I ask to be obliged (from the outset). There will be some significant personal information following the review (I will note when this begins); this is the kind of film that pulls from rarer emotions and demands those feelings be written if not shared.
This review will reveal significant portions of the plot in the analysis. I will mark this below, but if you want to see the film with as little input as possible, use another review.
Hal Ashby directed what has become a cult classic. Harold and Maude is famous but not for the right reasons, so far as I’m concerned. Everyone seems to know the February/December romance, but that is such a tiny part of this film. The second reason is something I had never even begun to consider until I looked it up on Wikipedia (to solve the issue of where it was filmed). It is called a comedy. Yes it is a dark comedy, but only for part of the film; it shortly becomes something quite different. And, anyway, Cat Stevens’s soundtrack isn’t bubbly and bright or is it darkly funny.
Harold (Bud Cort) is a financially privileged late teen; however it is obvious that he is starved for attention. To gain some, he fakes suicide after suicide. His mother knows his antics and refuses to give them much notice. He goes to a psychiatrist but says little, so there is no help there. The only place he goes where he has “fun” if you will, is funerals for people he doesn’t know. Over the course of a few of these funerals, he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon) who also attends funerals. The difference is why each shares this activity—you will need to watch the film; I will not cover it here.
Over the course of a week, Harold becomes more and more taken with the odd little woman who is part philosophe, part thief, part clown. Harold spends so much of the film being ignored; Maude is able to, or provides a conduit in order to, pull from Harold emotions absent from him for a very long time.
It is a surprisingly simple film with fewer than a dozen people with speaking parts. The simplicity will be too absurd for some, too maudlin for others, or right on target for the rest. Harold and Maude brooks no compromise—you love it or hate it.
Plot spoilers below
I’ve mentioned in other reviews that what is profound at 16 is nauseating even as early as 21 (The Breakfast Club is my usual example). Harold and Maude is a piece of the absurd with some surprising emotional content, but it never loses the sense of the absurd. This is where I can see it being considered a comedy, but by general mood and structure it is anything but. It is a significant drama with absurd moments that require someone whose humor palate runs to the very dark; however, it is not primarily a comedy.
It starts with Harold “hanging” himself. His mother comes into the room, cancels her hair appointment and says one of the most famous lines from the film: “Harold, dinner’s at eight, oh and do try to be a little more vivacious.” This dark comedy continues to get darker and darker throughout (in a very ironic way that deals with life and death in very non-traditional ways—you have to see the film; I cannot aptly describe it).
What I noticed on this viewing (almost 20 years since the last time I saw it) is that Harold has the fewest lines. At the dinner party after his fake hanging, his mother does all the talking; Harold has one line and the guests have none. Except for about 20 words in three different scenes with his psychiatrist, the psychiatrist does all of the talking. Even Maude does all the talking. It isn’t until the last dozen minutes of the film that Harold says more than just short answers and even then he almost never asks a question. The meter of the title would be out of whack, but the honest title would be “Maude and Everyone with a Little Harold.”
Despite this, Harold has the greatest impact—this might be a very stupid statement, but I didn’t notice it when I was younger. His transformation from fake suicide “look at me” to someone with emotions is why the movie exists. The rest isn’t just window dressing but it all goes to support removing Harold’s emotions from his self-imposed straight jacket.
The acting is as fresh and steady now as it was in 1971 (I was only 2 at the time, but it has stood the test of time from my perspective). From Maude with the most lines to a cop with the fewest everyone plays her or his role precisely. Maude finds her thematic opposite in Ms. Chasen (Vivian Pickles). Harold’s thematic opposites are his uncle who is a General in the Army and his psychiatrist (both speak more words during their scenes than Harold says in the first hour of the film). This is an artistic balance that keeps the foundation of a truly absurd film from flying away in stupidity—more on this in a moment.
One last piece that makes the film famous is Cat Stevens’s songs. He wrote about 10 or so songs for the film. Except for the well known “If you want to sing out” the songs don’t typically follow the current tone of the film. This, once again, offers a balance. Except for “If you want to sing” the songs are or are nearly laments; the penultimate song is complete lament.
The film is absurd. The dark storyline of the fake suicides is funny at first (and with the last one). But after two of them, they serve a particular purpose but have stopped being funny. We know nothing of the relationship between mother and son except that she seems only to pay attention to his antics when it suits her, meaning when she has found another “solution” to his problem. This isn’t some touchy feely kind of thing, but the total disconnect is difficult to fathom. I believe it only exists for the sake of humor rather than admit any meaning. One of the “solution” scenes is among the funniest scenes I’ve ever witnessed.
