Harold and Maude (1971)

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Director: Hal Ashby

Writer: Colin Higgins (screenplay)

Producers: Colin Higgins, Mildred Lewis, Charles Mulvehill (Paramount)

Photography: John A. Alonzo

Music: Cat Stevens

Cast: Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon, Vivian Pickles, Cyril Cusack, Charles Tyner, Ellen Geer, Eric Christmas, G. Wood, Judy Engles, Shari Summers, Tom Skerritt, Susan Madigan, Ray K. Goman, Gordon Devol, Harvey Brumfield

Introduction

In the Farrelly Brothers’ hit comedy There’s Something About Mary (1998), the title character, played by Cameron Diaz, calls Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude “the greatest love story of our time.” The line clearly shows how much Bobby and Peter Farrelly think of Ashby’s work. The irony, of course, is that most fans of the Farrelleys’ movies — Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, Shallow Hal — will not know what to make of a beast like Harold and Maude. For while the Farrellys crank out fodder for the mainstream, Ashby does none of the sort. He lives in the cult, where films try to break the rules, and Harold and Maude is no exception. Storytelling conventions need not apply, as Ashby explores existential themes of life, love and death set to Cat Stevens’ carefree soundtrack in Entertainment Weekly‘s choice for the #4 Cult Film of All Time. It’s easily one of the most unique films you’ll ever see.

Plot Summary

Nineteen-year-old Harold (Bud Cort) is an only child who’s dropped out of school and now spends time alone in a huge California mansion. But Harold has a problem. He’s obsessed with death, and goes around the house staging his own suicides — hangings, slit throats, drownings, gun shots, fires.

While this odd behavior is engaging for viewers, it is incredibly troubling for Harold’s mother (Vivian Pickles). She decides it’s time for him to grow up and buys him a new car and sets him up on dates. What does Harold do? He turns the car into a hearse and stages more deaths to scare away his female suitors. Throughout all of it, Harold sees a psychologist (G. Wood), who tries to get to the root of Harold’s morbidity. When the doctor asks him what he does for fun, Harold answers, “I go to funerals.” There seems to be no cure, until ironically Harold finds new life at one of those funerals.

Sitting in the pews of a church, he befriends Maude (Ruth Gordon), a spry old woman who also visits funerals for her own amusement. The two strike up an instant friendship, as Harold is fascinated by Maude’s free-wheeling approach to life. She’ll jack a car if she wants to, or uproot a tree from a city street and replant it in a forrest. She explains her impulsive actions as such: “I’m merely acting as a gentle reminder: here today, gone tomorrow.” Exposed to such a breath of fresh air, Harold comes to learn Maude’s perspective: that there is nothing but beauty in the birth, growth, death and rebirth of all living things. She has shown him life, and he loves her for it. The fact that she is approaching her 80th birthday doesn’t matter to him. They make each other happy, and thus become the most unlike couple in movie history.

Casting Different Ages

When 21-year-old Cort was cast in the role of Harold, it was the same year his father died. He had spent most of his adolescence caring for him, and this real-life experience with death brought a certain distance to his eyes and a youthful brokenness needed for the part. Just a year earlier, he had his first leading role in Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970) and then played the co-lead in Roger Corman’s Gas-s-s-s (1971). Now his performance as Harold would earn him a Golden Globe nomination and the Crystal Star for Best Actor from the Academy of Cinema in Paris. He was, at the time, the youngest actor ever to receive an “Hommage” by the Cinematheque Francaise, joining the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. He was a bonified star in the art-house community, but Cort called it a “blessing and a curse,” as the role both brought him acclaim and typecast him. (A)

