Listless, friendless, super-rich, and generally unsatisfied with life, twenty-something Harold (Bud Cort) spends much of his time staging elaborate fake suicides in an attempt to get an emotional response out of his snooty mother (Vivian Pickles). She decides it’s time for him to get married and sets him up with college girls through a computer dating service, while he sneaks off to attend funerals, where he meets 79-year-old firecracker Maude (Ruth Gordon). Over the next few days the unlikely pair strikes up a friendship and eventually a romance, with Maude bringing Harold out of his morbid shell, sharing with him the many wonders of her long life.
If I ever wanted to find an absolutely, completely perfect movie, I don’t think I could do better than Harold and Maude. A lot of my favorite films are ones I also find flaws with, but love despite them (or sometimes because of them), but I wouldn’t change a thing about this one. It’s just this remarkable assemblage, perfectly mixed, of black humor, dramatic tension, social commentary, heart-breaking and believable romance, thoughtful cinematography, layered performances, and absolutely wonderful music. (Seriously let’s listen to Cat Stevens all day every day and sing along and cry every time “Don’t Be Shy” comes on.) From its quiet, close-up opening montage of Harold preparing one of his fake suicides, to its explosive, strangely reassuring ending, the film captures a transformative moment in two disparate lives as their paths converge for a brief period, all in comforting shades of brown and yellow, and it’s just really beautiful.
The script combines elements of slightly preachy life lessons, anti-establishment satire, and cutesy comedy that Ashby sets against hilarious (and often very dark) sight gags and gorgeous settings filmed in long takes. The pain in both Harold and Maude’s pasts is ever-present, but rarely dwelled upon, with a few telling scenes that deliver emotional veracity through their theatrical staging. Cort and Gordon are equally fantastic in their performances, with the former fully embodying the gawky, soft-spoken Harold and transitioning easily into his goofier outbursts. He’s also a really good crier, it just tears me up inside. Gordon makes Maude as adorable as she is super badass, and she lights up the screen whenever she’s around. Their chemistry is very sweet, and despite their significant age gap their attraction feels natural. Vivian Pickles is kind of the secret standout, though, expertly merging pert authority and exasperated motherhood in a great send-up of the privileged class. Her taut, high-pitched line deliveries and fabulous outfits are so funny, but the coldness of her character is sadly palpable.
This is a film that never fails to make me laugh out loud, while consistently reducing me to sobs by the end. It’s not that the story is some kind of emotional rollercoaster, it’s more that it touches upon such truth (both personal and universal), such lovable and relatable characterizations, while also providing memorable comedic bits that are equally over the top and impressively understated. It’s just everything I could want, really.
Pair This Movie With: So many filmmakers have pulled from this movie, it’s easy to find parallels especially in indie movies from the 90s and 2000s. I think Wes Anderson has tried to recapture Harold and Maude in every film he’s made, so I might go with Rushmore. And there’s a little bit of it in Lost in Translation, Igby Goes Down, etc.
A long time ago I made a digital collage for this movie and it’s for sale as a print.by