Harold & Maude (1971) is the first of three films directed by Hal Ashby in the first half of the seventies that deals with death. The explicit nature with which Colin Higgins screenplay approaches the question of mortality as a literal subject sets Harold & Maude apart from Ashby’s other films. The Last Detail (1973) and Shampoo (1975), both scripted by Robert Towne, deal with death as a figurative or analogous concept.
The most obvious approach to death Harold & Maude makes is in it’s depiction of Harold’s (Bud Cort) faked suicides and Maude’s (Ruth Gordon) 80th birthday celebration. The relationship between these two characters is contradictory to the common approach to youth and old age in the cinema. Harold has given up on life, fixated upon death as a means to elude the monotony of life in a capitalist society. Maude, on the other hand, revels in her eccentric inventions, her artwork, petty crimes, and the memories of her revolutionary youth in what we can assume is Russia during the rise of communism. Maude not only teaches Harold how to “live life to its fullest”, but how to escape the monotony that dogs him through individual acts of societal subversion.
The role reversal in Harold & Maude not only indicates the disillusionment that accompanies a failed social revolution, but the inevitable pattern of political upheaval. Ashby, a long time film editor, was infamously known in Hollywood for his hippie life style and leftist views. The disillusionment of Harold & Maude is quite possibly his own, and may in fact be his way of justifying the failed attempts toward social change his generation hoped to undertake.
What Ashby does with his skillful editing and a clever employment of Cat Stevens songs is to parallel the physical death with which Harold is obsessed and that Maude ultimately experiences with the political death Maude’s subversions are the result of and Harold’s mother’s behavior is indicative of as well. This tactic prevents Harold & Maude from reading as a preachy, post-love-in mantra. Instead, the political agenda of the film exists only as a subtext, allowing the audience to become totally invested in the comic misadventures of the films protagonists.
The parallel relationship of physical and political death resurfaces in Ashby’s next film, The Last Detail. The characters in both films make a journey through which they are able to better appreciate their lives but at the cost of one of their very lives. The political death is represented in The Last Detail not by nostalgia, but through the naïve idealism of Meadows (Randy Quaid). Meadows’ Boy Scout hopefulness is juxtaposed by Buddusky’s (Jack Nicholson) disillusionment in the wake of the then on going Vietnam War. Meadows’ death and Buddusky’s survival represents, once again, the passing of the ever hopeful “summer of love”. Ashby’s third film in this unofficial trilogy is Shampoo. Shampoo lacks the presence of any literal physical death. Instead, the film focuses on a political passing and a spiritual end, both being embodied by George Roundy (Warren Beatty). Set on election night, 1968 (the night Nixon becomes president), Shampoo uses Roundy’s trajectory as pure allegory. When Roundy loses all the women with whom he has a meaningful relationship that night, he undergoes a spiritual death, in adherence with the expectations set by the film’s narrative and Towne’s own penchant for pessimistic character studies. Simultaneously, Roundy represents a generation’s failure to achieve “free love”, political strength, and any true escape from the established norms of American society.
The thematic diptych evident in each of Ashby’s three films of the period reflect, with intimate precision, the director’s own fears regarding the political aspirations of the late sixties youth movement. But of all of the three films, only Harold & Maude is connected to the consciousness of the American filmgoer in this context. The film has become a “cult classic” and a go to for exemplifying the “flower power” movement. Strangely enough, only Shampoo deals explicitly with the popular visual and thematic trappings associated with the sixties, at least in so far as its narrative is concerned.
Pointing out the thematic cohesion of these three early Hal Ashby films makes it hard to believe that he is still one of the most under appreciated and misunderstood directors of the seventies. Because this cohesion exists only as a subtext in all three films, most audiences have a hard time recognizing Ashby’s significance as, what the French term, an auteur. However, in the many years since his death in 1988, critics and historians have re-evaluated the films of Hal Ashby, slowly granting him the recognition he has always deserved.