Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971)
Harold (Bud Cort) is a twenty something son a of a wealthy socialite woman (Vivian Pickles) who wants him to become someone and be more like her. He is just doing the exact opposite and simulates his death by multiple simulated suicides. He even regularly attends funerals and he is captivated by death. Until one day, at a funeral, he met Maude (Ruth Gordon) who is passionate about life and is 79 years old.
This quirky dark comedy about the clash of generations, life, death, and everything between is everything that you want a feelgood movie to be. It is also like a Wes Anderson picture, bittersweet and hilarious. Especially the free spirited Maude who was, by the way, probably the basis for the character of Phoebe Buffay in the sitcom Friends who we only know that she was in the concentration camps from a tattoo on her arm represents this generation of people who got through the World Wars and hope for love and happiness. Her reactions and complete freedom of action is amazing. She guides Harold into life and gives him a little more colour than he ever had. His meeting with her was like has if he was starting his life. Harold represents the generation that is blazed with opulence and never faced difficulty or trouble.
The contrast of the two characters, by their age, views on life bring to Harold the humanity that he lacked and opened his eyes to a life of possibilities and possible happiness. The director of Harold and Maude, who has a cameo in his own film, often pictured lost causes that got a second chance to do things right. Just like The Last Detail where Jack Nicholson shows to Randy Quaid everything he’ll be missing or just like Peter Sellers who has the luck to live a real life after his years of servitude in Being There. Hal Ashby was a man doomed by his addictions and believed in last chances and ironically had his protagonists in those situations.
Ashby had a difficult life from the start with the divorce of his parents, his father’s suicide, and he dropped out of high school at an early age. His career exploded when he earned the Academy Award for Best Editing for Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night. He is one of the greatest directors of the 1970’s decade, the second golden age of Hollywood and for some the best decade in movies. He was one of the main directors that carried the New Hollywood ethos and one of the last to have directed a film after the blockbuster revolution of Jaws and Star Wars began.
It is more than evident that Harold and Maude was the film of a generation and an eternal classic of this prolific era. Hal Ashby’s contribution to popular Cinema is undeniable and should never be minimized.