by Paul Rowlands
Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles, Cyril Cusack, Charles Tyner. 91 minutes.
Maude: 'Your hearse?'
Maude: 'Try something new each day. After all, we're given life to find out. It doesn't last forever.'
Maude: 'Greet the dawn with a breath of fire.'
HAROLD AND MAUDE is one of the all-time great cult films, and one of cinema's most affecting, beautiful and unconventional love stories. It's one of the most unique, and one of the most entertaining pictures to have come out of the 1970's. A black comedy and unconventional romance, concerning a relationship between a 20-year old and a 79-year old, and with suicide, and the question of whether life is worth living as it's central themes, was able to get financed by a major studio in 1971. And that says a lot about how open to risk, and how brave even major studios were in the 1970's.
Bud Cort (BREWSTER McCLOUD, 1970) plays Harold, an eccentric (he drives a hearse), morbid (he attends funerals for fun) 20-year old rich kid, who is monumentally depressed and bored with his life. His mother doesn't understand or even listen to him, and doesn't see how deep-seated his depression is. She's only concerned with finding him a wife, and stopping his prank suicides, which he estimates at numbering around fifteen (similar to Christian Bale not being able to have his status as a serial killer believed in his societal circle in AMERICAN PSYCHO, 2000, Harold can never get his mother to take his 'cries for help' seriously). Harold keeps running into an elderly woman at funerals he attends. Her name is Maude, she's nearing her 80th birthday very soon, and she is even more eccentric than he is (she likes to steal cars and pose nude, and lives in an abandoned train carriage). The pair strike up a deep friendship that eventually turns to love. The path to true love never runs smooth, however, and Maude has her own plans for her 80th birthday.
HAROLD AND MAUDE has fully rounded, fascinating characters in Harold and Maude, and their relationship proceeds convincingly, touchingly and fascinatingly. (Colin Higgins based his brilliant screenplay on his Master's thesis at UCLA.) It's clear Harold is an old soul living in a young man's body, and Maude is a a young woman living in an old woman's body. They are a perfect match, even if society may abhor their union. In Maude, Harold finds a reason for living, being elevated by Maude's vivaciousness and wisdom (she basically becomes his and the audience's mentor; the mentor/ pupil relationship is present in many of Hal Ashby's movies). But in order for him to live, Maude must die in a narrative sense. For her, their relationship (and eventual marriage) is her last taste of autumn before she takes her own life on her 80th birthday (like filmmaker Donald Cammell, she believes that choosing the right moment to end your life is the way to go).
There are images in the film that get close to the bone (especially on a first viewing) - there are a series of hilarious praank suicides that include Harold hanging himself in the opening scene (it's later revealed to be a prank), pretending to cut his hand off to scare a potential suitor, fooling a date that he has burned himself alive and then walking in the room, committing a fake hara-kiri - but this isn't a deliberately shocking film. It's just a film that believes death shouldn't be taken too seriously, and the scenes are wonderful, darkly funny. highlights. There is one scene where Harold shoots himself in the head rather than listen to his mother prattling on, and we see the bullet wound. It's a fantastic scene because it indicates to the audience that 'this is just a movie, have fun with it'. (The comic tone seems to have inspired the even blacker FIGHT CLUB, 1999, and there are similarities between the films in 'Jack' and Tyler's mentor/ pupil close friendship, and also in the location where 'Jack' and Marla meet for the first time.)
Ruth Gordon lights up the film every time she appears (who else could have played the part?), and Cat Stevens's jaunty, peppy song score gives the film unexpected sparkle and a spring in it's step. (Stevens also contributed to the score for DEEP END, 1970.) Bud Cort is wonderful casting as Harold, so pale and deadpan, and the slightest expression in his face is wonderfully revealing. The pair's comic adventures - for example, liberating a tree from outside a building, and being chased by a motorcycle cop (Tom Skerritt from ALIEN, 1979, credited as M. Borman), whose vehicle they eventually steal - are great fun. The scenes where the pair hang out (eg. Maude teaching him to how to play the banjo) are touching and warm, and the scenes where they share their stories (especially when Harold reveals the source of his depression) are moving.
