Written by Greg Barbrick
The oddest couple in cinematic history have got to be the 20-year old Harold (Bud Cort) and the 80-year old Maude (Ruth Gordon). The two star in Hal Ashby’s film Harold and Maude (1971), which has just been issued on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection.
Even in the somewhat “anything goes” mentality of 1971, it amazes me that Harold and Maude was ever made. Almost every single movie I have seen from the early seventies is dated in one way or another, usually with some “counter-culture” references. This is understandable in the wake of Easy Rider (1969), which basically kicked off the New Hollywood era.
Harold and Maude avoids this trap by being so far outside of the mainstream, that it basically stands alone. Obviously a love story between two people who are 60 years apart in age, is unusual. But the “strangeness” of Harold and Maude does not end there, by any means.
When we first meet Harold, we discover he is a bored rich-kid. He enjoys surprising his mother, Mrs. Chasen (Vivian Pickles), with elaborate suicide fake-outs, which he pulls off very well. She is so used to these; however, she just shrugs her shoulders.
When a psychiatrist asks him what he does for fun, Harold replies, “I go to funerals.“ The psychiatrist seems to take this as nothing more than a smart-ass answer, as did I, at first. But sure enough, we see Harold attending a number of funerals, which he finds out about in the obituary section of the newspaper. It is at the various funerals where he meets someone who has her own interest in attending the funerals of strangers, Maude.
Meanwhile, Harold’s mother thinks that setting him up on “computer dates,” (surely a very expensive proposition in 1971), might bring him around. So she sets him up on a few. Harold manages to immediately horrify the first one by exploding a mock-up of himself outside the window she is waiting for him at. The second has a similar response when he “chops off’ his hand in front of her.
When Maude asks Harold what he likes to do besides going to funerals, we get a visual response. The next scene shows the two of them having a picnic in the shadow of a building, which is in the process of being demolished. Later, the two are walking downtown, and she sees a tree with its leaves turning brown, planted in the right of way. Right there Maude decides to give the tree a better life. She has an uncanny skill for hotwiring whatever vehicle is handy for her uses, and in this case they are going to need a truck. She and Harold uproot the tree, put it in back of a stolen truck, and head out to the woods to re-plant it.
When a motorcycle cop (Tom Skerritt) pulls her over for some of the worst driving ever filmed, she manages to ditch him when she gets tired of his questions. They go and plant the tree, and on the way back, the cop sees them, and pulls them over again. While he is going through the truck, Harold and Maude take off on his motorcycle.
These are just a few of the escapades the two get up to, which never seem to have any real consequences. Eventually they get married, to live happily ever after. Throughout the film, Maude has been talking about how excited she is about her upcoming 80th birthday. And the way she celebrates it is indeed a surprise, as is the ultimate ending. There is no way I am going to spoil it here for anyone who has not seen the film. But I will venture to say that no matter now “script-smart” one might think they are, the ending is as surprising, and unconventional as the rest of the film.
I had heard about Harold and Maude from various sources for many years, but had yet to actually see it until this new Criterion Collection edition. To be honest though, it would have made little difference if I seen it 41 years ago upon release, or 20 years ago on VHS, or yesterday for that matter. The term “timeless classic” is the most overused description in film criticism, yet it has never been more appropriate than in the case of Harold and Maude.
While what I have described may sound like a series of shocking images, they do not really come off that way at all. There is something about the soft-focus direction Ashby employs, and the gentle background music of Cat Stevens that makes everything seem so very ordinary as to make the whole thing all the more subversive.
Films in the Criterion Collection are often noted for the plethora of bonus materials included. In addition to the digital restoration, the DVD special features also include an optional remastered stereo soundtrack, and an audio commentary by Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles B. Mulvehill. Illustrated audio excerpts from seminars by Ashby and writer-producer Colin Higgins are also notable.
For those who may have wondered whatever happened to Cat Stevens, there is an interesting new interview with him, (who now goes by the name of Yusuf Islam). Rounding things out is a 38-page booklet with a number of interesting essays and interviews.
Harold and Maude is deservedly ranked as one of the most unusual films of all time, but it is much more than that. It is the ultimate misfit story, and one which is so well-done that we take every preposterous situation at face value. Hal Ashby went on to direct other landmark seventies films, including The Last Detail (1973), and Coming Home (1978). While Harold and Maude was not his directorial debut, it is his first undisputed classic, and this Criterion Collection edition is a great way to see it.