Harold and Maude (1971)
Release Date: December 20th, 1971 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Hal Ashby Actors: Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles, Cyril Cusack, Charles Tyner, Ellen Geer, Eric Christmas, Judy Engles, Shari Summers, Tom Skerritt, Susan Madigan
o the upbeat music of Cat Stevens, a young man lights a couple of candles and then hangs himself. It’s a striking, absurd, unexpected, contrasting sequence that is both curiously funny and grandly morbid. Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) doesn’t actually hurt himself, however, as he’s merely experimenting with a strange fascination with death. Even without this preoccupation, he’d still be an incredibly odd boy (though he’s technically an adult, he looks very, very young). This is, in part, due to his general solitude, a lack of strong male figures and friends in his life, and a vast amount of wealth.
When Harold splashes fake blood all over his mother’s bathroom and poses in the tub as if he slashed his wrists, it’s the final straw. His disapproving mother (Vivian Pickles) sends him off to a shrink for help. There, Harold reveals that his favorite recreational activity is attending funerals. Shortly afterward, at a random burial, he’s inspired to acquire a hearse. It’s there that he also spies Maude (Ruth Gordon) for the first time. She’s an observer of stranger’s funerals as well, though she’s the exact opposite of her new acquaintance – she’s nearly 80 years old and full of a vivacity that finds her stealing cars and savoring licorice while pondering the lives of the deceased. She’s overjoyed at the notion of new experiences – even when they’re against the law – and she’s a collector of all sorts of trinkets (perhaps swiped from unsuspecting donors), stored away in an abandoned train car. Adding to that, she also does nude modeling and paints self portraits.
The film includes some striking imagery, starting with Harold’s performed suicides, each possessing an amount of humor equal to their levels of ghastliness. Maude’s bright attire also stands out amongst the black-garbed mourners. But most of all it’s the peculiarity of the lead duo’s differences in ages and attitudes that is arrestive, bringing out the idea that traditional boundaries and classifications can’t restrict a connection between compatible minds. Though it’s far from a classical union, “Harold and Maude” is a genuine love story, with an undeniable degree of attraction – more in two people sharing a deep, profound understanding of psychological aberrance than in anything Hollywood could define as a standard. It’s the kind of controversial yet harmless relationship that would surely meet with opposition if it was to be represented again in modern cinema (upon its release, it was also met with confusion and disdain) – and it certainly wouldn’t have the effect that it has here.
The likes of Maude have perhaps never before been manifested onscreen; she’s one of the most likable, feisty, wise, hilarious, and entertaining of all movie characters. She’s almost impossibly unique – a role so uncommon that’s it’s routinely shocking to witness. After decades of filmmaking, how is it possible that this kind of persona hasn’t been seen before? As a sensational counterpart to this energetic, effervescent, talkative woman is the quiet, nervous, sullen Harold – a youth not without his own charms, similarly stemming from the rarity of his position as a protagonist. Even Harold’s mother is an anomaly, as oblivious to (or disregarding of) her son’s emotional problems as Maude is to law enforcement. Essentially, no character in the film remains plain or unassuming; they’re all overdone, exaggerated, flamboyant – yet entirely believable – creations, designed to celebrate life through the use of the most unforeseen avenue: death.
– Mike Massie