At once tender and existential, bleak and ecstatic, Hal Ashby’s crowning jewel Harold and Maude is as charming and kaleidoscopically impactful today as it was in 1971, finds Rafaela Sales Ross
A pair of impeccably polished shoes comes down a regal wooden staircase. The camera takes its time, refraining from even introducing us to the figure as his feet savour each and every step, the joyful beat of Cat Stevens’ ‘Don’t Be Shy’ playing in the background. “Don’t wear fear or nobody will know you’re there. Just lift your head, and let your feelings out instead,” Stevens sings with a levity that feels unreachable, just as the man steps onto a stool and kicks it from under his feet.
Just as fast as Harold (Bud Cort) flies into the air, his eyes reopen, wide and alert. His tongue follows, protruding out of his mouth in mockery as his mother enters the room and begins to talk, unbothered by the grisly scene in front of her. This exchange sets the tone for Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby’s 1971 sophomore feature following Harold, a 20-something with a talent for faking suicides, and Maude (Ruth Gordon), a bubbly bundle of energy despite nearing 80.
It is fitting that Harold and Maude arrived in countries including Brazil, Mexico, and Portugal under the title Teach Me How to Live. Even more fitting: the central couple meets at a funeral, starting their lives together as someone bids farewell to theirs, a cyclical allegory that colours Ashby’s ode to life’s poetic patterns. The two share the unusual pastime of attending funerals and burials of people they’ve never met, Harold out of a fascination for the morbid, Maude in an homage to living, death the closing curtains of a spectacular show. Beyond that, they have little in common, but that matters not to the young man, who – until meeting Maude – led a life as stiff as the church benches he spends so much time on.
With the exception of maybe Robert Altman, no other filmmaker has so perfectly captured the chaotic essence of the 1970s as Hal Ashby. Between 1970 and 1979, the director rapidly moved from box office failure to coveted Hollywood auteur, delivering an eclectic run that went from timely war critiques like The Last Detail (1973) and Coming Home (1978) to cleverly layered comedies such as The Landlord (1970), Shampoo (1975) and Being There (1979), even dabbling in westerns with 1976’s Bound for Glory.