Harold and Maude (1971)

6Each and every one of us has that one film (or a few films) that just lift our spirits when we are in need of a good pick-me-up. For me, the only film I can always turn to in order to cheer me up is Hal Ashby’s seminal cult classic, Harold and Maude. It is a film I revisit very often, and I did review it a very long time ago. However, looking back at my original review, I am struck with horror at how…bad it was. Like I did with Naked and The Room, I have decided to review my own review and improve upon it. Consider it Movies Unchained: Redux. Either way, this would be a good opportunity to talk about this film that I love so very much, more than any other comedy.

First off, let’s get to the elephant in the room. Harold and Maude has a very odd premise, and any film that sees a 20-year-old man romancing an 80-year-old widow is bound to be met with considerable…hesitance. It is this premise that kept me away from Harold and Maude for several years before I finally took the plunge and loved it. Despite its questionable premise, Harold and Maude is a film about friendship and just the joy of finding someone that is compatible with you, regardless of who they are. I would never call Harold and Maude a romantic comedy, rather just an ode to friendship, and the small victories in life, such as being able to find a good friend who you can share you happiest and saddest moments with. The fact that Harold finds Maude and falls deeply in love with her is just an added happening to this wonderful film, and rather than being off-putting and strange, it is rather endearing and just contributes to the beauty of the film as a whole.

For the three people who have never heard of Harold and Maude, it is about Harold Chasen (Bud Cort), a young man who has a fascination with death. His constant fake suicides make his mother (Vivian Pickles) weary, and Harold occupies an odd space, longing for someone who can connect with him, and understand his eccentricities and accept who he is. A chance encounter at a funeral with an eccentric elderly woman named Dame Majorie Chardin, going commonly by “Maude” (Ruth Gordon) turns the young Harold’s life around, as he and the nearly-octogenarian Maude go on a series of mischevious adventures as they bring joy to the other, and manage to infiltrate the hidden sides of each other, resulting in a wonderful (but sadly short-lived) companionship.

Ruth Gordon is a woman who does not need any more praise than she has received already throughout her long and incredible career. However, she is most commonly associated with two films – as the sadistic Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby (where she became one of the most deserving recipients of an Academy Award in history), and then for her leading role in Harold and Maude, which was an absolutely inspired role for a veteran actress who fit in perfectly with this film’s quirky sensibilities. As the latter of the titular couple, Gordon is absolutely magnificent, giving a performance that is endearing, adorable and hilarious in its eccentricity. Her performance is one motivated by a child-like joie de vivre, as well as a strange surreal wisdom that makes her the definition of an unconventional but utterly endearing grandmother-figure, a departure from stereotypical portrayals of the elderly. Every moment involving Gordon is remarkable – her line-delivery is wonderful, and she imbues her performance with such wisdom and grace, while still retaining her juvenile, vaudevillian charms.

Acting across from such a powerhouse performer as Ruth Gordon must have been intimidating, but it was a challenge Bud Cort was clearly up to. His performance, in a sense, is the complete antithesis of Gordon’s. Whereas Maude is a very outlandish, bombastic character, Harold is a far more reserved, shy individual. One could even call him a milquetoast compared to Maude’s extroverted personality. However, Harold is clearly a gentle soul, and throughout the film, we start to see his true feelings hiding beneath as he opens up to Maude. The reason for his fake suicides, which he reveals to Maude in a heart-wrenching monologue towards the end of the film, never fails to bring me to tears. Cort depends quite a bit on macabre physical comedy, which forms the basis of Harold’s character. I am surprised Cort’s career didn’t extend too far into bigger roles after this because based on his early performances such as here in Harold and Maude, he was clearly a magnetic and unconventional screen presence.

Far too many people see Harold and Maude and a two-hander, where Gordon and Cort are the only notable parts of its cast, and I beg to differ. Vivian Pickles gives an absolutely astounding performance as Harold’s mother, her pompous arrogance and high-society persona working perfectly in conjunction with Harold’s childish sense of macabre humour. Most of the moments of pure comedic genius in this film come from Pickles, who isn’t only funny in her own right in the film, she clearly mastered the common adage of good acting is reacting, and her calm and cool demeanour, with occasional forays into complete hysteria or bitter disappointment, make her performance one of my favorites in a film that has some very memorable performances in the supporting cast. Pickles is wonderful in the film and is worth holding up in as much high-esteem as the two lead performances.

In addition, Harold and Maude has the infectiously-wonderful soundtrack scored by Cat Stevens. In own modern musical landscape, his music may seem…dull. However, his sweet and meaningful ballads form a big part of the endearing qualities of Harold and Maude, working alongside this film to create a breezy, loving atmosphere that fits in with the theme of effortless friendship, and is also perfectly juxtaposed with the theme of mortality that lingers in this film. The music almost becomes an omnipotent presence in this film, and you’ll struggle to get “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” out of your head for days after seeing this film. It’s been years and I still find myself humming it.

Harold and Maude is a beautiful film. Despite dealing with such themes, it is neither macabre nor revolting as many would suggest, mainly because it has an enormous heart. It is tender and sweet and is a truly soulful film about love and friendship. With the heavenly score, the remarkable performances and the masterful direction from Hal Ashby, it is a wonderful little film that is far more deserving than simply being a cult classic – this is a great piece of American filmmaking and a true pinnacle of comedic cinema. I am glad Harold and Maude exists because I can’t imagine a world where it doesn’t, because I feel it helped define subsequent comedy films.


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