Synopsis: With the idiosyncratic American fable Harold and Maude, countercultural director Hal Ashby fashioned what would become the cult classic of its era. Working from a script by Colin Higgins, Ashby tells the story of the emotional and romantic bond between a death-obsessed young man (Bud Cort) from a wealthy family and a devil-may-care, bohemian octogenarian (Ruth Gordon). Equal parts gallows humor and romantic innocence, Harold and Maude dissolves the line between darkness and light along with the ones that separate people by class, gender, and age, and it features indelible performances and a remarkable soundtrack by Cat Stevens.
Harold and Maude 8.5
eyelights: Ruth Gordon. Maude. Harold. its life-affirming message. the dark humour. the dynamic between Harold and his mom.
eyesores: the low-budget production.
“I haven’t lived. I’ve died a few times.”
‘Harold and Maude’ is the story of Harold, an aimless young man with a morbid streak. Finding no joy in life, he delights in faking his death in provocative ways and attending strangers’ funerals. It is at one of these funerals that he meets Maude, a 79-year-old eccentric who will teach him to live his life without restraint. Their relationship would blossom in the most unexpected of ways.
If Oscar and Felix were the first odd couple, Harold and Maude are the oddest. At least, at first glance. Seemingly mismatched, especially given their discordant ages and world views, it turns out that they are actually complementary partners: her vibrancy feeds him and satisfies a deeper yearning, whereas his freshness and openness allows her total freedom of expression.
In effect, they become mentor and protégé, and in Maude’s exuberance Harold finds a new passion for the world around him, realizing that the dictates and demands of society needn’t silence him, put him in a neat, coffin-like box. Maude opens his door of perception and life would never be the same; their relationship would have a profound effect on his ability to engage with the world.
I’m a huge fan of ‘Harold and Maude’. Although I’ve only seen it a few times and the first time was merely a decade ago or so, it’s a picture that’s consistently growing on me. I relate to Harold, am extremely fond of Maude, and I love the life-affirming messages that it conveys. Plus which it’s quirky, very funny, and it serves up a lovely romance on top of all that. It’s right up my alley.
The film naturally rides entirely on its two leads:
Harold is unhappy and listless. Unable to escape his mother’s influence, Harold rebels by trying to shock her with his grisly faux-suicides or by transforming a Jaguar she buys him into a makeshift hearse. He also foils her attempts at pairing him off with young women via gruesome scenes of self-immolation, thereby scaring them off. For laughs, he subtly mocks the psychiatrist that she sends him to.
Bud Cort makes Harold slightly removed and genuinely awkward, interacting uneasily with the people around him. Since Cort has an unusual physique, gangly with a round face, round eyes and a miniscule mouth, he tends to stand out. He also defies his age, looking veritably boyish when he should be a young man. Adding to this impression of ill-fittedness are the suits that he frequently wears.
Cort seemed to relish playing this part – he even breaks the fourth wall to interact with the audience. Of course, it would be easy to savour this role, given that Harold is reserved in one moment and then expresses himself in egregious ways in the next. And then he is wide-eyed in Maude’s presence, gradually warming up as he becomes taken with her. Cort is terrific at expressing all these different emotions.
But it’s Ruth Gordon’s performance as Maude that truly fuels the picture. Although I found her quirks (appropriately) off-putting in ‘Rosemary’s Baby‘, I found them utterly endearing here. She wasn’t weird and/or creepy, like Minnie Castavet was: instead, she comes off as a gorgeous soul, relishing and making the most of every moment she has – like a little girl filled with the wisdom of experience.
Some of my favourite lines of hers are:
“Who sends dead flowers to a funeral? It’s absurd.” (Come to think of it, why do we send dead flowers?)
“The earth is my body; my head is in the stars.” (Sounds flaky, but to me it perfectly describes the dreamer in Maude)
“I should like to change into a sunflower most of all. They’re so tall and simple. What flower would you like to be?” (It’s the type of question I’ve actually been asked by a close friend of mine. No joke, some people wonder such things.)
“You know, at one time, I used to break into pet shops to liberate the canaries. But I decided that was an idea way before its time.” (Ha! That is so like Maude: counter-culture to the core!)
Gordon is a total ray of light in this film: she is sunny and warm. Maude is playful and always finds a way to turn the slightest setback or shred of negativity into an opportunity. She may be eccentric but she has a perspective that I respect: she never lets anything slow her down, she always maintains her momentum. She lives life as she sees fit, without any compromises or social restraints.
I can’t imagine anyone else but Ruth Gordon in the part. She owns it.
I sincerely think that Maude is one of the greatest characters in cinematic history. She isn’t a naive dimwit like Forrest Gump (another great character, b-t-w): she is fiercely intelligent and defiant. She has made informed choices based on life experiences (she’s had her challenges, it appears, based on the marks on her body), decided to live life to the fullest and indefatigably promotes that vision.
I also really love their relationship.
I love that neither of them are concerned with their age or lifestyle differences. They are taken with each other as human beings and don’t let these details get in the way. Even in this day and age, it’s a rare thing to see, and when one does, there’s usually reproach and/or mockery. How frequently have Madonna and Demi Moore been chastised for their relationships with younger men?
It’s easier to roll one’s eyes than to widen them, it appears.
I look forward to the day when such meaningless differences can become invisible. What does it matter, anyway, so long as the parties involved are happy and have a healthy relationship? I also wish that there were a lot more of Maude’s brand of positivity around us. I’m not saying that everyone has to be an eccentric like her. Hardly. But I wish more people focused their energy on similar values.
Sadly, in real life, someone like Maude would likely be considered senile, medicated and put away somewhere. And I think that this is one of our society’s greatest tragedies, because, so long as they don’t hurt anyone, wouldn’t such people help us shine through the darkness? Wouldn’t we be better off embracing their cultivated non-conformism? Wouldn’t acceptance be better than oppression?
To me, ‘Harold and Maude’ isn’t just a heart-warming love story, it’s a blueprint for a saner way of living. Fully. I think that it’s a story that should be taught in schools, and this movie should be required viewing. It’s by no means a perfect motion picture, but its spirit transcends many of its limitations, and it’s that very spirit that we need to revitalize and energize our society.
‘Harold and Maude’ may be from an era long past, but its messages are long-overdue.
Date of viewing: June 26, 2014