I look back at Bud Cort as an odd little piece of film history, a cult piece, if you will. Writers David Kamp and Lawrence Levi called him “gnomish,” and to this day it’s the most accurate description I’ve ever read. It was this unique look, coupled with some real acting chops, that made him the perfect candidate for cult youth antihero. For about seven years, he lived on and off in the mansion of his idol Groucho Marx, no doubt a better life than the mansion he shares with his mother in Maude. Then, his career was tragically stunted in 1979, when in a freaky reference to the end of Harold and Maude, a car accident almost killed him on the Hollywood Freeway. Much of his life afterward was spent on physical therapy, plastic surgery and seeing his money disappear to hospital bills and a lost court case related to the accident. Still, he continued acting, and you may have seen him recently and not even known it: Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). (B)

As for 76-year-old co-star Gordon, she had a much more fruitful career. Decades before, she and husband Garson Kanin had formed the famous husband-and-wife screenwriting team that earned Oscar nominations for A Double Life (1947), Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952), the latter two with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. She wrote her last screenplay in 1953, and then found new life as an actress in the sixties, something she had not done since 1943. Her first role back, Inside Daisy Clover (1965), earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actess, and she then won the Oscar three years later for Rosemary’s Baby (1968), as the chilling wtich viewed through a peephole. As much as I love Rosemary’s Baby, it’s hard to look at Gordon now and see anyone but Maude.

Her character is so captivating to watch. Even non-fans of the film must admit she is electrifying every minute she’s on screen, mainly because we don’t know what she’s going to do or say next. Part of this has to do with the way screenwriter Colin Higgins crafts her character in this totally original script, voted #86 all time by the Writers Guilds. Who’s more responsibile, Gordon or Higgins, for that great moment when Maude demonstrates how to “greet the dawn with a breath of fire,” exhaling with a series of hard grunts? She says the earth is her body and her head is in the stars. That seems about right.
Higgins surrounds Maude with objects that speak volumes as to who she is. Her house is full of bizarre contraptions — a giant sculpture of a vagina; an “odorifics” device that emits various scents like mowed grass, old books and “snowfall on 42nd street;” and a painting of a rainbow with an egg underneath and an elephant, which she titled, of course, “Rainbow With Egg Underneath and Elephant.” It’s the type of wild stuff that earned a spot on both AFI’s 100 Laughs (#45) and BRAVO’s Funniest Films (#42), a complement to Higgins, who later wrote the Gene Wilder-Richard Pryor comedy Silver Streak (1976). Yet while we laugh at the loopiness of Maude’s character, we simultaneously see in her a certain clarity on life achieved by few. Watching Maude, I can’t help but think of Kramer in one episode of Seinfeld, where he poses this question to Jerry: “Am I insane, or am I so sane that I just blew your mind?”

Screenplay

In the screenwriter’s tireless job of writing compelling characters, Higgins has created a real winner with Maude. But make no mistake about it; Harold is just as complex, if not more so. Together, they are two of the most complex individuals ever put on screen, both attracted to funerals for different reasons. Harold clings to all things death because of an intense fear of life, of facing the real world, of growing up (similar to Benjamin in The Graduate). A psychiatrist in the film says Harold’s problem stems from an oedipal fixation with his mother, and Michael Tapper, editor of Film International, says Harold’s staged “suicides” may only be a means of trying to get his mother’s attention. (C) After all, he’s grown up in this huge mansion with his mother, with plenty of time for make believe, and now he’s “pretending” to kill himself while avoiding growing up.

Conversely, Maude is attracted to the funerals for the exact opposite reason. She’s done it all and seen it all, including surviving a Nazi concentration camp, as hinted in a quick flash of numbers tattooed on her arm. She has seen plenty of death and is no longer afraid of it. Rather, she views it as an inevitable part of life, and has found peace with the fact that she herself is going to die. By the end of the film, she welcomes death as a glorious “farewell,” for reasons that confound Harold, at least until that final image of him faking his death one last time and skipping along the hillside plucking away at his banjo. (C)

Accessibility

By the time this ending hits, many mainstream viewers will be dumbfounded at what they have just seen. That’s because most of us, as first-time viewers, have not yet acquired the skills to pick up all the pieces on first viewing. Even the most trained critics can’t always say after one viewing why something works for them; it just registers. Harold and Maude makes its living on defying conventions, and if you are a viewer who has become accustomed to those conventions, you will feel lost. Case in point: Near the end of the film, Harold gives Maude a ring, and rather than put it on, she takes it and throws it into a lake. “So I’ll always know where it is,” she says.

