Z To A: Harold and Maude (1971)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Bud Cort is Harold, a young man bored with wealth but interested in death. And Ruth Gordon is Maude, a wonderful old rascal who can see nothing but good intentions in the world. An outrageously funny and affecting film that proves love has no boundaries.

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

Harold and Maude was my mother’s doing, one of those films she loved and waited until her children were old enough to say, “Hey, check this out.” There were others- Reality Bites and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape among them- but nothing shocked me as much as this one.

The film is riddled with images of suicide, from the first scene until the last. In fact, the first image I saw from the film was in some obscure entertainment magazine in 1999, featuring a blood-soaked Bud Cort in the bathtub.

It was a weird magazine. This was the centerfold.

It was a weird magazine. This was the centerfold.

So sure, I was kind of surprised she recommended it. Harold and Maude also features one of the most self-involved and emotionally unavailable mothers a kid could be stuck with, languishing away in a large house where he is perpetually ignored or treated like he’s five in front of other adults.

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Which leads to him pulling stunts like this:

If you have a sense of humor like mine, you’ll find most of these stunts hilarious (like when Harold ruins his “last date“). But overall I find it funny that my mother recommended a film like this at all, especially since I was a teenager at the time. It’s nothing but a giant middle finger to authority figures. Basically: “Yeah, totally be a shit to your parents.”

Fortunately my relationship with my mother is nothing like Harold’s.

The film does, however, speak directly to the death-obsessed and depressed. This was something I had forgotten, which is the strongest lesson to be gained from the film. Maude’s character functions as a reminder to embrace life, continuously search for the new and stand bravely in the face of tragedy.

Some people have lumped Maude into the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” archetype. I think this is a disservice. Personally she reminds me of people who have gone through things worse than most of us can imagine but consciously choose to survive and offer the best of themselves to others. (And coming full circle- yes, one of those people is my mother.)

Maude is not a wide-eyed hopeful or a romantic ideal. She is someone genuinely trying to leave the best impression she can on the world, as flawed or eccentric as those attempts might be.

What’s surprising is that Harold and Maude evolves into a romance that’s as real and uplifting as it is heartbreaking. Death falls in love with life, and it’s an experience that has never been recaptured onscreen (although plenty of other films have tried).

You’d assume that the average audience’s reaction would be disgust. Perhaps it was. Harold and Maude wasn’t financially successful, but the film’s cult status was the perfect revenge. In my case the love story didn’t bother me at all, and it’s been suggested that person’s reaction to it speaks volumes about tolerance.

All that mattered to me was how lovely and alive Harold begins to feel as he evolves, becoming less pale and happier, more serene. I craved that for myself and still chase that feeling.

The tragedy in their romance lies in Maude knowing it isn’t meant to last long. Loving Harold is her last grand gesture. What’s more important is allowing him to feel love and understand that he can share it with others once she’s gone.

This leads to the climactic scene where Harold implores her to stay with him and says he loves her. She responds with one of the film’s most memorable lines: “Oh Harold, that’s wonderful! … Go love some more.”

Harold and Maude ends on a somewhat ambiguous note. I find myself curious about what happened to Harold long after the credits have stopped rolling. The ’70s aren’t a particularly fascinating film period for me, but this one stands out. For a story so small it’s impeccably made and Hal Ashby’s direction is an indication of where his career was heading.

There are many nuances and details to point out (the deadpan way Cort delivers the line “Do you like knives?” comes to mind) as well as the iconic score by Cat Stevens. Every person I’ve met who has seen this film has their favorite moments.

And needless to say I feel anyone who hasn’t seen it is a bit deprived.

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As Maude would probably say, “Expand your horizons.”


One thought on “Z To A: Harold and Maude (1971)

  1. We should all have a bit of Maude in us. Maybe the movie pulled at me as a young girl, thinking how I wished to be more open.

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