An amusing element of the film is it's satire of 'the generation gap'. Harold is so far removed from his mother's world and the world of people his age that he finds happiness with an old-age pensioner. Have things got that screwy? Is the generation gap that much of a far divide? But director Hal Ashby (one of the most important directors of the '70's with films like THE LAST DETAIL, 1973; SHAMPOO, 1975 and COMING HOME, 1978) and screenwriter Higgins (who never made anything as great again) have ensured that the film has a very real centre. The pain and joy in the characters' hearts is coming from a very real place. Maude has won her optimism through struggle (if you look closely at Maude's arm, you will see she has an Auschwitz ID number tattoo). Harold's outlook is merely nihilistic and not based on any life experiences, but simply boredom and disillusionment (the Vietnam War and drafting hang in the background, and his oppression by 'straight society' is very much in the foreground, represented by his mother and his General uncle who want to iron out his eccentricities. His mother wants him married off, or failing that, join the military!). If Maude can survive, and face her mortality with a smile, then Harold can certainly learn to embrace life. Maude had to endure Auschwitz to find her strength and joy of life, but her gift to Harold is to find his through her. The film compares the often idealistic, intellectual and emotional nature of the youth movement, with the hard-won wisdom of people like Maude.
The film's very broad piss-taking of the military in the form of Harold's uncle General (Charles Tyner) brings a counterculture vibe to the film. Hal Ashby was very much at one with the counterculture and was an actual hippie, with long hair and a long beard. His participation in the film and his slightly advanced age (he was 42 when he made the film) meant he brought experience and wisdom from both the current and previous generations. He was able to see what both mindsets had to offer, apt for a film with two leads from two very different generations. Ashby brings a lot of energy to the film, but his direction is very restrained, and there is no camera or editing trickery. He thankfully doesn't signify the mood to the audience or tell us when to laugh, he 'lets it be'. The people who 'get' the movie appreciate his 'hands off' approach. He allows the film to be what it is, and part of the fun of the movie is just going along for the very unique ride. He's also an excellent director of actors, as his filmography shows. COMING HOME won Oscars for both Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, and is a film that clearly shows his feelings towards the Vietnam War. Something in HAROLD AND MAUDE must have appealed to the youth of the day because it quickly became a cult film amongst college students and actually played at the Westgate Theater in Minneapolis for three years straight! The film was even re-released in 1978. In it's odd tone, deadpan humour, eccentric male lead and upbeat, song-centric soundtrack, Wes Anderson's superb RUSHMORE (1998) has something to owe to Ashby's film.
HAROLD AND MAUDE is now considered a classic film, and one of the great romantic comedies, winning modern AFI awards and being selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. But it flopped on it's original release, and garnered some quite hostile reviews (Art Murphy in 'Variety' described it as having 'all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage'). It is still very much an under-seen picture and a cult film, despite being a Broadway stage play, and being adapted for French TV. Even now, it seems that the premise and theme of the film turn certain people off. But if you're open-minded and you love great films, HAROLD AND MAUDE is essential viewing. It's for anyone who has enjoyed a mentor/ pupil friendship or has experienced an odd but important friendship sometime in their lives. And it's also for anyone with a slightly twisted sense of humour, like myself.
NB. Colin Higgins wanted to direct the film and did a test, but the studio went with Ashby. Ashby briefly appears (uncredited) in a shot between the leads at an amusement park, watching a model train. Cat Stevens' 'Tea for the Tillerman' was also the theme song to the TV comedy series 'Extras' (2005-07).
DELETED SCENES/ SHOTS: Shots of Harold and Maude kissing and canoodling were cut out by Paramount who thought audiences wouldn't accept them. A lovemaking scene wasn't even filmed. One deleted scene involved Harold and his mother: 'it opened up with a shot of a large, silver-plated serving dish. A hand comes in and removes the cover and there, on a little bed of parsely, is Harold's head. Two hands come into the frame and pick up the head, and we move back and there's Harold holding his head and looking at it. He sort of peels off the latex blood and walks over to his bedroom chair where a headless dummy sits. He puts the head on the dummy, but the head really isn't sitting right, and he goes into the closet to find something. Swing around to the door and his mother enters in an evening gown. She says, 'Now listen up Harold. Your computer date will be arriving and it would be nice if . . .' and so forth. Cut to the closet and Harold is just sitting there listening to her talk to this dummy in the chair. And then she says, 'Well, I've got to go to this ballet with the Fergusons . . .' and she turns a little. 'You're looking a little pale, Harold. You try to get a good night's rest . . .' and she leaves.' (Colin Higgins, interviewed by Michael Shedlin for Film Quarterly, Fall 1972.)
The film is available on DVD on bare-bones editions. A limited edition R2 has a free fold-out poster (from the 1978 re-release). Criterion will release the film in March 2012 on Blu-ray and DVD.
'Cult Movies' by Danny Peary, Delta Books, 1981.
'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls' by Peter Biskind, Simon and Schuster, 1998.
'Harold and Maude': Wikipedia entry. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_and_Maude
'The Harold and Maude Home Page': A very useful site for reviews and interviews. http://haroldandmaudehomepage.com/harold.htm