*Disclaimer* Given that this film is 48 years old, there will be spoilers!
Written by Colin Higgins and directed by Hal Ashby, “Harold and Maude” is a weird little romantic dark-comedy from the early 1970’s with the spirit of the 1960’s very much still intact. The film rests on the relationship between Harold (Bud Cort), a twenty-something introvert who’s become obsessed with death and infected with a general malaise, and Maude (Ruth Gordon), a 79 year old wild woman living life on a whim without following any of the rules dictated by society. The film is a strange balance between dark humor wrapped in whimsy with an absurdist and warm-hearted tone.
Bud Cort plays Harold, the son of a wealthy family who’s become disillusioned with life. In the opening scene Harold is seen milling about the living room lighting candles and going about an unseen task, until we see him hang himself. As his mother enters the room she remains unimpressed by the hanging body of her son, makes a quick phone call and nonchalantly chides Harold on her way out of the room- this is, we soon discover, just one of many fake suicides that he performs to get a rise out of his haughty mother. Mrs. Chasten (Vivian Pickles) finds her son’s behavior unsavory and begins to set him up for several blind dates, to which he hilariously (and creatively) performs increasingly macabre “deaths” with each new attempt. Being as quietly obsessed with death as he is, Harold frequents local funerals for deceased people he doesn’t know. At one such funeral he notices an older woman similarly separated from the families and eventually they take notice of each other.
Ruth Gordon’s performance inflects Maude with the usual hippie maxims bound to the previous decade’s counterculture, but imbues them with an authenticity hinting more towards wisdom rather than the potential kookiness that the character could have been in lesser hands. As a devout outsider of societal norms Maude is a refreshing cannon blast of life-affirming philosophies for Harold. After one of their funeral visitations Maude offers to drive Harold home, he declines at this initial offer, but as she drives away one of the funeral-goers seems almost awestruck as he watches a little old lady drive off with his car. Maude’s disregard of ownership over the material world may seem like a silly character trait at first, but after a quick shot of Maude’s forearm revealing concentration camp numbering, we’re more apt to understand her ideology on the fleeting nature of material things.
Once Harold and Maude’s relationship blooms into more of a romance than a simple mentor-to-student scale Harold informs his family of his intent to marry Maude. Which leads into one of my favorite parts of the film, where his mother, his uncle Victor (Charles Tyner portraying a dedicated Military man as a sort of one-armed comedic relief), psychiatrist (G. Wood), and the flabbergasted family priest (Eric Christmas), all lecture Harold on the woes of this decision. The film could have taken these asides as a sobering lecture on poor decision making for practicality’s sake, but instead portrays these established adults as loonier than the two leads- firmly keeping us on the side of Harold and Maude. On Maude’s 80th birthday, he asks her for her hand in marriage- but to the surprise of Harold, she had already decided to take her own life by pill minutes before. In her dying moments she’s decidedly upbeat about the notion- and Harold becomes the most animated we’ve seen him yet once faced with the death of someone he cares deeply for. Harold takes Maude’s life affirming philosophies to heart in the last scene. After Maude’s death Harold is seen ferociously speeding in his hearse towards a cliff-side. For a moment, I really though he was finally going to kill himself- but not so, he was simply stripping away his obsession with death. He then wanders off as the credits roll, strumming on the banjo Maude gave him.
Final Score: A whole soundtrack of ‘Cat Stevens’ songs