This unconventionality can rub viewers one of two ways — refreshingly brilliant or head-scratchingly pointless. As one person I watched it with said, “That was one monumental waste of my time,” and many of you will likely agree. But I hope that after reading such reviews as this, and investigating the inner themes of the film, you’ll be willing to give Harold and Maude a second look.

Ashby The Auteur

From a director’s standpoint, Ashby fancies himself as quite the auteur. After winning an Oscar as editor on In the Heat of the Night (1967), he began a directing career that quickly led to Oscar contenders like Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979). Harold and Maude was just his second film as director, following The Landlord (1970), and already we see his talent as a visual communicator.
The entire opening credit sequence is a masterful lesson in slow disclosure, following Harold around a room, building up to see his face, then building up to see what it is he’s doing, which comes as a reversal of expectations when we learn it’s hanging himself. When his mother enters the room, we experience another reversal of expectations when she reacts calmly to the sight of him hanging there, and then another when we realize he’s just faking the suicide. In just a few minutes, Ashby has set the tone of the film, taken us for a ride, surprised us several times and divulged important character information, most of which is done in long take. Brilliant.

The rest of the film is no less impressive, and here are three examples. The first comes after Harold’s mother tells him he needs to get married. Ashby cuts immediately to the interior of a church, suggesting a wedding, but then pulls back to reveal Harold at another funeral. Masterful slow disclosure again. Second, in the scene where Harold visits Maude’s home, Ashby’s camera literally pulls through Maude’s vagina sculpture to view Harold. It’s about as suggestive as it gets. The third, and my favorite, comes as Harold and Maude frolick in the fields and discuss what type of flowers they should be. Harold points to a patch of tiny white flowers, which Ashby shows in full frame. Moments later, the two lovers stand in a graveyard, and Ashby pulls back to an extreme wide shot so that the canvas of tombstones appear identical to the patch of flowers previously shown. The echo of imagery is beautiful in itself, but the symbolic ramifications bring it home. Why are Harold and Maude discussing flowers? Because flowers represent rebirth. And as they stand amongst these tombstone “flowers,” they are presented as just two of many people who have come and gone, and were reborn.

The explanation of such beautiful images is simple: Ashby has a keen understanding of shot composition. When Harold shares the frame with his psychiatrist, there is perfect symmetry, both sitting in identical chairs dressed in identical suit and ties. As we further explore Harold’s mansion, Ashby shows us a number of spacious rooms, but makes them claustrophobic in all their pristine grandeur. Note also how Cort starts off pale and grows more tan as the film progresses. This is intentional by Ashby, to show his isolated existence before Maude, and his liberating freedom after. It also supports claims of Ashby as auteur, foreshadowing elements of Being There, where Peter Sellers’ simpleton lives isolated as a gardener, who finally enters society with no more knowledge than what he’s seen on TV.

One can also see shades of Coming Home in the anti-war themes Ashby fuses into Harold and Maude. We see this personified in the character of Harold’s Uncle Victor (Charles Tyner), a one-armed military officer who tries to get Harold to join the service. Ashby mocks the character relentlessly, giving him a false nub of an arm controlled by a cord that allows him to sallute. It’s Dr. Strangelovian in its depiction, not necessarily an indictment of the military itself, but of its Vietnam policy at the time. This comes out in a later scene, when Harold torments his uncle, sarcastically proclaiming that he can’t wait to kill, kill, kill as Maude enters the scene as an anti-war protestor. Unfortunately the scene also marks one of several occasions the film overreaches for comedy, but at least this one (unlike the ridiculous scene with “Sunshine”) plays into the film’s anti-war theme.

