Harold and Maude at 50: A Retrospective

Paramount Picture
This month marks the 50th anniversary of a seminal film in the American cinematic consciousness, Hal Ashby’s often misunderstood masterpiece, Harold and Maude. Starring Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort and written by Colin Higgins, Harold and Maude is a dark comedy about a death-obsessed young man and a lively, free-spirited older woman who fall in love. Its existentialist themes, dark comedy and taboo-breaking central relationship took a while to be embraced, but audiences finally found their way to it, and Harold and Maude has rightfully taken its place in the pantheon of classic American films, a romantic comedy truly ahead of its time.

It was its timing that was Harold and Maude’s greatest obstacle to success when it was released in 1971. While it was written during the height of the Summer of Love, by the time it came out, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix had died, the war in Vietnam was still raging and Kent State had marked the unofficial end of the counterculture movement. Audiences weren’t interested in seeing an optimistic, life-loving old lady espouse the virtues of life, love and nature—they had just lived through that and it hadn’t turned out so well. But neither were they ready for the twisted, morbid dark humor of a young man who was literally obsessed with death, staging his own fake suicides in an attempt to get his distant and uncaring mother to notice him. While M*A*S*H had come out the previous year, which found humor in war, Harold and Maude’s comedy felt much darker, much more unnecessary, and significantly more disturbing. And the dark, gritty and cynical New Wave of the ‘70s hadn’t yet allowed audiences to tap into their inner anger and dread quite yet–Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets was still two years away. So Harold and Maude suffered a fate of bad timing, but it is its lack of easy categorization that makes it so unique—and so timeless.

Strangely enough, Harold and Maude didn’t even find an audience until the ‘80s, when it became an underground cult favorite among college audiences, thanks to the VCR. Perhaps what young people in the ‘80s related to was the fact that, while Harold and Maude was dark and twisted, it was not cynical. The film is very much a celebration of life, and young people appreciated its anti-establishment approach to self-fulfillment.

But perhaps the main reason why Harold and Maude continued to find audiences with each new generation is because of its unique approach to a timeless story. It is technically a romantic comedy, but it’s unlike any modern rom-com we know. It subverts cliché instead of embracing it, plays against audience expectations, dares to challenge both the conscious and the subconscious in the viewer. As much as the film is about life, it is equally about death, a subject many find difficult to come to grips with, let alone laugh about. A year after the worldwide success of Love Story, another romantic film where death plays a prominent role, Harold and Maude approach the subject of love and death not with an overly stylized romanticism, but with a comic realism, embracing death’s inevitability instead of its tragic sadness. There is very little sadness in Harold and Maude, but there is anger that is countered by cheery optimism, followed by rational acceptance.

Beyond all else, Harold and Maude is a character study, and these two characters remain iconic in cinema history. Bud Cort’s 20-year-old Harold might be considered the precursor to all the rebellious, disaffected teens that were ubiquitous in the ‘80s, but there is a truly deep melancholy within him. Desperate to break from and feeling trapped in his life that is dictated to him by his detached, cold mother (played with brilliant precision by Vivian Pickles), Harold stages scenes where he fakes suicide, getting more and more elaborate as the film progresses. His mother barely blinks an eye as Harold loads a gun (with blanks) and shoots himself in the head right in front of her. Cort’s unemotional and low-energy performance is haunting and disturbing, forcing the audience to toggle between sympathy and outright disgust. A kid like this in today’s films would be depicted as a serial killer or a drug abuser. We’re not sure what to make of Harold, a kid who just seems massively unhappy and knows no other way to scream for attention. And it still has no effect, as his mother continues to talk at him, arranging his life for him, making hollow gestures to get him help, like having him talk to a psychiatrist and threatening to send him to military school.

