I’ve been fortunate in my life to have attended only a small number of funerals. I can appreciate the beauty of them, but every one I’ve attended has come with a desire to be somewhere else. This doesn’t affect Harold or Maude, who attend funerals for recreation, whether they know the dearly departed or not. Harold goes because it makes him feel dead; Maude goes to feel more alive. Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) is their love story.
When we first meet Harold (Bud Cort), he’s swinging at the end of a noose in his wealthy mother’s beautiful living room. He’s not dead, nor is he even trying to be; he’s simply obsessed with the idea and the mechanics of suicide. He’s also trying to get a rise out of his mother, Mrs. Chasen (Vivian Pickles), who discovers him dangling prone with drool hanging from his mouth, gives him a look of annoyance as if the maid set the table wrong, and says, “I suppose you think this is very funny, Harold,” and picks up the phone to have a conversation. Harold tries to swallow some of the drool and schemes for more convincing deaths in the future. He’s not suicidal, because to kill himself for real would rob him of the ability to do it again.
Despite her familiarity with Harold’s macabre sense of humor, Mrs. Chasen is nonplussed that it exists. She treats him with a curious mix of overbearing concern (she has him in therapy and encourages him to try computer dating) and an obliviousness that suggests a theory that if she treats him like the normal well-adjusted young man she wants him to be, perhaps he’ll become that way. Harold enjoys throwing this theory back into his mother’s face. She gets him a sexy roadster; he modifies it to look like a hearse. She brings around pretty girls as potential mates; he scares them off by appearing to light himself on fire or chop off his own hand. Harold gets endless satisfaction in submarining his mother’s plans for him, but he’s mainly aimless and bored. His fake suicides, which are treated as nuisances, have the same purpose as real suicide attempts:They are a cry for help, one that is completely ignored by his mother in any substantial way. In fact, that cry isn’t answered at all, as Mrs. Chasen treats Harold as if he’s not even there, hilariously filling out his computer dating profile “with” him, answering all the questions with her own opinions and adding “Don’t you agree, Harold?” without waiting for a response.
That cry is answered by Maude (Ruth Gordon), who Harold sees at a few of his recreational funerals. He assumes that Maude, who is pushing 80, is one of the bereaved but is shocked to discover that she’s there by choice as well. Harold is intrigued by Maude because she breaks from the stuffy world he’s used to by brazenly saying and doing what she wants. Harold is drawn to her because she represents a drop of red blood on a gray canvas. As opposed to his mother, his psychiatrist (G. Wood), his military uncle (Charles Tyner) and the other authority figures in his life who are, in his eyes, zombies living a life chosen for them, Maude is living her own and making her own rules as she goes along. Harold has been so obsessed with death for so long, to come across its opposite is like a bolt of lightning.
As they spend more time together (their activities include uprooting choking city trees and replanting them in the forest), they smoothly and effortlessly slip into love with each other. Despite its black sheepskin, Harold and Maude is a wolf of pure love, the kind that transcends the physical and the limitations of the body. Yes, Harold and Maude are a specific odd people, but what they have is what we all want: love on the level of perfection. Ashby and screenwriter Colin Higgins handle their couple’s courtship with such grace and restraint, allowing something beautiful to blossom without an intrusive comment from the filmmakers, that it remains the shining legacy of the movie.
More forced is the surrounding material, which is often repeated or entirely unnecessary. This is a movie that begins as a dark comedy then transitions into something greater but never sheds its origins completely, even after they’ve served their purpose. Harold’s narrative arc has him mired in a surreal comic stew of suffocating platitudes and mores, and Maude frees him from it, but she can’t free the script, which returns to the broad strokes of the beginning—so right in establishing Harold’s world but which hit a false note in Harold’s new enlightened state. The worst episode is a silly diversion in which Harold is conscripted into the army, which betrays the sweetness the movie had been building to. Even the interludes between Harold and his mother, the highlight of the first section, become tedious in the second half. It’s as if Ashby and Higgins want to underline, after having found meaning in Maude, how desolate Harold’s world is without her. This doesn’t achieve that affect, however; it just inundates the audience with unneeded and tiresome information.
Still, Ashby has crafted a powerful if uneven portrait of true love, quite rare, that breaks out of a conventional (if twisted) specific story to tell one that is more universal. The movie takes a visual stance that is slightly off-putting but subtly powerful. Notice that, bizarrely, Harold and his psychologist, in the scene where the doctor asks Harold what he does for fun (“I go to funerals”), the two are wearing the exact same outfit. Despite his best efforts, Harold remains firmly a part of the world that made him. Everyone in Harold’s universe, including himself, has a slightly waxy look about them. Harold’s eyes are ringed with red, they rest in the middle of his pale cadaverous face, and the people around him look embalmed. Maude, in contrast, is aging but organic, full of the imperfections of wrinkles and liver spots, a reminder of her mortality but also an indicator of her life. Mrs. Chasen and her ilk, however, are made up to the perfection of death.
Cort, who has a boy’s face and man’s voice, makes a suitable student in Maude’s hippy school of vivaciousness, and Gordon is delicious as the devil-may-care goofball. Half of the joy of the movie is watching her gloriously steal cars in full view of their owners. It makes a compelling companion piece to Silver Linings Playbook (2012), which is also about odd characters finding each other. But whereas Silver Linings spins gloriously into madness, Harold and Maude finds its lovely center and stabilizes. This is a warm movie dressed in black.