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Teen Directors I:
Hal Ashby


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
June 9, 2008

Teen movies, which in recent years have become box-office gold, are a recent phenomenon. Teenage characters of any sort where scarce in the early days of cinema. What little screen time teens got usually relegated them to the role of eye candy-from Judy Garland in the 1930s Andy Hardy flicks to Annette and her buddies in the 1960s bikini bashes. When monster movies were the big office draw during the 1950s, teenagers even became menaces to be feared as "juvenile delinquents" in the teen films of the time including Blackboard Jungle, Rebel Without a Cause, and, to some extent, West Side Story.

Teenagers were largely ignored because any truthful film about them would have to deal with something far scarier than James Dean with a switchblade knife: the question of what it means to be human and, moreover, if being human is a meaningful endeavor.

Teen existentialism was around before Hal Ashby's Harold and Maudethere were elements of it in 1960s in the obscure film Lord Love a Duck as well as in  the television version of Max Shulman's Dobie Gillisbut Hal Ashby made the life-and-death implications of existence as viewed by teenagers inescapable. At some nitpicky level, Harold and Maude is not a teen movie (according to the Internet, Harold is supposed to be twenty years old and Maude is nearly four times that), but Harold has teenage problems in spades.

Harold and Maude's storyline is simple. The fatherless Harold (Bud Cort) suffers under the domination of his wealthy and insufferable mother (Vivian Pickles) and resorts to a series of hilarious fake suicides in an effort to elicit any reaction from her as well as to thwart her efforts at turning him into an adult by marrying him off. The more dramatic suicides are staged in an attempt to scare away a computer dates arranged by Harold's mother. Any life that Harold has is spent going to funerals, which is where he meets fellow habitué Maude (Ruth Gordon). Maude teaches Harold how to live life, they have sex, and you get the idea and if you have not seen the movie you really should. Like director Ashby himself, Maude is a "hippie" and the movie promotes the hippie lifestyle.

I did not see Harold and Maude during its first run in 1971; indeed, it was a major bomb at the box office that almost no one saw. A year or two later, I would see it in Caltech's Ramo auditorium as one of many movies that toured the college circuit. A few years later, Harold became a popular "midnight movie" at cinemas in college towns across America.

Films directly influenced by Harold abound. Garden State is almost a remake of Harold without the geriatric sex and with Natalie Portman. Heathers, the teen film to end all teen films, has a scene pulled straight from Harold. Even Fight Club draws heavily from Harold. Finally, the other teen films that I look at this summer owe a considerable debt to Harold and Maude.

To the extent that Harold and Maude is a message movie, it is quite upfront about its message: Life is meant to be lived; moreover, you should live it own your own terms. This movie has served as the philosophical playbook for now only the "Me decade" of the '70s, but for all of baby-boom culture and quite possibly for the upcoming millennial generation.

It is also worth noting that although it gives every appearance of being an indie film, Harold was a studio production put out by Paramount. The movie's screenwriter was fired early on and replaced by Ashby. Considerably arm-twisting was required to keep Paramount from completely ruining the film. Ruth Gordon was a big deal at the time as a result of her Oscar-winning performance in Rosemary's Baby, and her portrayal of Maude makes the movie. Bud Cort was a Robert Altman protégé who appeared in M*A*S*H (the movie) and played the title role in the quirky Brewster McCloud before doing Harold. Bud Cort, now more doughy than cute as a result of both age and a disfiguring auto accident, continues to show up in many small film and TV roles.

While Maude gets away with grossly irresponsible behavior in the film, director Ashby was not so lucky. Drug and personality problems tended to marginalize him in Hollywood. He did manage to nab an Oscar early in his career as a film editor, but never for directing. Still, he had one greater-than-great film in him, Being There, which puts Harold and Maude to shame. (Oddly, however, Harold and Maude is in the National Film Registry while Being There has yet to make it.) That film's central character, Chance (Peter Sellers), inhabits sumptuously surroundings similar to Harold's. Middle-aged by the calendar, Chance has the mind not of a teenager but rather of a child. Quite literally, everything Chance knows he learned from television. When the man of the house dies, Chance is cast out into the world and his utter cluelessness is mistaken for profound wisdom. Being There is a visually exquisite film with none of the rough edges that give Harold and Maude its indie look. It takes Harold's existentialism to the next level with its catchphrase "Life is a state of mind."

The expansiveness of Hal Ashby's filmography ensures that he will never be thought of as a teen film director. The same cannot be said of the next director in my summer series. Indeed, John Hughes is considered the premier writer and director of teen films. Next month, I will examine two of his classic movies.

Copyright 2008 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to