Every time I try to explain the concept of Harold and Maude to people, I’m met with skepticism and sometimes, a bit of revulsion. To be fair, it’s not a film which sounds like it should work. When it was originally released in the 70’s, Variety said of the film, “[it] has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage.”
I know, with Valentine’s Day and all that this month, people will be turning to romance. Well, couples will be turning to romance. Single people will be eating a family-size pack of Doritos and wondering where it all went wrong, which is why I think, no matter what your relationship status, Harold and Maude will lift your spirits.
If you’re unfamiliar, Harold and Maude, made in 1971, follows a young rich teenage boy, Harold (Bud Cort). Though he’s wealthy, he has nothing in common with the Gossip Girl crowd. He’s obsessed with death and has great fun creating upsetting suicide scenes for his mother (Vivian Pickles) to find, though she is unimpressed most of the time. Harold also has another pastime: attending funerals. There, he meets Maude, (Ruth Gordon), a kooky, young at heart seventy-nine year old. Harold is set up on a series of dates by his mother, but he’s disinterested in all of them. Harold’s friendship with Maude grows into love, much to the dismay of literally everyone around them. Drama/BIG LAUGHS ensue obvi…
Here are just a few reasons Harold and Maude should be required viewing this Valentine’s Day:
This movie is almost half about the casting. If it had the wrong people in it, the film just wouldn’t work. The part of Harold was written for another young actor/musician, John Rubinstein, a character actor who still guests on shows like Grey’s Anatomy and This is Us. However, Hal Ashby, the film’s director liked Bud Cort, who had recently had a bit part in Robert Altman’s war comedy, M*A*S*H. He was 23 at the time he made Harold and Maude and was already a fantastic actor. His facial expressions ARE EVERYTHING.
Ruth Gordon was a bit younger than her character was supposed to be, in her mid-60’s during the shoot. She had, just a few years earlier, won an Academy Award for her role in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. She gives life to Maude and makes you understand why Harold is charmed by her. Gordon was a writer early in her career. She actually co-wrote one of Judy Holliday‘s comedies: The Marrying Kind. Her performance as Maude is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking.
Vivien Pickles is also fantastic as Harold’s mother. To me, her shining scene is when she’s filling out Harold’s dating profile.
Charles Tyner also has a good turn as Harold’s army uncle, who’s missing an arm. You might recognize Tyner from Cool Hand Luke where he played the sadistic prison guard.
Colin Higgins had originally developed the project for his UCLA thesis film. However, after showing the script to his landlady, Mildred Lewis, who was the wife of a Hollywood producer, they formed a production company and began to shop it around to different studios. The script is obviously most often categorized as a dark comedy, which, of course, it is. But, it’s also a drama and a romance and it’s surprising how effective the dramatic moments end up being.
For the time, the way this story is told was so completely original. Since then, I feel like other writers have tried to replicate Higgins style and wit to the point where a current filmgoer might see the film and call it cliched. Higgins was first. The ending will break your heart and uplift you simultaneously.
Higgins went on to direct 9 to 5 and Foul Play and unfortunately died of AIDS in 1988.
Paramount exec Peter Bart had faith in the story and in Colin, although he didn’t believe Higgins was ready to direct. Bart had seen The Landlord and appreciated the way its director had made the sensitive material funny with satire. Thus, Hal Ashby was brought on to direct Harold and Maude with Higgins blessing. It’s difficult to separate how much was Ashby and how much was Higgins. However, Ashby brought a distinct style to the film. He went on to direct Shampoo, The Last Detail, and Being There.
“In shooting Harold and Maude, Ruth Gordon recalled in her autobiography, Ashby ‘followed the Gertrude Stein theory: chronology has nothing to do with anything. We shot where and when and what Hal said to. Hal is his own man. Do you care about sequence? Not me. We don’t think in sequence, we rarely talk in sequence, we don’t rehearse a play in sequence, so why shoot a script that way?'” – Ruth Gordon, (TCM Article).
Elton John was originally supposed to provide a score for the film. However, after dropping out, he suggested Cat Stevens. Cat Stevens’ music provides an atmosphere and a perspective from which to see the story from.
Give a listen:
Basically, they’re hilarious and horrible and these gifs say it all:
Some people can’t watch this film without being grossed out. The idea of a teenage boy and an elderly woman falling in love is societally inappropriate. What I think is most fascinating is that their love affair, although consummated offscreen, is more an emotional love affair than a sexual one. Similarly to my favorite film, Brief Encounter, the romance in Harold and Maude is about their souls, about a connection that is more than just sexual attraction.
Harold doesn’t connect with any girls his age. He finds something in Maude; she understands him and she pushes him to live his life. There’s something truly beautiful about that. To those who are still grossed out, well, all I can say, is, at least the film challenged you, made you look at life from a different point of view. I say love is love. Also, there are plenty of May-December romances with an older man and a younger woman and it seems to be more accepted.
It’s an existential, hilarious, completely unconventional rom-com.
After the film was panned and subsequently, flopped, something amazing happened. College students fell in love with the film. Colin Higgins had a theory on why they related to it when the older generation did not: “We’re all Harold, and we all want to be Maude. We’re all repressed and trying to be free, to be ourselves, to be vitally interested in living, to be everything we want” (Higgins, TCM Article).
Vintage trailer is below:
Gifs and photos property of Paramount Pictures.