Harold and Maude (1971)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“They met at the funeral of a perfect stranger. From then on, things got perfectly stranger and stranger.”

When I first saw There’s Something About Mary (TSAM) I had not yet seen this film. Somehow, I managed to miss it when it was first in theaters, though that was a period in my life when I saw many movies first run. My curiosity was piqued when Mary Jensen (the character played by Cameron Diaz in TSAM) said Harold and Maude (H&M) was her favorite movie. TSAM is a funny movie which I enjoyed greatly, but the best thing I got from it was the reference that led me to H&M.

H&M begins with a figure (face not shown) in a suit and polished shoes descending stairs while credits roll. When down the stairs the figure puts a vinyl recording on a turntable, introducing the music of Cat Stevens (which is used extensively in the soundtrack). He (the young man’s face is revealed) also writes something inside a nametag and clips that to his suit. Then after lighting some candles and blowing out the match, he approaches a chair, mounts and kicks the chair out, causing his body to hang from a noose he has placed around his neck. A woman enters the room to use the phone. While on the phone she says to the hanging, choking young man: “I suppose you think this is very funny, Harold.” Harold seems to expire. The woman, now leaving, says, “Dinner at eight, Harold, and try and be a little more vivacious.” Later at the well outfitted dinner party when his mother asks him if he is feeling well, Harold (Bud Cort) complains of a sore throat.

Harold enjoys faking suicides and is quite inventive about it. His mother (Vivian Pickles), the woman in the “hanging” scene and the hostess of the dinner party, is less enthusiastic for his “hobby.” Harold is later shown with a psychiatrist, who asks what he does for enjoyment. After a long pause, Harold replies that he goes to funerals. In the next scene Harold is buying a large hearse. The scene shifts again to a graveside rite with Harold in the small group. In addition to the attendees close to the ceremony at the grave, Harold notices a female figure (who we later discover is Maude) further off also observing.

Harold returns home in his “new car” where his mother vents disapproval of the hearse. She also sends him to see “McArthur’s right hand man” Uncle Victor. Uncle Victor, who is missing his right arm, is a “gung ho” military officer, with pictures of Nixon and Nathan Hale on his office wall. He expresses his belief that “this country needs” more Nathan Hales. The scene shifts to Harold floating face down in a swimming pool. His mother approaches the pool in a robe which she removes, revealing a swimming suit, she walks into the pool and swims past Harold as Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1 plays.

Apparently after some deliberation, Harold’s mother tells him she has decided that he should marry. The scene shifts to a church with organ music, but it is another funeral. Again, both Harold and Maude are attending. This time Maude (Ruth Gordon) initiates a conversation offering Harold licorice. Outside the church after the ceremony Maude offers Harold a ride, but he responds that he has his own car. She drives away from the church nearly out of control in a Volkswagen beetle which careens down the street. The priest from the funeral enters the street exclaiming that Maude took his car.

The scene changes to Harold’s mother telling him she has a form for a computer dating service in which she is going to enter him. As she reads the questions to him and answers his questionnaire with her opinions, Harold is shown opening a gun case and removing a short barreled blued revolver. He loads it and takes aim at her, but wavers and instead points it at his own forehead, crosses himself and fires (blanks), tipping over in his chair.

At another graveside both Harold and Maude attend a funeral ceremony. Afterward Maude drives up to Harold in his hearse and offers him a ride. He accepts. As they speed off Maude discovers that she has taken Harold’s car, so she stops and switches to having him drive her home. Maude is closing in on 80 years old and has lived all over the world. She has collected a considerable amount of memorabilia during her long life which she keeps in her unusual home. Maude’s attitude regarding property is probably not “in synch” with most readers here, but when she gives her underlying reasons they are almost Nockian, though surely not propertarian. In most ways Maude is a near opposite of Harold: he is focused on death, she on life; he is quiet and subdued, she is exuberant and vivacious; he is young, she is old. They enjoy each others company.

This movie is often classified as a black comedy. With all the references to suicide and death it may sound extremely grim. However, director Hal Ashby displays a style in H&M that exudes wry humor, but this film is also both a love story and a story about "coming of age." Like one of Ashby’s other big hits Being There, H&M defies easy categorization.

The character of Maude is one of the most free-wheeling in film. Her way of dealing with police is enough of a reason to watch the movie. Ruth Gordon was a great actress who spent a life in the theater. Maude contrasts sharply with the character she played a year earlier in the screwball comedy Where’s Poppa. Maude may be her most lasting role. I hope you take the time to give Harold and Maude a viewing. Although, you may not agree with everything, I think you will find something which will entertain and enlighten.  

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