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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Harold and Maude (1971)

A young man named Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) hangs himself to the song "Don't Be Shy" by Cat Stevens, his mother (Vivian Pickles) walks in, looks at him, then goes about her business of making a phone call. Even as he gags and flails around she just continues her conversation as if nothing is happening. What a morbid opening, right? No. Somehow he lives and it cuts to his mother, Harold and two guests having dinner; Harold complains about having a sore throat but his mother is clueless as to why. And that is how Hal Ashby's cult classic Harold and Maude begins. Ashby would go on to make multiple Oscar-winning  films like Bound for Glory (1976) and Coming Home (1978) -- both films being a completely different tone from Harold and Maude. This being his second feature, Ashby was still making a name for himself with small budgets (1.2 million), lesser-known actors/actresses (Ruth Gordon being his biggest star), and virtually no experience. But like it often happens, great directors early films are their most original; Harold and Maude being a perfect example.

The story was based off of a small script that Colin Higgins wrote while still attending Stanford university. Full of colorful, ironic characters with the title roles being an absolute delight to watch. Subtle political references and a nice take on the fears of death are handled with care. Eccentric and full of deep meanings and universal views of everything that touches our hearts. Dialogue is a pathway into the depths of these characters souls; Harold's revealing of the reason's behind his "suicides" and Maude's little talks about her life experiences are allow us to see the darker sides of them and help us understand their longing to find meanings and to take advantage of each moment they have.

 Harold and Maude follows the relationship between Harold, who is 21 and obsessed with death and fascinated by the acts of destruction -- shown through his minor hobby of watching buildings being destroyed. Maude (Ruth Gordon) is about to turn 80, and has presumably has seem some real terrors -- hinted by her briefly shown Aushwitz ID tattoo and by her political ramblings. She lives life to the fullest extremes; she steals every car she drives and never goes slower than 80 mph. They meet at a funeral; Harold goes because he is fascinated with death and despair; Maude goes because she finds it to be beautiful to see the last phases of life. One of the most bitterly hilarious scenes is one of their first encounters, where at a funeral Maude picks up Harold in a hearse that happens to be Harold's everyday vehicle. 

Bud Cort's performance as Harold is an wonderful take on the tortured younger generation that films from the 70s portrayed so often. At first he comes off a the creepy guy you see on the street and imagine being a serial killer (his disturbing obsessions only make it easier), his lanky, stick-like frame, and his ghost-like paleness perfectly resemble the socially repressed. Seeing Ruth Gordon play a role that works perfectly with her lovely, outgoing personality made me want to jump for joy; she steals our heart just as easily as she steals her vehicles and avoids cops. And once Cort comes out of his shell, him and Ruth become a match made in heaven; their personalities conflict and collide with hilarious situations and touching outcomes.

The fear and ugliness of war is shown through Harold's uncle General Victor Ball  who lost an arm fighting in Word War II -- played in gut-splitting, but still emotional, fashion by Charles Tyner. A great scene where, after an impassioned speech by the general about his violent experiences in war,  Harold and Maude fool the general out of enlisting Harold into the army is comic brilliance. With all the pessimism following Harold's character, that is where Maude's blissful, experienced character's magic lies. Their chemistry is effortless. Ashby's direction allows us to see them with all the pressures of life eliminated and the beauty of life taking over. Through the subject of death he lets life and all forms of love seem all the more wonderful.
This film could have easily gotten out of control and became a distasteful attempt to be deep, but Ashby works his tale of love and death so well that its sweetness and social conscious dark humor reigns over all flaws. Harold is at the beginning of his life but likes it best when he is dead; Maude is at the end of her life but is ready to keep living her life. Those differing views should be a recipe for disaster, but instead some of the warmer moments come through their differences. Harold's death attempts are so realistic that saying he is faking them just seems wrong.  Even though we know he will live, the sheer realistic look never fails at creating a shock value, fortunately Ashby works the dark humor to where the tone stays easy going. In an attempt to get Harold straight, his mother -- played by the wonderful Vivian Pickles -- arranges three dates for him that end in brilliantly stages outcomes. With all the pessimism following Harold's character, that is where Maude's blissful, experienced character's magic lies. Their chemistry is effortless. Ashby's direction allows us to see them with all the pressures of life eliminated and the beauty of life taking over. Through the subject of death he lets life and all forms of love seem all the more wonderful.
Neither praise or acceptance came easy for Harold and Maude; its unusual plot kept it from being commercial and brought controversy. Being released at the beginning of the 70s when new ideas, style, and added freedom were being expressed and taken advantage of. Hal Ashby's creativeness shines, his talents reaching a maturity much quicker than most directors are able to. Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon's performances are among the best of each of their respected careers, with a chemistry that portrays conflicting generational ideals that is historically significant. This film won't blow you away, but its simplicity and knowledge of people's fear, hopes and desires is full of beauty and emotion that should not be missed.


  1. Superb review man! I've heard only good things about this.

    Loved the beginning scene description and the contrasting personalities of Harold and Maude have already intrigued me to check this out!

    A suggestion: The star-rating image is appearing a lil blurred perhaps you can set it right by reducing the size??

  2. Wonderful review! Each review seems better than the last. One of my favorite films.

  3. Great review man sounds great!!!

  4. wow, the opening is VERY morbid. I think this deserves a viewing, lol, great review


  5. Wonderfully written review Adam! Sounds very good.

  6. Great review Adam! I've not seen this for a few years now, my tutor in first year had us write an essay on it. So I think I need to give it another watch. I just remember having heard nothing of it before...what happening being the last thing I expected. Still I agree with you, it was all done pretty tastefully!

  7. I love Harold and Maude. Cort and Gordon are fantastic. There's not really much I can say that you didn't cover, so I'm glad you like this one. It proudly sits as a member of my DVD collection.

    Oh, I'll just throw out the pool drowning as another great "suicide."