Harold and Maude is the movie that the current wave of indie-quirk comedies desperately wants to be. The film follows a po-faced 20-something male malcontent who is taught to love life by a manic female free spirit. Throw in some subtly showing-off cinematography, carefully cut into semi-music-video montages backed by a gentle folk-rock soundtrack, and you’ve got a movie ready for Sundance consumption and dorm room debates. The thing is, none of the irritating Garden States or Elizabethtowns of the world come close to matching Hal Ashby’s dark and warmhearted comedy, a perennial cult classic for over 40 years. The legions of imitators just don’t have the same warped insight, subversive comedic streak, or the genuine sentiment somehow devoid of sentimentality. Oh, and they aren’t ballsy enough to have the love story play out between a 21-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman. That’s pretty important too.
Bud Cort stars as Harold, a rich boy completely devoid of life goals or direction. He’s housed and ruled by his wealthy mother (a hilariously uptight Vivian Pickles) who clearly hasn’t allowed Harold to have much control over his life. Harold exists in permanent depression, his life dedicated to visiting funerals and staging elaborate fake suicides for his increasing desensitized mother. She tries to set him up on blind dates to cure the depression, but he just uses them as an opportunity to try out more faux suicides on a fresh squeamish audience. He does eventually find love in an unlikely place, meeting the elderly Maude on one of her many funeral visits. She partakes in the pastime with different motives, considering it one of the many ways she celebrates the experience of life rather than as a part of a morbid obsession with death, unlike a certain someone.
Maybe desperate for company, maybe seeing a little something of her former self within his pale and depressed exterior, Maude soon takes Harold under her wing. She teaches him to drive too fast, fight with authority, embrace individuality, love eccentricity, enjoy life and eventually fall in love. Priests, psychiatrists, and family members are disgusted by Harold’s new “commingling of flesh” (the priest’s words) with Maude, but the May/December duo doesn’t care. Thankfully, the story doesn’t end on a twee love-conquers-all note either.
Colin Higgins (Silver Streak, Foul Play) wrote this, his first screenplay, while still a film student in Los Angeles, working as a part-time chauffeur and pool cleaner in a producer’s mansion. He passed a copy of the script to the lady of the house and in a rare Hollywood miracle, she liked it enough to talk her husband into getting it made. The film eventually fell into the hands of director Hal Ashby, a man who is sadly forgotten these days but was one of the most talented figures among the American New Wave filmmakers of the 1970s.
Dressed in second-or-third-hand clothes with a massive beard and a lit joint never more than a few seconds away, Ashby was a man of his era who made a diverse array of projects during that decade, including the WASP-meets-ghetto culture-clash satire The Landlord, the swearing sailor mini-masterpiece The Last Detail, the post-Vietnam drama Coming Home, and the almost inexplicably resonant Peter Sellers comedy Being There. The style and tone of Ashby’s movies varied dramatically, but a theme tied them all together: societal outcasts struggling to find some sense of direction or connection. Harold and Maude is something of a definitive treatment of this theme, combining a cynical outsider’s comedic take on authority and convention with a free-wheeling hippie’s fantasy for the happiness of blind irrational love.
Ashby and co. never play up the eroticism or ickiness of the central relationship. It’s clear when the courting is happening and when the consummation goes down without any time-wasting titillation or shock. The film is a rather beautiful love story without dwelling on that fact, treating it more as life philosophy than genre convention. Maude’s constant speechifying should in theory be irritatingly pat (“I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this,” she tells Harold, holding it a single unique flower, before gesturing to an indistinguishable patch of flowers, “yet allow themselves to be treated as that”), yet never is. Part of it comes down to the extreme contrasts of the film, which balance any moment of saccharine messaging with pitch-black satire and play rah-rah ’60s youth philosophy through the mouth of an 80-year-old. But most of it comes down to the incomparable performance of Ruth Gordon, who three years earlier won an Oscar for Rosemary’s Baby.
It’s a role seemingly written for the tiny wrinkled ball of light, who bounced through the world giving her plenty of joyous physical comedy and moments of harsh truth. Gordon had acted for 30 years before Harold and Maude, but it became her iconic role. The same was true for Bud Cort, a Robert Altman discovery only 21 when he made the film and who slid into obscurity almost instantly afterwards. It’s not easy to play a depressed, dark blank slate and actually communicate emotion (just ask Zack Braff, or don’t, actually, it’s nice that he’s gone), but Cort does it expertly. His sense of deadpan internal comedy is remarkable, and when asked to come out of his shell for a few big dramatic moments, he never loses the small, quiet, damaged little boy. Hal Ashby had a gift for casting and nursing the best work out of his actors, and that was never more evident than in Harold and Maude, where he defined the careers of two leads at opposite ends of their careers. He also came up with the idea, unconventional at the time, of scoring entirely with pop music, a playlist of his favorite Cat Stevens recordings.
Harold and Maude was released during the Christmas season of 1971 and was promptly shat on by critics before dying a quick death at the box office. The bitter days of the early ’70s were not a time for a free-love tale, and no time is right to popularize elderly lovin’. Thankfully, the movie didn’t disappear. After scoring big in France (where it was quickly adapted into a long-running play), the film found a home on college campuses. Over the course of the ’70s Harold and Maude became a cult hit, playing in some theaters for years. The film may have baffled the masses, but it struck a deep chord with the target audience of outcasts. Though some of the material is dated to specific philosophies of the time, the message is timeless. There will always be sad fuck-ups like Harold, and the fantasy of discovering a life coach like Maude isn’t going anywhere. Even now, when films like this are increasingly common, Harold and Maude continues to resonate as the real deal: a dark and life-affirming comedy made by old hippies who mean it for young cynics who need it.
Harold and Maude will screen in Yonge-Dundas Square on July 10 at 9 pm.
Phil Brown writes about film for Toronto Standard.