I love Harold and Maude — but not for the usual reasons one loves a movie. The story is fun, but wonky at times. The cinematography is adequate. There isn’t much in it that, if you were to break it down and compare it to other, grander films, would fare well. And yet, I love this film. I love it for its story, for its imperfections. I love it for its tenacity.
In 1971, when Harold and Maude premiered, it got terrible reviews. Renowned reviewers like Roger Ebert made snarky comments such as his: ‘Death can be as funny as most things in life, I suppose, but not the way Harold and Maude go about it’ (Ebert, 1971). The New York Times’ Vincent Canby opined about the actors, ‘They are mismatched, at least visually. Mr. Cort’s baby face and teenage build look grotesque alongside Miss Gordon’s tiny, weazened frame’ (Canby, 1971). In sum, the reaction was not very friendly and to a great extent missed the point of the film. There is a sequence in the film where a variety of “institutions” weigh in on Harold’s relationship with Maude, a psychiatrist, a priest, an Army man, and all pretty much come to the same conclusion Canby did: old woman+young man=gross. Did Canby really pay all that much attention to the film?
These terrible reviews are part of the movie’s story — and part of why I love it. It was mismatched to the times in which it premiered. It dealt with subject matter that people found objectionable but was actually quite tame. We don’t even really see Harold and Maude make out. Sex is implied but never shown. The reviews themselves, the rejection of the film by real institutions, played out the heart of the film, which is, of course, the value of each individual — even if that individual is a tree suffering in the pollution of urban living.
According to The Guardian’s interview with Bud Cort, ‘producer Charles Mulvehill told critic and author Peter Biskind, “The idea of a 20-year-old boy with an 80-year-old woman just made people want to vomit. If you asked people what it was about, ultimately it became a boy who was fucking his grandmother”’ (Godfrey, 2014). Needless to say, this isn’t the interpretatio I find so moving from the film.
Since Harold and Maude took off in the college scene (Stafford, 2015), I’d wager that those of us who love the film love it for similar reasons. First, it has an anti-establishment message. Second, it has an anti-establishment approach. Characters are strange; technology that doesn’t exist gets created to further the story (such as the fragrance machine Maude has somehow made); people and objects that don’t belong get smashed together and made to seem perfect — not just Harold and Maude themselves, but Harold’s Jaguar hearse, dating and self-destruction (immolation, harikiri). It is the juxtaposition that makes me crazy about the film because it gives me my favorite sensation when watching films — that my brain has somewhat broken, and I am left feeling complete open to possibility in a way that perfectly polished, perfectly structured, perfectly acted (how can Cort break the 4th wall and get away with it??) films will never do.
I love the story itself and its strange asides (the suffocating tree, the officious officer, licorice and picnics at funerals) and the real pain behind the humor. When Harold’s mother asks if Harold is feeling well at the dinner party after he has pretended to hang himself earlier that day, he replies, ‘I have a sore throat.’ When his uncle salutes with his missing arm via a mechanism he pulls on his uniform, it is ridiculous and excruciating at the same time.
My personal taste runs a little less to the absurd than Harold and Maude does, but I love the patience Ashby has with the story, and the real gut wrenching disappointment of Maude’s actual suicide at at the end. I love the authentic playful sensuality of Harold’s post- sex bubble blowing. Lastly, I adore the finale. The only sound at the end is of the car engine as Harold races to the edge of the cliff and then doesn’t go off but sends the Jaguar-hearse over on its own and then dances off playing the banjo. The use of sound in this closing image is more touching than anything Ashby could have chosen to score it. There is a presence for me in this film — all senses conjured as well as one can in a visual medium. It is fleshy and alive.
Harold and Maude is imperfect — why did she kill herself in the end? What kind of consistency is that for a character who so loved life? It is very, very dark in the beginning — hard-to-actually-see dark. Cort descends the stairs nearly invisible. Harold’s fake arm is his least realistic stunt and it pulls you out of the film a little to see how unrealistic it is. After all that it is perfect. For all its misfires, the filmmakers explore the possibilities of the absurd, of death, of love and the reactions of our culture and community when we search those possibilities out ourselves.
And there’s another bit I didn’t know about Harold and Maude’s story that I’d like to add to my own storytelling journey. Apparently, the French didn’t hate it. In fact it did so well that that Higgins, the writer of Harold and Maude, adapted the film to a play himself. (Tsui, 2015) That play, and the film, have continued to enjoy success since the 70s. During the 70s in the U.S., Harold and Maude played extended runs in movie houses catering to colleges. Those runs sometimes lasted years. Between the French love affair and the college crowd, Harold and Maude finally turned a profit in 1983. (Harmetz, 1983)
When I make films, I want to be able to find the heart of things as Ashby, Cort and Gordon do together in Harold and Maude. I have patience enough to find my audience where they are. My only desire is that I can be as authentic, risk-taking and playful as this group of collaborators were.
Canby, V. (1971). Movie Review – Harold and Maude – Screen: ‘Harold and Maude’ and Life:Hal Ashby’s Comedy Opens at Coronet Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort Star as Odd Couple – NYTimes.com. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=990CE7DF1138EF34BC4951DFB467838A669EDE [Accessed 17 Jun. 2015].
Ebert, R. (1972). Harold and Maude Movie Review (1972) | Roger Ebert. [online] Rogerebert.com. Available at: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/harold-and-maude-1972 [Accessed 14 Jun. 2015].
Godfrey, A. (2014). Bud Cort: ‘Harold and Maude was a blessing and a curse’. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/jul/10/burt-cort-harold-and-maude-blessing-and-curse [Accessed 14 Jun. 2015].
HARMETZ, A. (1983). AFTER 12 YEARS, A PROFIT FOR ‘HAROLD AND MAUDE’. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1983/08/08/movies/after-12-years-a-profit-for-harold-and-maude.html [Accessed 17 Jun. 2015].
Stafford, J. (2015). Harold and Maude. [online] Turner Classic Movies. Available at: http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/143189%7C0/Harold-and-Maude.html [Accessed 14 Jun. 2015].
The Criterion Collection, (2015). 10 Things I Learned: Harold and Maude. [online] Available at: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/2356-10-things-i-learned-harold-and-maude [Accessed 14 Jun. 2015].