Even in the brash, comparatively open-minded environment of the "New Hollywood" in the early 1970s, Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude is an incredibly unlikely studio film about an incredibly unlikely romance. With its polarized May-September romance, unironic counterculture values, and oddball tone of pitch-black comedy and love of all things eccentric, it is no wonder that critics were perplexed, if not downright vicious (the reviewer for Variety memorably wrote that the film "has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage"). Mainstream audiences also steered clear, suggesting that the trail for artful, left-of-center Hollywood films blazed by The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) was already starting to shut down long before Spielberg's little shark movie launched the summer blockbuster craze four years later. The fact that it became a huge cult sensation on the midnight movie circuit along with such cinematic oddities as El Topo (1970), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Eraserhead (1978) is much less difficult to fathom.
Written by Colin Higgins when he was a third-year film student at UCLA (he would go on to write and direct the turn-of-the-'80s hit 9 to 5), Harold and Maude has a loose, rambling vibe that eschews an orderly narrative in favor of something that feels more like life in all its random messiness even though many of the characters and situations in which they find themselves are stylized to the point of absurdist artifice. The film spends much of its time in that unique space between reality and farce, towing a fine line that director Hal Ashby, in only his second feature outing, maintains with seemingly effortless grace. Ashby would go on to be a potent force in 1970s Hollywood, directing a string of offbeat classics that include The Last Detail (1972), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979) before the cultural and institutional shifts of the 1980s marginalized him to the point of irrelevance. That Harold and Maude, buoyed by a folksy Cat Stevens soundtrack, failed to find its initial audience and has since become a classic (both cult and otherwise) in its own right is testament to just how far ahead Ashby was, even though the film itself was often thought to be several years late, having just missed the late-'60s counterculture wave (not surprisingly, it was immediately embraced in Europe, where it was also turned into a popular stageplay).
We are first introduced to Harold (Bud Cort), a gangly, privileged young man of about 20, as he moves about his ornate living room before hanging himself-a stunt that turns out to be just another entry in a long series of faux suicide attempts he stages to shock and upset his haughty, well-mannered mother (British stage actress Vivian Pickles). For reasons that are not explained until deep into the film, Harold is obsessed with death, and his suicidal performances (which also include a gory throat and wrist slitting in his mother's bathroom, floating facedown in the pool while she swims laps, and staged self-immolation) are just his way of acting out. The film's opening scenes, which focus almost entirely on Harold's bizarre death fetish and his mother's failed attempts to get him help via a therapist, provide an early test for the viewer: If you find the specter of Harold hanging from the ceiling with his blue-painted tongue lolling out while his mother calmly makes a phone call and then scolds him before leaving the room humorous, you're in. If not well it's going to be a long movie.
Harold meets Maude, a spirited 79-year-old on the verge of turning 80, at a funeral they both attend even though they don't know the deceased. It turns out that attending strangers' funerals is about the only thing they have in common, which is why they turn out to be such a perfect couple. Maude is the instigator, comically drawing Harold's attention while the funeral is in progress and asking him if he wants a lift in his own car (she frequently steals people's cars, not out of greed or even necessity, but rather to remind them of the fleeting nature of material things). Soon they are spending time together, and Maude's bright, shining embrace of life opens Harold up to its possibilities. His death obsession remains, but it begins to recede as Maude's life-affirming philosophies, however oddly enacted in her anything-goes lifestyle, cuts through his malaise. She speaks in hippie-friendly aphorisms, but coming from the mouth of such a delicately poised octogenarian, they take on the weight of accumulated wisdom, rather than political platitudes (a brief glimpse of a concentration camp tattoo on her arm acts as a subtle means of enhancing and complicating her views on life and death). Harold's mother, who has no idea that he is carrying on with a woman old enough to be his grandmother, tries to set him up with blind dates, each of whom he runs off with one of his death performances (that is, until he meets his match in a melodramatic actress who takes his bloody enactment of hari-kari as an opportunity to enthrall him with her own enactment of Juliet's suicide).
Part of the beauty of Harold and Maude is the way it cuts through the superficial surfaces of conventional romance and digs into what actually draws people together. The casting is nothing short of impeccable (even the Variety reviewer had nothing but praise for the leads), as one couldn't imagine anyone other than Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon playing the title roles. With his baby face and elfin eyes, Cort (who had already starred in Robert Altman's M*A*S*H and Brewster McCloud) looks much young than 20, which makes some of his antics seem even more childish, sometimes verging on cruelty. Yet, once he spends time with Maude, he seems to mature in front of us, losing the angry-child glint in his eyes and becoming a reformed innocent. Gordon, who already had a lifetime of stage and screen experience before she won the Oscar for her memorable role as Mia Farrow's nosy neighbor in Rosemary's Baby (1968), plays Maude as a true one-of-a-kind without turning her into a kook. She's a self-aware outsider who isn't above exploiting her age to get away with things (like the aforementioned stealing of cars), yet evinces such sweetness and genuine care for what she loves that you can't help but admire her constancy.
One of the best things I can say about Harold and Maude is that you quickly lose sight of the age difference between Harold and Maude and begin to see them simply as people who connect and love each other. They are oddballs in a world that doesn't understand or appreciate them, although the film sidesteps simple us-versus-them banality by portraying the establishment as kooky in its own right. We see this most clearly in Harold's Uncle Victor (Charles Tyner), a dedicated career military man whose lack of a right arm doesn't keep him from proudly saluting a portrait of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale. The film's other authority figures, including Harold's caricatured psychoanalyst (G. Wood) and an uptight priest (Eric Christmas), are clearly left of typical, with the only real difference between them and Harold being that they aren't aware of it. In Harold and Maude, normality is completely in the eye of the beholder, which is why, in the end, the title characters feel like the most normal and reasonable of all.
Copyright © 2022 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3.5)
Get a daily dose of Mexico Star news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.