(1971) Directed by Hal Ashby; Written by Colin Higgins; Starring: Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles and Charles Tyner; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming
Rating: **** ½
“I haven't lived. I've died a few times.” – Harold
It’s interesting to note a common thread running through several of the films that I have chosen for this column. Many were not favorites with audiences or critics at the time they were released, but eventually found their audience. What was considered a misstep became highly regarded after the fact. Of all the films I’ve covered, Harold and Maude is perhaps the toughest sell on account of its premise – a 20-year-old man falls in love with an 80-year-old woman. Taken at face value, it’s probably enough to stop most filmgoers dead in their tracks. That’s unfortunate, since anyone dismissing the film without looking beneath the surface would miss a deliciously witty, dark comedy that’s ironically life-affirming.
Bud Cort shines in his career-defining role as the lugubrious Harold.* His pallid complexion (which becomes increasingly lifelike as he interacts with Maude), somnambulistic demeanor and wide-eyed expressions stand out in every scene. He drives an old hearse, attends funerals for recreation and stages several elaborate suicides – all of which is an effort to thwart his long-suffering mother’s (Vivian Pickles) attempts to integrate him into the rest of the world. His preoccupation with death is a conscious ploy to disengage from society, as he summarily turns away each of the potential mates she has selected for him. Harold’s tendency to tune out, rather than tune in is at the root of his fascination with death. It’s easier to play dead than suffer the travails of life.
* Fun fact: A surprising list of names were considered for the role of Harold. According to producer Charles B. Mulvehill, Elton John was approached for the film, but he wasn’t interested. Ultimately, director Hal Ashby auditioned six actors, including Bud Cort, Richard Dreyfuss and Bob Balaban.
If Harold’s mother represents conformity, then Maude (Ruth Gordon) exists as her polar opposite. The 75-year-old Gordon provides the film’s other standout performance, exhibiting more energy than many actors half her age. While others (including Harold’s mother) strive to blend in with society, Maude lives to stir the pot. A brief shot, where a Nazi concentration camp tattoo is revealed on her arm, provides some insight into her motivations and her shadowy European past. Maude has experienced more pain and tragedy in her life than she can stand, and has since rejected the awful memories and negativity that can only serve to tarnish the present. She chooses to live life as a free spirit, beyond judgment and conventional morality.* Maude finds a kindred spirit in Harold, their relationship kindled by their mutual love of funerals. She facilitates Harold’s emergence into a new identity, as he eschews his false one.
* Fun fact number two: Despite her character’s penchant for driving off in other peoples’ cars, Gordon herself did not drive.
Cat Stevens’ (aka: Yusuf Islam) lively soundtrack deserves special mention. His songs are such an integral part of Harold and Maude, that it’s impossible to imagine the film without them. While he didn’t create a whole soundtrack from the ground up (most of the songs were cobbled together from two of his then recent albums, with a couple of new ones thrown in), the songs are seamlessly woven throughout the scenes. The infectious “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” will dwell in your head (in a good way) for days.
So what about the big pink elephant in the room – Harold’s love affair with Maude? Yes, there’s implied sex (mercifully left to our imagination), but the film isn’t really about that, but two souls enjoying an intense, albeit brief, convergence. Their relationship is handled discretely and at its core, what they share together is actually quite sweet.
Ashby originally wanted Harold to kill himself at the end, which would have been the antithesis of everything that led up to that point. By the film’s conclusion, Harold has established a new, more authentic identity. He remains a singular presence, rather than a pre-programmed drone. Harold and Maude’s themes resonate as strongly today as they did when the film debuted. Through Harold and his bumpy transgression, we’re reminded that facing the inevitability of life is as important as facing the inevitability of death.