Harold and Maude

When I think of the work of Hal Ashby, it’s nearly always for the run of movies he directed in the 1970s. Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound For Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979).

Despite these artistic successes, Ashby today is much less heralded than many of his contemporaries. Yes, his career was much shorter than the likes of Scorsese and Friedkin – he died of pancreatic cancer in 1988 aged 59 years old – but Being There is arguably one of the finest satires of the decade and Harold and Maude might just be the oddest feature length release to appear during the golden years of what was dubbed New Hollywood or the American New Wave.

Hal Ashby was as near to an archetypal hippy as Hollywood ever produced. He smoked dope not just on a daily basis but on a near constant basis.

Hal Ashby cameo in Harold and Maude

In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind tells the story of one meeting at Paramount with the producer of Hal and Maude, Charles Mulvehill. Here the plan was for the pair to go over their budget plans line by line with the moneymen. Both were so stoned they could hardly read the numbers, let alone make sense of them.

Would this happen today at a major studio? I reckon it’s safe to say no.

As his generation of directors struggled to adjust to to the new more conservative filmmaking climate of the 1980s, Hal’s drug intake increased.
He refused to compromise on any level and frequently clashed with studio execs. He had become a heavy cocaine user by this point and they often used this against him.

Hal missed out on directing a number of movies, the most high profile of these being Tootsie. According to Amy Scott, the maker of the 2018 documentary Hal, this ‘would have been a game-changer’ for his career.

He did go on to make a number of other films but none matched up to those six from his seventies heyday and sadly his plans to develop films based on Richard Brautigan’s novel The Hawkline Monster and Truman Capote’s Handcarved Coffins never came to fruition.

Harold and Mum

Okay, Harold and Maude.

Harold is Harold Chasen, a wealthy young man played by Bud Cort, who has become completely obsessed with death. The film kicks off with what appears to be him swinging from the end of a noose, an event that fails to arouse much interest from his socialite mother played by Vivian Pickles. ‘Dinner at eight, Harold. And do try and be a little more vivacious.’

I doubt this counts a spoiler as it’s the opening scene of the film but this is a mock suicide. Harold has a passion for staging this kind of thing. And he prefers to drive a hearse than a flashy Jag.

While attending one funeral of someone he doesn’t even know, he comes across Maude (Ruth Gordon). She has a lot in common with Harold. Apart from a penchant for gatecrashing funerals, they both hate authority – like Ashby – and have very idiosyncratic personalities. Maude is an effervescent bohemian, who is much livelier than the morbid Harold. Rather than an obsession with death, she possesses a passion for life.

There’s another big difference between them. An age gap. And when I say age gap, I don’t mean like the age gap between, say, the Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft characters in The Graduate.*

Harold is twenty. Maude is pushing eighty.

Ruth_Gordon_and_Bud_Cort

The pair start spending more and more time together, and while they do, Harold’s mother decides to sign her son up to a computer dating agency, selecting three young and single females that she hopes might just be right for her son. When her third choice, a wannabe actress called Sunshine Doré (Ellen Geer) fails to see anything too awry with his staged hari-kari, and gives her own histrionic take of Juliet’s death scene, it looks like Harold might have met someone in tune with him who is actually around his own age.

And here I’ll just mention that the young Elton John was at one point being seriously considered to play Harold and provide the soundtrack. This thankfully didn’t happen, but he did recommend that Cat Stevens write the music for the film. Many adore this but not me. I suspect this is a result of my class in primary school being regularly forced to sing along to his take on Morning Has Broken.

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The movie opened at the tail-end of 1971, just in time for Oscar consideration. Paramount needn’t have bothered. Critics were scathing. Even some usually very perceptive critics like Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby. In the New York Times, the latter suggested of the two leads that: ‘as performers, they both are so aggressive, so creepy and off-putting, that Harold and Maude are obviously made for each other.’

Variety went even further, describing it as having ‘all the fun and gaiety as a burning orphanage.’ Ouch.

The story was adapted into a Broadway play in 1980. It closed after only four performances.

Since then critics and audiences have been much kinder, with Ashby’s legacy of individuality and tackling unusual themes and social issues influencing a number of independent directors today. Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson, to name only two, are just big fans and its easy to see why if you watch any of their output.

Bud_Cort_&_Ruth_Gordon

It’s not my favourite of Ashby’s works, despite the excellent acting. Ruth Gordon surely deserved a string of awards for her performance, while Bud Cort is maybe even better, baby-faced yet effortlessly oozing alienation. The scenes where Hal’s hawkish uncle attempts to persuade him to join the military could have with just a little subtlety and I’m not sure the ending was right, although I better not say why as that would give things away.

As the end credits rolled, though, I instantly wanted to see more of his movies, especially Shampoo and Being There.

Would any studio release a film like Harold and Maude today?

I did have a quick swatch at the upcoming release schedule of Paramount. It’s full of kid’s movies (Sonic The Hedgehog & Rugrats), and pointless remakes, sequels and franchises (Top Gun 2020, Italian Job II, and Mission Impossible 7). So I won’t be scanning any ads for my local Odeon for the possibility of seeing anything anywhere near as idiosyncratic any time soon.

If you liked Harold and Maude, you might also like the aforementioned documentary on his life and times Hal.

Written and directed by Amy Scott, this appreciation takes a look at his career from his early days and the time he spent as an editor on films such as In the Heat of the Night and The Cincinnati Kid, through to his highs and lows as a director.

In addition to some fascinating archive footage of Ashby himself, there are also insightful interviews with Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Rosanna Arquette, Jeff Bridges, John C. Reilly and a bunch of others.

It’s a fond remembrance of the man, but it also refuses to shy away from his issues and mental health deterioration, as well as his substance abuse.

* There’s been a rash of articles in recent years bemoaning the fact that Hollywood is so keen to team up older men with younger women in onscreen relationships. This is largely true, although none of the pieces I’ve read have mentioned movies that invert this generalisation: Room At The Top, To Die For, Hallam Foe, The Good Girl off the top of my head in addition to The Graduate.