It’s only when Harold meets Maude that Harold starts to break from his catatonic depressive state and engage with the real world. Ironically, Harold meets Maude at a funeral, as going to funerals turns out to be a hobby they both share. But while Harold goes to strangers’ funerals to feel closer to death, Maude goes to feel closer to life, as she is a 79-year-old Holocaust survivor who has taught herself to not fear death. Instead, she lives life to the absolute fullest, following her own rules, something Harold has difficulty comprehending, having lived in such a structured and suffocating existence for all of his young life. Maude teaches Harold not so much the meaning of life, but the importance and the appreciation of it. Harold falls in love with Maude and their relationship turns romantic, breaking many taboos at the time, and adding to the discomfort for many audiences, even though we never even see them kiss on the lips on screen. It’s enough to see them lying in bed together in the morning, a brave and controversial choice at the time.

None of it would have worked, however, if it hadn’t been for Ruth Gordon’s enigmatic and outrageously charming performance as Maude. Even to this day, it’s rare for an older actress to be given a role with the heart, complexity and nuance of Maude. Gordon, who had already enjoyed a significant career before Harold and Maude, was somewhat of a national treasure, married to renowned playwright Garson Kanin, with whom she had earned two screenwriting Oscar nominations, and won one herself for her supporting performance in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But it’s her role as Maude for which she might be most remembered, a delicate portrayal of someone who has seen every horror in the world, yet insists on living life on her own terms. Harold may be rebelling against life, but Maude’s act of rebellion is simply living life to its fullest, and to owning her individuality. Gordon was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as Maude, and the role still holds up as one of the most colorful and moving ones of its time.

Director Hal Ashby had only made one film before Paramount Pictures handed him the script for Harold and Maude, which was based off a senior thesis screenwriter Higgins had written while at UCLA. Ashby had been known as a film editor, having won an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night in 1967, but the studio was sufficiently impressed with The Landlord (1970), his debut film, to let him make Harold and Maude. Ashby would quickly become one of the foremost directors of the ‘70s, making a string of films the defined the era, including The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979), and Harold and Maude would preview Ashby’s style and knack for realism that would make him one of the preeminent auteurs of the decade.

Cinematographer John A. Alonzo, who would go on to be nominated for Chinatown in 1975, shot much of Harold and Maude outdoors, allowing the overcast and windy weather of northern California to establish the mood of the film. The camera would often pan out from an intimate shot to a wide perspective, underlining Harold’s existentialist dread and sense of feeling lost in the world.

Ashby’s choice of having the soundtrack be mostly filled with Cat Stevens music further contributed to the weirdly atonal vibe of the film as well. Played without any music, it might have come off as a dark comedy that simply morphs into an oddball romance, but with the background of Stevens’ upbeat, ‘60s-infused folksy melodies, Harold and Maude becomes an eccentric mish-mash of emotions, teasing the audience with its tenderness and sense of hopefulness, but then sideswiping us with disturbing images of death and loneliness. The song that Stevens wrote for the film that became synonymous with it, “If You Want to Sing Out,” became an anthem of personal freedom, representing Maude’s philosophy of expressiveness and serving as Harold’s ultimate guide to finding his own way to happiness.

The most enduring legacy of Harold and Maude, however, is the fact that it conforms to no expectations or cinematic traditions. It breaks every rule of Hollywood, including an ending that is neither happy nor expected, but still completely satisfying and perfect. The film was so misunderstood and unappreciated when it first came out, Variety famously said at the time that it was “as funny as a burning orphanage.” But audiences have since embraced the film, as have critics, as Harold and Maude is #45 on the AFI list of 100 greatest comedies of all time and is included in the National Film Registry, formed in 1988, designed to recognize films that have been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Audiences today should be so lucky to have a film as rich, textured, sardonic, romantic and weird as Harold and Maude is, which is why it continues to live on fifty years later, gaining fans with every new generation, continuing to light a spark of rebellion, a celebration of individuality and an appreciation for something uniquely different that is needed now perhaps more than ever.

Harold and Maude was released on December 20, 1971 by Paramount Pictures and was nominated for two Golden Globes for its leads. It is available to rent on Pluto.tv and to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video.

Originally published on AwardsWatch.com.