Director Hal Ashby’s 1971 cult classic, Harold and Maude, stars Bud Cort as Harold, a lonely 20 year old who is fixated upon death, and the exquisite, irrepressible Ruth Gordon as Maude, who is possessed of a joie de vivre as endless as the sky. Variety’s 1971 review of the film described it has having “all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage”. Vincent Canby’s New York Times Review panned it mercilessly, and Roger Ebert only gave it 1.5 stars in his dismissive review. Despite initial poor reviews, it has become a favorite of film buffs, world-wide. Entertainment Weekly rated it one of the top 10 cult movies. The Guardian voted Harold and Maude #21 out of the 25 Best Romantic Comedies of All Time. Rolling Stone voted it #6 in the 25 Best Cult Movies of All Time. These accolades are well deserved, despite the film’s early failure to launch.
Harold is twenty years old but living under the thumb of his wealthy, overbearing and emotionally absent mother (played superbly by Vivian Pickles). Mrs. Chasen is not in the least motherly, although in her own frosty way, she believes that she has Harold’s best interests at heart, (though in fact it is only her idea of his best interests). She does not seem to recognize that Harold is a separate person from her with ideas and feelings of his own. Mrs. Chasen’s relationship with Harold seems devoid of warmth; her main interest appears to be that he fulfill society’s expectations of him and avoid causing her embarrassment.
Harold appears obsessed with death. He drives a hearse. He stages numerous, carefully choreographed and minutely detailed mock-suicides, in order to elicit a reaction from Mrs. Chasen. Mrs. Chasen’s main interest appears to be dining with friends and acquaintances, and visiting her hair dresser.
Also among Harold’s offbeat hobbies is attending the funerals of strangers. It is at one of these funerals that he first encounters Maude, whom we learn is approaching her 80th birthday, but is lively and healthy; filled with a joie de vivre as big as the sky.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Chasen feels that Harold needs to “settle down”, and she sends him to see his Uncle Victor (Douglas McArthur’s erstwhile “right-hand man”) in hopes that he can talk some sense into him. The scene is surreal, with the sound of drilling soldiers and gunfire acting as the background to their conversation, and an oversized portrait of Richard Nixon displayed prominently over Uncle Victor’s desk. Bearing in mind the era in which this film was made adds a particular chill to Uncle Victor’s enthusiasm for military service, and no doubt this was Ashby’s intent. Harold is unmoved by his visit to Uncle Victor, and likewise, visits arranged by Mrs. Chasen with Harold’s psychiatrist and the parish priest leave him cold.
Mrs. Chasen decides that what Harold really needs is to get married and “settle down”. In aid of this, she sets him up with a computer dating service, answering all of the questions in the survey with her own answers rather than Harold’s. This reinforces the idea that she cannot accept that Harold is a separate person. During the time that Mrs. Chasen is completing this survey, Harold stages another suicide, which fails to move his mother to anything other than mild annoyance: “Harold, please!”
Harold encounters Maude at another funeral and ends up giving her a ride home. The first time we see Harold smile is when he enters Maude’s small, funky home – the look on his face is as if he has finally come home, himself. Maude invites him to stay for a piece of pie and cup of tea, but he has “an appointment.” Maude queries, “The dentist?” “Something like that”, Harold replies.
Keeping his promise to visit Maude another time, Harold finds her modeling, nude, for her neighbor, the sculptor Glaucus. “Sometimes he needs to have his memory refreshed as to the contours of the female form,” Maude explains, and then asks coquettishly, “Do you disapprove?”
After a moment’s consideration, Harold tells Maude that he does not disapprove, and she is delighted.
Maude lives according to her own lights, which proves to shake up those whose lives she touches. When Harold questions her about “borrowing” automobiles that don’t belong to her (“I think you’re upsetting people. I don’t know if that’s right.”), Maude responds, “Well if some people get upset because they feel they have a hold things, I’m just acting as a gentle reminder: here today, gone tomorrow so don’t get attached to things!” When Harold observes that he is “picking up on vices” after drinking champagne and smoking a hookah with Maude, she replies, “Vice, virtue… It’s best not to be too moral. You cheat yourself out of too much life. Aim above morality. If you apply that to life, then you’re bound to live life fully.”
Maude’s moral compass is about more than mischief, though. She sees a young tree, struggling to live, growing through the sidewalk. Realizing that the tree is in trouble, she immediately decides to remove it from the city and transplant it in the forest. Harold says, “You can’t do that!” Maude wants to know why not, to which Harold replies, “This is public property.” Maude nods and shoots him a knowing glance: “Well, exactly.”
Harold unhappily attends a series of three dates set up by the computer dating agency. Each of the dates come to the Chasen home, and during each date, Harold stages one of his suicide scenarios, horrifying the girls. After the third faux-suicide, Harold’s mother moans, “Harold, that was your last date!”
During this time, Maude has become Harold’s best friend, his confidante and his advisor. Her influence on Harold is tremendous, and he falls in love with her. They share a tender, joyful romance that is to culminate on Maude’s 80th birthday when Harold plans to propose marriage to her.
Harold and Maude’s exploration of the themes of love and death delivers an incomparable message on the nature of impermanence. The overarching messages of this film are the reminders that joy is an attitude, and life is for living. These messages are supported by the beautiful soundtrack by Cat Stevens. Both the film and its soundtrack have stood the test of time. Nearly fifty years after its release, Harold and Maude is still funny and sweet and touching, and its message is as relevant as ever.