IMDB #249: Harold And Maude

249 on the all time list is the grandmother of all modern indie-quirk, 1971’s Harold and Maude. Were my life and my eccentricities both affirmed? If I want to be me, should I then proceed forthwith with that being of myself? Only a kind soul by the name of Yusuf Islam has the answer. Read on to find out!

The Key Players:

Our director is Hal Ashby, an Oscar winning editor on In The Heat Of The Night, which we’ll get to later, and also the director of the brilliantly subtle and similarly wistful Being There. He died at the age of 59 in 1988 of cancer, unfortunately, and hasn’t been around to shepherd our Wes Andersons and various mumble-core auteurs through the current wide-eyed protagonist revolution.

Young Harold is Bud Cort, a bit player in MASH discovered by Robert Altman. He’s spun his cherubic face into a long career of bit parts, including roles in direct descendants of H&M like the bond stooge in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, and the comatose body of God in Kevin Smith’s Dogma.

Maude is the irascible Ruth Gordon, a veteran of stage screen, and a playwright and author. Her next most memorable role is as the nosy neighbor in future entry Rosemary’s Baby.

There are of course other roles, most notably Vivian Pickles as Harold’s control-freak mother, but the third star in this film is the music of Cat Stevens- he composed two songs specifically for the film and lent six others, giving a unity and specific feel to the project much like The Graduate’s use of Simon and Garfunkel tunes.

The Story:

Harold is a nineteen year old nervous teen, obsessed with death and prone to staging elaborate fake suicide attempts, which hardly faze his mother, who looks to either ship him off to the army or marry him to a nice young girl from a computer dating service.

While indulging his other dark habit of attending funerals, he meets the nearly 80-year old Maude, who attends funerals not out of an obsession with death, but with the larger cycle of rebirth and life. She’s free, impulsive and impetuous (and given to living by Patton Oswalt’s theory that once you get old enough you can break all the laws you want)- everything Harold is not.

And basically they embark on a slow, tender courtship of stealing trees and picnicking at junkyards, while Harold’s mother and various authority figures try and get him to conform.

It’s a quiet little film that doesn’t even try that hard to make it all resonant. At a point, Harold notices a tattoo on Maude’s arm that indicates she’s a Holocaust survivor, but nobody says anything about it. In fact, I admired the film more for what the plot leaves out than what it included- no mention of Harold’s absent father is made, nor hardly any of Maude’s past.

The Artisticness:

Well, the framing and deliberate feel of this film struck as an odd balance between Kubrick and Hitchcock, but it was all brightly lit and presented, even when dealing with death. All of Harold’s suicide attempts are ingeniously framed to appear as if he had actually done it, which know he didn’t (but his unfortunate blind dates usually don’t).

And the prominent use of the Cat Stevens music makes many scenes more beautiful and poignant, as it seems more immediate that a top 40 soundtrack or a bland score. The musical and visual brightness of the film balances out the supposedly macabre nature of Harold’s character- though I assume all of the morbidity was much more extreme thirty seven years ago as a counterpoint to the free loving, positive vibe of the San Francisco area where H&M was shot.

The film’s poster even plays it up for yuks, with a picture of Harold with a noose and the slogan “His hang-ups are hilarious!” Proving that terrible movie-poster slogans have always existed and will for ever.

It’s hard not to read some of the eccentricity as forced, especially in Bud Cort’s over-played stare that capriciously pivots from honest confusion to sarcastic posturing depending on his company. But I guess that’s how nineteen year-olds can be sometimes, maybe especially during the acid revolution. Although there’s only one scene in the film where Harold and Maude share a hookah, though filled with what we don’t know.

But the idea of being hamstrung by inexperience and uncertainty is something I can get behind, being not too long ago nineteen myself. We’re just left with the hope that at eighty we’ll be as feisty and self-assured as Maude, no matter what’s happened along the way.


Harold eventually tells everyone he’s marrying Maude, and receives several lectures about propriety as a result. Determined, however, he prepares a special birthday dinner for Maude and plans to propose, only to find out she’s taken pills to commit suicide at the exact age of 80- she just knows it’s time to go, it seems.

Harold finally cracks his façade of cloying affability to yell at her and rush her to the hospital, but it’s too late. Then he drives his car out to the countryside and straight off a cliff, which lands in a crunch on the seashore.

Then the camera pans up to reveal it was only his final fake suicide, and he walks off into the country plucking the central Cat Steven’s ditty on the banjo Maude encouraged him to play. It’s a nice ending moment, and not a tiresome montage of how his life is different now- just when he had a real reason to be sad, he starts to learn to be happy. Aww.


Overall- Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I’d say I liked it a lot, even if I wouldn’t exactly watch it over and over. It’s both charming and somewhat forgettable in its slightness, but I wouldn’t want it to be too much of a message movie. Ashby’s Being There is a similar pastiche piece with a message that isn’t beat to death, and his restraint when dealing with large themes is admirable.

Mostly it’s a love story, and a memorable one at that. It certainly can stand miles above quite a few vanity projects about withdrawn young men having their lives opened up by free-willed chartreuses these days.

I’ll have to watch it again, but the uniqueness of the vision (in lieu of later imitations) and the particular way in which it interacts with the era is more than fine for number 249. There’s a particular moment in which Maude drives wildly off the road and narrowly misses hitting a couple of hitchhiking hippies, that probably means something important. Or maybe it was just funny, which is just as good. The best part of Harold And Maude is that it doesn't seem to care whether you think it's going for the former or the latter.

The Legacy:

This is really the crazy part here- how could I have seen every Wes Anderson movie without having seen this already? Clearly he’d have no career without Ashby, and he puts the same attention to framing, deadpan weirdness, and even Cat Stevens music into his films. And without Anderson, we don’t have your Noah Baunbachs, Miranda Julys, and other one-off oddballs that have created an entire mini-genre: The Voyage Of Whimsical Self-Discovery.

Not to mention that last week I watched Charlie Bartlett, a film that pays so much homage to Harold and Maude it probably risks a copyright violation: Anton Yelchin plays sort of a Harold that already has some Maude-instilled confidence, but he lives in a giant house with only a rich, vapid mother, plays “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” on the piano exactly as Maude does, and even does little impressions of Harold’s quirks like lying backwards on a psychologist’s couch.

So clearly it has its fans (an entire cult, apparently), and it’s still a go-to joke when a buddy of mine dates an older woman. What can you do, I’m crass.

The Best Clip Of It On YouTube:

Slim pickings on there (mostly hippie jerks with their Cat Stevens covers), although this trailer pretty much nails the pace and deliberate oddity of the film. Look! A circus parade right next a funeral! Life! Ain't she a corker?

Leftover Thoughts:

  • I'd be remiss in not pointing out that Scott Tobias of the Onion Av Club just did another write up of this movie for their "Better Late Than Never" feature, and it's probably way better than mine. Is it selfish of me to not point this out until the end? Yes, but come on- he get paid and stuff.
  • So Cat Stevens converted to Islam, and he changed his name to "Yusuf Islam." Which is pretty much just "Joe Islam." That's the best name he could come up with?
  • Not too many quotable lines from this movie- not that work out of context, anyway. In fact, some of the dialogue is downright ridiculously earnest, especially in lieu of detached Wes Anderson movies where nobody says what they mean, but Ruth Gordon sells the philosophy, I think.
  • I've always wanted to learn how to ice sculpt.
  • Also, if you want to be free, I have it on pretty good authority that you should probably go ahead and do so. Until Friday, my peach cobblers.

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