A cult comedy, Harold and Maude (1971; 91 minutes; dir. Hal Ashby) tries a mite too hard to be unusual. It says something valuable, though, and it stays with you.
20-year-old Harold (Bud Cort) is a rich, death-obsessed introvert. 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon), spunky and poor, is a Holocaust survivor who teaches him to embrace life. The not-quite platonic romance between them could have been sentimental dross. And sometimes the movie veers close. As somewhat of a tonic to this, Ashby and screenwriter Colin Higgins coat the film with a dry, dark sense of humor.
Depressed as hell, but not without his morbid kicks, Harold loves to stage elaborate fake suicides—to see if his cold, prim mother (Vivian Pickles) will mourn, even notice, him. After he bumps into Maude at two different funerals (for total strangers), he reconsiders the way he looks at life and death. An old hippie in her way, Maude is a pixie full of moxie. She’s the mom he never had, a free spirit who poses for nude portraits, and steals cars and trees. She zips around with an appreciation for all that each day offers. And sure, in one sense, the woman’s nuts. Yet the movie begs the question: Just how sane is she? There is, perhaps, a sound basis to her philosophies.
A perverse take on The Graduate (1967), Harold and Maude flies in part because it balances the bitter with the sweet in an odd but tight little package. It underplays its hand in either direction. The film revels in a nutty deadpan that offsets any traces of sentiment. And you warm to the characters. They never register as mere attitudes (toward life, death, or freedom).
The actors pair well, too. Cort is great—he will always be Harold. Gordon isn’t insufferably wacky. She just invests herself in the role. It’s extreme, sometimes; but with Cort’s wide-eyed shyness, it gels. The chemistry lifts the film.
Without Ashby, though, Harold and Maude could have been a mere curio. Shot in and around a gloomy but green San Francisco, the movie (his second as director) shows his gift for casting, editing, framing, and pacing a dry comedy just so. Another director could have overplayed the darkness, might have left the characters less eccentric. Ashby employs a cool but light touch. The Yusef/Cat Stevens tunes on the soundtrack—warm and sweet pop-folk songs of weathered yearning—convey a childlike sense of wonder and loss. They get at Maude’s hard-won humanism (and the emotions with which Harold is bubbling). They counterpoint to the deadpan moments.
My inner teenage outcast used to love this film. I suspect it’ll charm anyone with a heart—who, young or old, feels out of step with the world. Harold and Maude concerns the courage to be yourself, to experience life fully. It’s not cloying; and so, because of this and other choices Ashby makes… It’s sort of ageless.
Celebrating the film’s 50th anniversary, the new Paramount Blu-ray comes with audio commentary by Larry Karaszewski and Cameron Crowe, an appreciation by Yusef/Cat Stevens, and theatrical trailers.