HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971)
Director: Hal Ashby
Starring: Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon, Vivian Pickles
Harold: Oh, I don’t drink.
Maude: That’s okay. It’s organic.
Age is but a number when it comes to this quirky and special relationship. We know that when we see Harold (Cort) hanging himself at the beginning of the movie, he will survive or else we wouldn’t have the rest of the movie. His hanging is part of a series where he likes to stage his bloody suicide scenes. It is slightly disturbing, yet funny at the same time. His mother (Pickles) describes him as a “delicate child”. She is overbearing and completely out of touch with her son. She is always trying to get him to join the military and brings home potential girlfriends for him.
It should probably come as no surprise for someone that is fascinated with death that he likes to attend funerals and burials. At one particular burial, he sees Maude (Gordon) lurking by a tree in the background. They meet again at another funeral where introductions are made and their lives are forever changed. They naturally don’t know the deceased at either funeral. Maude is this seventy-nine year old earthy, eccentric artist living in an old train car that she has filled with her art projects and memorabilia. She also likes to steal people’s cars. A friendship and bond between Harold and Maude ensues leading to an eventual romance. Their antics and adventures are downright hysterical especially their encounters with members of the police.
From the beginning when we see Harold’s staged hanging, you immediately get the tone of the film that is set in place. There is a dark and twisted sense of humor that resides over Harold. Is it him seeking attention from his mother? Is it a rebellion to the proper and sophisticated lifestyle he is brought up in? Screenwriter Colin Higgins and director Hal Ashby have taken this idea of Harold’s and executed it perfectly. While at first sight they are somewhat shocking, the nonchalant reaction shots from his mother make them quite funny. There are eight suicide scenes for Harold throughout the movie and each one of them is priceless, especially when one of his potential girlfriends is an actress and plays along with it thinking he is staging a bit from “Romeo and Juliet”. He may have an obsession of death, but the film never feels morose or depressing.
As a juxtaposition to that is Maude, who at the age of seventy-nine, lives life to the fullest. On the outside, one could easily think of her as some crazy old lady that has lost it. She is quite the opposite of that. Maude knows perfectly well that she is evading the cops or living in a train car and doesn’t care. She will beat to her own drum however she sees fit. She lives this carefree life full of art, music, and nature. Opposites do attract as she opens Harold up to a whole different way of looking at life. There is something so sweet and genuine about the evolution of their friendship that it never feels unrealistic or creepy that this young man starts falling for someone that could be his grandmother. Maude is brought to life by the brilliant Ruth Gordon, who had recently won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in Rosemary’s Baby. That film will be featured later in my Criterion series. She brings forth a vitality and effervescence to Maude that you fall in love with as well.
It is hard to not soak in all of the rich 1970s elements captured by cinematographer John Alonzo. Between the costumes and Cat Stevens music, the film is definitely a snapshot from that fabulous decade of cinema. In one of the special features, Cat Stevens discusses how some of the songs that were used were only demos at the time and weren’t fully produced or finished until they wanted to release a soundtrack. Despite the fact it is very much a product of its time, there is a timeless quality to it. It never feels dated or past its prime.
Harold and Maude has had a lasting impression on movie going audiences. It has had numerous midnight screenings over the years and definitely has a cult following. The prestigious American Film Institute has recognized it four times in their 100 Years lists, including being #45 on 100 Laughs, #69 on 100 Passions, and #89 on 100 Cheers. The film was released on Criterion Collection Blu-Ray and DVD in 2012 with a variety of special features including: a new digital restoration and uncompressed monaural soundtrack, new commentary by Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles B. Mulvehill, audio excerpts with Ashby and Colin Higgins, a new interview with Cat Stevens, and a booklet with interview excerpts with Bud Cort and cinematographer John Alonzo, and an essay with film critic Matt Zoller Seitz. Compared to other Criterion releases, the special features are a bit sparse and most of them are taken from when the film was released.
These two are one of favorite screen couples of all time thanks to the witty script by Colin Higgins and the sublime performances by Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon. They are an unconventional couple to say the least, but it never feels disturbing. The film has a whole takes its time to let this relationship unfold. Movie audiences of today may find the film slow as there isn’t a lot of action or fast paced scenes to keep up with the short attention spans of today. This film, along with many other films from the ’70s, are all about the evolution of the characters. Here, we go on these little adventures Maude takes Harold on and see him open up in a whole new light. It is sweet, delicate, odd, and timeless. I first saw it years ago and just watched it again for the first time since then. I couldn’t help but think that it would be a perfect movie for a rainy day or when you are sick at home and need something to lift your spirits.
“Harold, you make me feel like a school girl.”
RATING: **** 1/2 (4.5 out of 5 stars)