We must remember that this was 1971, a year before Watergate and well into Vietnam, a time when the U.S. government was under complete distrust by much of the country. And so we get the blatant mise-en-scene of a Richard Nixon portrait hanging on the wall behind Uncle Victor, and Maude instructing Harold, “Don’t get officious. You’re not yourself when you’re officious. That’s the curse of a government job.” Perhaps Ashby is saying this “not being yourself” is what leads to bad policy, namely U.S. military adventurism. Maude thinks this is ridiculous, saying, “What sense in borders and nations and patriotism?” It sounds awfully familiar to a little song that arrived that year by a fella named John Lennon, who sang: “imagine there’s no countries. … nothing to kill or die for, a brotherhood of man.”

Soundtrack

In this way, Harold and Maude captures the free love message of an entire era, and much of it is thanks to the film’s most famous contributor: Cat Stevens. Like Simon & Garfunkel on The Graduate, Stevens uses a combination of original and previously recorded songs to comprise the entire soundtrack. The songs are more than just tunes to carry you through the story, like many a movie you see today. These are songs that underscore the film’s core messages. “I Wish, I Wish” defends the validity of different point of views, saying, “I wish I could tell what makes heaven and what makes hell.” “Don’t Be Shy” tells viewers it’s okay to express themselves, telling them “don’t wear fear, or nobody will know you’re there.” And “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” is a defiant call to be whoever who want to be: “If you want to sing out, sing out. If you want to be free, be free. ‘Cause there’s a million things to be, you know that there are. And if you want to live high, live high. And if you want to live low, live low. ‘Cause there’s a million ways to go, you know that there are.”

Ageless Themes

The entire film contains an undercurrent of bucking the status quo, the system, even the law. Thus she and Harold take off on Bonnie and Clyde type adventures, thumbing their nose at police officers along the way. Such noncomformity is best achieved in the scene where Harold fakes shooting himself in the head while his mother fills out a questionnaire for him. The questionnaire is supposed to be about Harold, but the mother is so oppressive that she answers all the questions with her own beliefs — she approves of capital punishment and thinks the sexual revolution has gone too far. Raging against such parents was the epitome of the counterculture.

But here’s where Harold and Maude takes it a step further and plays against the conventions even of the counterculture. The counterculture cannon claimed that anyone over the age of 30 was dead and that youth had the true wisdom. Here, Ashby still emphasizes youth, as we follow Harold’s journey all along, but he gives the wisom to the elderly woman. It’s she who must teach this young walking corpse how to get the most out of life. And rather than her preying on this young boy, like a Mrs. Robinson, we find it to be a nurturing relationship. (C)

When Harold and Maude finally sleep together, we realize just how much further Ashby has taken it than even The Graduate. Rather than a young boy sleeping with a middle-aged woman, we get one who sleeps with an 80-year-old. And after the sex, rather than smoking a cigar, he pulls out a bubble wand and blows bubbles to emphasize his youth. This type of on-screen relationship broke all sexual taboos at the time, and if you think about it, in many ways still does today. There’s a shot where a priest (Eric Christmas) speaks directly into the camera and says, “The idea of intercourse and the fact of your firm young body comingling with withered flesh, sagging breasts and flabby buttocks makes me want to vomit.” Ashby and Higgins have an answer for this in the form of Maude’s words: “It’s best not to be too moral. You cheat yourself out of too much life.”

Legacy

The fact Ashby gets us to pull for this most strange relationship is his biggest achievement. We go into the film feeling that such a relationship is awkward, and by the end, parts of that relationship seem romantic enough to place  #69 on AFI’s 100 Passions and #9 on AFI’s Romantic Comedies. That is what makes the film a masterful work and why Diaz’s character called it “the greatest love story of our time.” Whether or not you agree with all of the film’s political statements is irrelevant. Harold and Maude will change the way you look at life. Age is just a number. True love is true love. And death is just the beginning.

Citations:

CITE A: IMDB Bud Cort bio
CITE B: The Film Snob’s Dictionary
CITE C: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

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