a genuine eccentric and she plays Maude the way she played out her own life, as a feisty, no-holds-barred spitfire. Get out of her way! Her Maude sees no issues whatsoever with having a relationship with a much younger man. What’s the problem? They really like each other, revel in each other’s company. They really like each other, revel in each other’s company. It is deliciously ironic that what saves Harold from death is a relationship with a woman whose age means that death is an all too real prospect – Maude knows her time is limited so she relishes every second of it. Infectious! There is something euphoric about the life-affirming ethos weaving its way through the story, ably accompanied by the Cat Stevens soundtrack, which is nothing short of sublime. This elation runs counter to the maudlin, heavy way Harold mopes around. Maude’s mind and eyes percolate with devilment as they seek out the adventures and misadventures they know wait around every corner.
Harold and Maude remains one of the durable cult classics to emerge from that era. Along with Phillppe de Broca’s King of Hearts and Jim Sharman’s Rocky Horror Picture Show, it appeals to generation after generation. In order to do that, a film has to contain elements of timelessness. It must present a theme that speaks to audiences outside of time and space. Love stories, well-done, are ageless. I don’t think Harold and Maude was ever really part of its time. True, it mirrored the alienation between 1960s free-thinkers and the Establishment. A lot of movies of the time sought to portray these dynamics and are forgotten. Had Harold and Maude stuck solely to depicting this brief time in American culture, it, too, might have become instantly dated, trapped in cinematic amber. But Hal Ashby, like all great directors, had bigger fish to fry and knew a story about the honest love between two people can be a story that lasts forever. His movie, superbly acted and filmed, delivers a powerful message. Almost fifty years later, we are still cheering for Harold and Maude.