Ms. Chasen is filling out a computer dating questionnaire for Harold. The first couple of questions she answers as if she were Harold, after this, she begins to answer the questions from her perspective. While this is going on, Harold is loading a gun. She runs through a dozen or so questions then gets to: “Do you find the idea of wife swapping distasteful?” Her response is, “I find the question distasteful.” Harold shoots himself in the head which is followed only by a half exasperated “Harold, PLEASE.”
The most absurd thing, however, is the number of things Harold and Maude do together over the course of just one week. Considering the number of things they do and the number of things Harold has to contend with other than Maude, the story has to be taken at such a speed you would have to assume that no one sleeps. There is no reason why it has to be one week rather than two weeks or even a month. This is a significant problem because one of the major factors in the film is time. Until this viewing, I never realized what size mistake this was.
Before getting into the personal stuff, I want to say that I recommend Harold and Maude. I don’t recommend it for everyone; it is too personal and emotional for a wide audience. If you require lots of action then there is no reason to have read this far. If you like good acting, then you will be more likely to enjoy the film, but it is very quirky. If you like the quirky, then you are among the largest group to enjoy it, but even those of us in that club might find it disappointing.
Personal stuff below—skip if you like
I saw the film in 1985 not too long after coming out of (then having to go back into) the closet. I was overwhelmed. Maude’s outlook was so strangely optimistic and this was something I sorely needed. I also saw her logic as unerring at a time when error was my milieu. From 16 to 19 I saw the film with the same interpretation each time I saw it (half a dozen times in all I think).
Recently I’ve seen a few films that I liked when I was younger and they have all left me with the sense that I have no idea what I saw in them when I first saw them. I feared the same thing for Harold and Maude. This film got me through some rough spots and I didn’t want to sully those facts by watching it now and being made to feel silly for liking it in the first place. A friend told me that the film was a special one and I should give it a try.
I am both happy and not happy that I did. I’m happy because I was reaffirmed that the film is good; I am also pleased that, even after seeing somewhere on the order of 1500-2000 films since 1985, I was able to enjoy it from a different and more informed point of view.
The not happy part is in how I viewed Maude and what I noticed about Harold. Maude’s views are so frantic and really shallow when taken as a whole. Her behavior, with regards to stealing stuff, is fantastic and helps put a tangible face on very dated views of life, but there is still no meat behind her views. She takes Harold through her home and shows her all the artwork she has done—all of them in different styles. She never makes any mention of whether she tried to do anything with this work. This stands as a perfect metaphor for what I find so antic about her “beliefs.” At one point, the only point where Harold really shows his emotions she says: “Give me an L, give me an I, give me a V, give me an E! L-I-V-E live; else you have nothing else to talk about in the locker-room.” Even in context the advice given isn’t much better than a warning not to take wooden nickels. The only thing that rescues this from total idiocy is that this is her last week on the planet and she wants to impart on a young man who has opted not to live the reasons why living might be a decent option to the “nothing” he has consigned himself.
At least Maude has a past, when she introduces herself as Dame Marjorie and talks about the going to the Hapsburg Palace as a girl. She also has a Nazi camp number tattooed on her left forearm. Harold has no past. Except when he explains how he blew up a chemistry lab. He said that he didn’t interrupt his mother’s party so he went up the back stairs. When the cops come she seems (at least in his eyes) to fake fainting. “It was then that I decided I liked being dead.” So we have explanation but no real past. If one event like that could cause the kind of multiple “suicides” we are left with a question: why? The film is hypnotic enough that while watching it, this question doesn’t really pop up. I can think of two reasons why this is true—one I can defend easily, the other . . . it is possible, but so personal that defense would be all but impossible; anyway they are related. Harold has no past because his past doesn’t matter. Harold is a young man who chooses not to live; however he doesn’t have what it takes to off himself, so he lives in a nether space. This is the vessel that Maude fills before she forces herself off this mortal coil.
The second is: what upper-middle class teen on the fringes of the society that should be theirs hasn’t felt exactly the same way? Harold is attractive because it is easy to identify with him, or at least parts of him. I have no idea if this was true when the film debuted, but I can say that in mid to late 1980s it was true (I found no person in a similar situation who couldn’t quote liberally from the film; in its own way it seemed to be the passport into this group of misfits).
In the intervening years from the last to the most recent viewing I’ve grown and failed and learned or sulked away not unlike most I suppose. I also believe it is generally true that we have hallmarks that say “at this time” or “this item” mark something important—and maybe more often than not, these hallmarks are place-keepers for something we survived rather than enjoyed. I’m stepping out a bit here, but I have physio-psychology to back me up here (the left temporal lobe—the one that says “beware”-- tends to be larger in us than not by default because suspicion keeps us alive longer than accepting all things as good). Harold and Maude mark both for me. But as the tone of the review indicates . . . I tend to use the film as a milestone of a time best left as much in the past as possible.
This is the last time I intend to see this film. Thank you for indulging me if you got this far.
What did you think of this review?